Savate: The French Manly Art of Self-Defense (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this classic Black Belt article from 1967, the founder of the French Federation of Karate and Associated Disciplines describes the techniques, training, power-generation methods, rank structure and competition rules used in savate.

In Part 2 of this classic Black Belt article from 1967, J. Delcourt, founder of the French Federation of Karate and Associated Disciplines, describes the techniques, training, power-generation methods, rank structure and competition rules used in the French fighting art of savate. “French boxing is a kind of fencing, but with the feet and fists,” says one savate expert. “It aims to develop the beauty of the style and of the gesture, the aesthetics of the movements, and the pleasure of practicing a manly sport.” And like karate, the avowed aims of the masters of the art are to also develop the physical and spiritual qualities of man. There are several other similarities to karate. For instance, outdoor training is very popular with savate enthusiasts. They like to run through the woods, especially through bushes and thorns, to practice lifting their legs high. French boxing is practiced amid an atmosphere of aristocracy and good manners, and with a chivalrous spirit as the aim. With those ideals, the French savate practitioner, like his counterpart in the Japanese martial arts, doesn’t emphasize the physical at the expense of other aspects. The practice of the art is the important thing, not just the pure physical perfection of it. Techniques Savate in recent years has continued to develop. Fist techniques have been introduced more and more of late. The classical posture used to be stiff and static, but now movements are becoming more fluid thanks to the introduction of English boxing techniques.

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The stance is interesting and contrasts with that used in both Japanese and English styles of boxing. The upper body remains upright because French boxers never move into a crouch position, believing that it doesn’t make for efficiency in their style of kicking. They practice with their supporting leg stretched out, while the karate stylist will often bend this leg to get as low as possible. The French kicking position is a beautiful thing to see. The fundamental principle is to have the supporting leg straight, the chest arched and the head upright. The whole body is then flung at the opponent like a bullet. Another important element is to use one arm as a counterweight and hold the other ready to protect against an opponent’s attack. This is the reason there are those marvelous postures of French boxing, with one arm flung to the rear while the leg kicks forward. The kicks are classified as high, medium or low. Like karate, there are front kicks, side kicks and even jumping kicks. But usually one foot is placed flat on the ground and the kick delivered with the other. The kicking foot is shot out like a piston and returned swiftly in preparation for another attack. The body is arched far back to avoid a retaliatory kick from an opponent. Power “Everything depends upon the legs, the stance and how you shift your weight,” says Bernard Plasait, a top teacher and two-time featherweight savate champion of France. He’s the son of a well-to-do manufacturer and is a versatile athlete, being skilled in skiing and the art of cane fighting, which is usually taught along with savate. He’s also a flying enthusiast and pilots his own plane. “Power, speed and impact are most important, Bernard Plasait says. “French boxing can be fought from either side, with the guard on the right or left. We also employ all sorts of combinations and counterblows, feints and stop-kicks.” One of Bernard Plasait’s favorite techniques is the side kick. He explains: “First, the kick is thrown from the side. The balance is established by the speed, with the forward arm protecting you, the chest outward, the head erect, the leg tensed straight and the body on the same plane. To maintain balance, the body must be in a circle around the vertical plane, with the kicking leg still with the heel on the ground. In delivering the kick, the leg shoots out and returns immediately. The power is due to the speed with which the kick is delivered and is augmented by the balance of the whole body.” Training French boxers go through vigorous workout sessions, in which they exercise a great deal. Training to strengthen the abdominal muscles, so necessary for executing the arched-back positions, is important. But power training with weights is never engaged in. A typical session at the gym begins with warm-up exercises, followed by individual workouts and training (like kihon in karate). Then they engage in shadowboxing on four sides, emphasizing quick position changes, rhythm and about-faces. Many of those last exercises look similar to those of karate. This series of exercises is called forme in French, which means the same as kata in Japanese. There are several styles of fighting engaged in. L’assault is a courteous bout judged according to “touches” scored. In tireurs, as in the style of fencing, the boxers try to deliver subtle punches and kicks without any violence. But in Ie combat, blows are struck with power and the bout is for real. Competition Tournaments are widely held in French boxing. There are four great competitions each year: the French Championship, the Paris Match Cup, the University Championships and the Teachers Cup. Bouts take place in a ring similar to that used for English boxing. They last two, three or four rounds, with each round two or three minutes in length. The officials are a ring judge and two side judges. Any combination of kicks can be used in competition, but only two punches in a row can be thrown at any one time in an attack. After two successive punches have been thrown, the boxer must switch to a kicking technique or step back and start his attack over. The following are prohibited: wrestling; holding the opponent’s head; delivering blows with the elbow, knee or head; delivering blows with an open hand or the wrist; and hitting an opponent on the ground. Final decisions are of three types: victory by hors de combat (knockout), victory by points and a draw. French boxers fight in eight weight categories — from flyweight to heavyweight, just like in English boxing. Eight-ounce gloves are worn. French boxers wear close-fitting uniforms. The top is like a T-shirt, but the leggings are similar to the leotards used by ballet dancers, only of heavier material. A soft leather boot with a buffalo sole completes the outfit. Usually, the color of the shirt and trousers are the same as the club’s colors. Rank As with the Oriental martial arts, savate has a grading system. It’s similar to that of judo and karate, with the boxers classified into beginning and advanced ranks. But in savate, the ranks are graded according to gloves: blue, green, red, white and yellow for the lower ranks; and blue, green, red, silver and gold for the higher ranks. The ranks are displayed on the gloves by a stripe around the bottom. The lower ranks have a narrow stripe; the higher ranks are shown with a broader stripe. Ranks are given out after grading tests before a commission of judges. As in judo and karate, a number of women also have taken up the sport. With its emphasis on grace and beauty as well as self-defense, it’s easy to see why savate would appeal to women. However, female savate members are never allowed to compete.

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With the emphasis on grace and manners, and its appeal to a wealthier class of people, it would seem that savate will never enjoy the popularity of the more democratized system of Japanese karate. In today’s environment, with its mass entertainment and mass audiences, this old emphasis on the aesthetic tastes and good manners of the aristocrat seem touchingly out of date. Yet savate members insist it’s possible to retain its values and still seek a wider audience. And they are setting out to prove it. (To read Part 1 of this article, click here.)
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