"French boxing is a bold, unpredictable, and sparkling game full of romantic illuminations."

- André Dumas

This is a beautiful quote from a French professional boxer, who starred in the sport from 1911 to 1920 and took part in 25 professional fights. We would all love to have access to the joy that savate gave André Dumas!

This French-born style of boxing is much less known around the world than its counterpart, British boxing.

This is also the case of most other boxing styles, such as the martial arts of karate, judo, viet vo dao, jiu-jitsu, and aikido...

French style boxing is even popular in the UK
Get to know Savate even if you are not from Fra.

In any case, boxers may be interested in learning how to box in the savate style, and French boxing is a sport that we think is very worth knowing.

And there is absolutely no need to wear an article of clothing like a beret, striped sailor shirt, or a fine moustache for your French boxing lesson, nor practise while sipping wine and bring home baguettes of bread.

You will only need boxing shoes, boxing gloves, and other protective wear (mouthguards, shinguard, bandages, the official outfit, and chestguard).

If you don't think this full protective gear is strictly necessary, remember that Dumas's "romantic illuminations" may actually refer to the lights that sparkle in your eyes before you blackout during a KO!

No matter what kind of boxing lesson you want to take, adequate protection is always a must!

 

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The History of Savate

English Boxing is often referred to as the "noble art", mainly because it preceded all other kinds of boxing. This also explains its popularity and universality today.

In fact, it's the first style of boxing to have acquired official rules in the eighteenth century, under the supervision of bookmakers. The first boxing competition occurred in 1719, but it wasn't until 1857 that the modern rules of this discipline appeared.

In 1899, Louis Lerda, a boxing pioneer in France returned from the USA and aimed to introduce Western Boxing into French society. In 1903, he finally succeeded and the first fight in Paris took place at Wagram Hall.

Later that year, four young enthusiasts established 'la Fédération Française des Sociétés de Boxe', or the 'French Federation of Boxing Societies' which still exists to this day.

Louis Lerda's efforts culminated years later in 1944 when he co-authored a seminal book 'Sachons Boxer: Technique de la Boxe Moderne', which is often still cited today by many an article.

If you've never tried English boxing and are interested to see what it's like, why not give a free boxing lesson in Melbourne a try!

But let's get back to our main story...

Shortly before English boxing started becoming the latest craze in Paris, 'La Boxe Francaise' had already started to gain popularity and great reviews.

The name 'Savate' came from the French word for "old shoe" and mostly referred to heavy footwear, especially the boots used by the French military and sailors during those years.

At this point in time, the main feature of this combat sport was high and low kicks, delivered with a strong force and vicious intent.

While open hand slapping was also frequently used, a closed fist was not allowed, and could even get boxers in trouble with the police!

The phenomenon started in lower-class sections of Parisian society in the early 19th century, and mainly took place in the streets of the French capital.

But then its popularity started to grow, eventually spreading to other regions of France, especially amongst sailors in port towns like Marseille.

Paris was still, of course, the most important city for this type of combat training, and it was there that the first of the French boxing stars, Charles Lecour (1808-1894) opened his school in Montmartre in the mid 19th century.

Lecour had spent years training in the traditional, street combat style of Savate, but upon arriving in England, found that many of his techniques were not allowed in Western boxing, which hindered both his offence and defense.

Savate boxing in the early days
Here is an old photo of savate in its early days.

In short order, Lecour realised that by taking some elements of Western boxing, especially some defense techniques, he could combine them with what he had learned in his years of Savate training.

That combination produced a sport not dissimilar to American Kickboxing, though the creation of that sport occurred nearly a century later.

This is why Charles Lecour is considered one of the fathers of La Boxe Francaise, as he literally invented the style.

He then spent his life training younger boxers in his new creation; stars like father and son Joseph and Charles Claremont.

Savate entered its "modern" era when one of Claremont's pupils, Count Pierre Baruzy, helped to codify the sport under a Committee National de Boxe Française. The count became champion of France 11 times before, during, and after the Great War!

Interestingly, in 1907, Georges Clemenceau and his mobile police brigades (called "Tiger" at the time) regularly took a lesson in savate boxing.

In 1924, the sport was finally recognised internationally when it was included in the Olympic Games in Paris as a demonstration sport.

It is no surprise then, that this typically French sport became part of the cultural heritage of France.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been included in the Olympic Games since, but officials are pushing to become recognised by the Olympic Games Committee.

The first full European Savate Championships took place in the 1970s and in 1985 the International Savate Federation (FIS), which is the official worldwide ruling body of savate, was founded.

And this brings us up to the modern-day, where people across the world are training as amateurs in this fascinating combat sport, which is often compared to the art of Muay Thai.

Countries from the US to Australia have federations set up to promote the sport and every year the FIS holds World Championships in different categories, for juniors and adults.

Find different kids boxing classes here on Superprof.

Techniques and skills used in Savate

Like all boxing styles from kickboxing to Muay Thai, 'La Boxe Francaise' - or savate- is a combat sport with some underlying violence and blows that can hurt any competing boxer.

Fans will sometimes call it a "fist-and-foot-fighting sport," although the feet are much more used than hands (up to 99% of the time).

Savate happens with two opposing opponents in a boxing ring (4.5 × 6 meters) or a boxing gym. The two boxers must wear gloves, but also special boxing slippers. This is crucial because the use of feet is allowed.

The kicking aspect of savate means that this sport is very technical. In fact, the different forms of punching and kicking are varied and there is a high number of different techniques which a boxer can use for defense and offence.

The physicality of being so light on your feet which delivering and avoiding blows means that savate is a great workout for people who want to get and stay lean, in a similar way to Shadow Boxing.

There is even a style of savate delivered by the French federation which has been adapted for fans of the sport who want to learn in order to improve their fitness.

As we mentioned before, the feet are at the heart of the game (remember Savate means 'old shoe' in French), but shins and knees are absolutely prohibited.

The offensive blows which are allowed are named "armed kicks" (the other types of kicks are forbidden). This is a process specific to French boxing.

In regards to the upper body, the four basic punches of boxing here are the jab, the cross, the hook, and the uppercut.

Here are two lists of the kicks and punches in savate:

Kicks

  1. fouetté (literally "whip", roundhouse kick making contact with the toe—hard rubber-toed shoes are worn in practice and bouts), high (figure), medium (médian) or low (bas)
  2. chassé (side ("chassé lateral") or front ("chassé frontal") piston-action kick, high (figure), medium (médian) or low (bas)
  3. revers, frontal or lateral ("reverse" or hooking kick) making contact with the sole of the shoe, high (figure), medium (médian), or low (bas)
  4. coup de pied bas ("low kick", a front or sweep kick to the shin making contact with the inner edge of the shoe, performed with a characteristic backwards lean) low only

Punches

  1. direct bras avant (jab, lead hand)
  2. direct bras arrière (cross, rear hand)
  3. crochet (hook, bent arm with either arm)
  4. uppercut (either arm)

The punches clearly hail from Western boxing. If you think back to our history lesson, you'll remember that Lecour borrowed many techniques from that boxing style.

Savate can be practised by men, women, children, and adults. It requires a lot of agility and energy, sometimes seeming like a form of gymnastics, just one in which people fight!

Savate does not allow assault, meaning does not allow its players to seek out a violent confrontation, and the competitors can even be disqualified after three warnings.

The officials evaluate the style, tactics, and technique used by the opponents.

This is usually done over three rounds of two minutes each, with one to one minute and a half of recovery time in between each round, during which each fighter is near the ropes in a corner of the ring.

You have to strike your opponent as many times as you can and protect yourself from any blows from his glove over the duration of each round.

A sport for gentlemen

Savate clubs usually say that the spirit of French boxing resides in these four keywords: "ethical, educational, aesthetic, effective."

As with most other boxing styles, in French boxing, it is impossible to lie or lie to oneself: you have to give the boxing your all and know how to prove your skills if you want to give a good show and win.

You will need to develop your flexibility and balance, otherwise, you'll hit the floor on your own, no need for a KO ...

You also have to know how to be perseverant and courageous at the same time, part of the special skills you'll need if you want to be the best at this sport and impress your opponents.

The brute force, the obsessive search for a KO, is far from being the key to any match.  Intelligence and subtlety are key to this kind of fighting, the latter requiring perfect coordination.

This strategic dimension to French Boxing, when done correctly, actually helps to avoid serious injury. The statistics on this type of boxing say it all.

American scientists have found that "French boxing [...] has a lower number of injuries every year than sports like American football, ice hockey, football, gymnastics, basketball, baseball, and rollerblading "- yes, you heard right!

Savate is not for people who just want to smash into others, instead, it is a gentlemen's sport. In fact, the referees are normally required to wear a bow tie!

There are other elegant elements to this sport, it is forbidden to aim at someone's private parts, but also the breasts for female fighters. Strikes from behind, considered unworthy, are prohibited.

In fact, fencing has been a great influence on this gentlemanly sport (Jean-François Loudcher believes that it initially was a resurgence of duels from the time of Louis XIII and Richelieu).

As a result, it is not surprising that this boxing is the boxing "most appreciated by the fairer sex," according to Cosmopolitan Magazine.

 

You need to have a medical certificate to be able to participate in boxing
Boxing equipment | To let off steam, you need a medical certificate in due form | source: upload.wikimedia.org

The Champions and Levels of French Boxing

Unfortunately, the popularity of this style has waned in the 21st century, as other mixed martial arts like Muay Thai or Sanda (Chinese boxing) became more and more popular.

Given this, there are relatively few modern stars of savate, although many MMA professionals have had some training in the discipline over their careers.

Here are some boxers that are known for their French boxing skills:

  • Gerard Gordeau: Active mainly in the late 80s and early 90s, Gordeau is a Dutch savateur who took up the sport when he was around 20. He then held the title of European Champion from 1988 to 1991 and won theWorld Championships in 1992. Before moving onto UFC, Gordeau had an incredible competitive record of 27-4.
  • Cheick Kongo: Born in 1975 in Paris, Kongo is an MMA fighter and kickboxer who is widely considered to be one of the best savateurs in history. He first gained his black belt in Kendo and Karate, and then expanded to other Mixed Martial Arts. He is a European Savate Champion and continues to promote the sport.
  • Ludovic Millet: Currently 35, Ludovic won the title of Savate Elite Champion first in 2008, and then again in 2009 when he was just 23 and 24 respectively. He is also a European and World Savate Champion in the 70kg category.
  • Cyrielle Girodias: Of course, you don't have to be male to be one of the stars of this sport, and Cyrielle Girodias proves that time and time again. In 2003, at the age of just 16, she received gold in the French Championships in the Junior Category. She has gone on to become a 3-time French champion, as well as a 3-time World Champion.

Of course, before anyone can dream of reaching the ranks of the stars we've talked about above, you must spend time training and consistently improving lesson by lesson in your practice of the sport.

Like most other martial arts, there is a path that all students need to follow in order to become a professional fighter. And while most MMAs mark this order using a coloured belt, Savate is ranked according to coloured gloves.

To be able to have a worldwide ranking and register for any competition, you first need to reach the level required by the Federation in charge.

French boxing has existed for centuries
Educational Boxing | The fist is as old as the world | source: visualhunt.com

While different federations have slightly different rules about grading, the majority are in line with the International Federation.

We can break the grades down into 3 categories, which cover technical achievement, competition rankings and teaching ranks.

Let's break down the different glove colours and pathways from total French boxing beginner all the way up to champion level.

Technical Achievement

The first colour that any student must begin with is blue, followed by green. These are considered apprenticeship levels and cover more basic striking and blocking moves.

Students then move onto red and then white, as they continue to develop their skills, especially in moving efficiently and anticipating the moves of their opponents.

The next level in the order is yellow. Fighters at this level are expected to have good control of all of the previous skills mentioned, plus feinting.

This level is generally considered as the equivalent to a black belt in more well-known forms of mixed martial arts, like Karate.

Once fighters reach this level, they have the choice to start competing or continue on the technical path of grades.

If they choose to continue improving their technique, they can try for the Silver glove, which is recognised in three different levels, Silver 3 being the highest possible technical ranking.

At a Silver 3 level (which is rarely awarded), fighters should have complete mastery of all skills, and this qualification can only be awarded if at least three representatives of the Federation concerned are present.

The Competitive Pathway

If fighters prefer to start fighting as soon as they have their yellow gloves, they can still move up in levels.

However, instead of sitting a type of practical examination, the ranks are awarded based on wins and losses in tournaments.

The first competition level is bronze, followed by five levels of Silver, with Level 5 being the highest possible competitive level.

Let's be clear though: it's hard to get to those top 5 ranks! But your motivation can work miracles and tackle these obstacles!

Grading for teachers

If you have found a passion for Savate, you can even decide to become an instructor. This job is quite niche in most countries, so you'll likely be one of the few giving this type of kickboxing lesson in your area of Australia.

There are three teaching ranks starting with Initiatuer, moving to Moniteur and finally Professeur.

Being an expert in the discipline will not be enough to move through these ranks. You'll also need a good knowledge of anatomy, regulations of savate,  first aid certifications and teaching processes.

You need around eight years to twelve of training to go from novice to professeur, and usually will have to complete university-level sports education with a specialisation in savate.

If you're interested in getting more information about this sport and its popularity in Australia, Savate Australia is a great resource to check out.

You can check out a free article or essay about the sport, or search for reviews of a teacher in your area for your first lesson.

 

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Jon

As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.