Savate (pronounced /savat/), also known as boxe française (French boxing), French Kickboxing or French Footfighting, is a French martial art which uses both the hands and feet as weapons and contains elements of western boxing, grappling and graceful kicking techniques (only foot kicks are allowed, unlike some systems such as Muay Thai which allow the use of the knees or shins). A practitioner of savate is called a savateur (male) or savateuse (female).
Savate takes its name from the French for old boot (heavy footwear that used to be worn during fights). The modern formalized form is mainly an amalgam of French street fighting techniques from the beginning of the 19th century. Savate was then a type of street fighting common in Paris and northern France. In the south, especially in the port of Marseille, sailors developed a fighting style involving high kicks and open-handed slaps. It is conjectured that the kicks were done so as to allow the kicker to use a free hand for balance on a rocking ship’s deck, and that the kicks and slaps were used on land to avoid the legal penalties for using a closed fist, which was considered a deadly weapon under the law. It was known as jeu marseillais (game from Marseille), and was later renamed chausson (slipper, after the type of shoes the sailors wore). In contrast, at this time in England (the home of boxing and the Queensberry rules), kicking was seen as unsportsmanlike.
The two key historical figures in the history of the shift from street fighting to the modern sport of savate are Michel Casseux (also known as “le Pisseux”) (1794-1869) and Charles Lecour (1808-1894). Casseux opened the first establishment in 1825 for practicing and promoting a regulated version of chausson and savate (disallowing head butting, eye gouging, etc). However the sport had not shaken its reputation as a street fighting technique. Casseux’s pupil Charles Lecour was exposed to the English art of boxing when he was defeated in a friendly sparring match by British pugilist Owen Swift around 1830 and felt that he was at a disadvantage, only using his hands to bat his opponent’s feet away, rather than to punch. He trained in boxing for two years before, in 1832, combining boxing with chausson and savate to create the sport of savate (or boxe française’, as we know it today). At some point stickfighting was added, and some form of stick fencing, such as la canne, is commonly part of savate training. Those who train purely for competition may omit this.
In competitive savate, there are four allowed kinds of kicks, and four kinds of punches.
- fouetté (literally “whip,” crescent or roundhouse kick making contact with the reinforced toe of the shoe), high, medium or low
- chassé (side or front piston-action kick), high, medium or low
- revers (crescent or roundhouse kick making contact with the sole of the shoe), high, medium, or low
- coup de pied bas (literally, simply “low kick”, a front or sweep kick to the shin making contact with the instep of the shoe, performed with a characteristic backwards lean) low only
- direct bras avant (jab, lead hand)
- direct bras arrière (cross, rear hand)
- crochet (hook, bent arm)
- uppercut (either hand)
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of the respectability of savate came in 1924 when it was included as a demonstration sport in the Olympic Games in Paris. Despite its roots, savate is a relatively safe sport to learn. According to USA Savate, “savate ranks lower in number of injuries when compared to American football, hockey, Football, gymnastics, basketball, baseball and inline skating”.
Today, savate is practiced the world over by amateurs: from Australia to the USA and from Finland to Britain. Many countries (including the United States) have national federations devoted to promoting savate. Savate was also featured in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, where Dutch Savate expert Gerard Gordeau beat a sumo wrestler and an American kickboxer before a submission loss to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter Royce Gracie in the final round.
Modern codified savate provides for three levels of competition: assaut, pre-combat and combat. Assaut requires the competitors to focus on their technique while still making contact; referees assign penalties for the use of excessive force. Pre-combat allows for full-strength fighting so long as the fighters wear protective gear such as helmets and shinguards. Combat, the most intense level, is the same as pre-combat, but protective gear other than groin protection and mouthguards is prohibited.
Many martial arts provide ranking systems, such as belt colors. Savate uses glove colors to indicate a fighter’s level of proficiency. (Unlike arts such as karate, which assign new belts at each promotion, however, moving to a higher color rank in savate does not necessarily entail a change in the color of one’s actual gloves, and a given fighter may continue using the same pair of gloves through multiple promotions.) Novices begin at no color. Promotion tests allow the fighter to graduate successively to blue, green, red, white and yellow. Competition is restricted to yellow glove rank and above, fighters at white glove rank are considered to be instructors in training, and yellow gloves are required to teach what they know to others and can attend a combat competition. Silver gloves are the highest regular rank in savate. White gloves and lower ranks can be attributed by the teacher but for the higher ranks, the fighter must take a real exam.