From the middle of the 18th century the growth of boxing, along with wrestling and street kicking, was a direct result of social and economic changes brought on by the Industrial Age. Skills, that provided non-lethal methods of self-defence.
In France, kicking became the antithesis to English boxing. The breeding grounds were about the Western Mediterranean. Seafarers, port-workers, criminals and gypsies were quick to settle arguments with their feet. In serious encounters the knife was often used with street kicking.
It appears that the first rational approach to street kicking commenced around the beginning of the French Revolution. French marines developed Chausson (shoh-sohn) as a gymnastic game of fencing with the feet. The term actually means ‘slipper’ and referred to the sailors’ soft footwear.
In Paris street kicking became known as La Savate (savat) after the disdained old shoe that was so often used in street fighting. After the Napoleonic wars, boxing began to appear with chausson, but with anti-British sentiment it took some two decades before boxing gained acceptance in France.
Meanwhile chausson enjoyed a growth period. Splayed hand-hits were a prominent element of the early chausson and savate systems. As a game, these splayed hand hits and kicks were to touch targets without causing injury.
From the 1820s, savate started to attract the imagination of the young aristocrats. Dressed in their formal clothes they found entertainment in the cities’ music and dance halls. It became the fashion to deal with disagreements with some simple street kicking. This was considered more dignified and expedient than wrestling. Used with the walking canne, it offered a gentleman’s means of self defence.
In 1838 a meeting of boxing and savate exponents led to the development of the sport of la boxe francaise. The new art attracted aristocrats and personalities such as artist Paul Gavarni, Lord Henry Seymour, Duc du Orleans, Theophile Gautier, author Alexander Dumas and opera composer Giocchino Rossini.
In 1852 the military college L’École De Joinville included boxe francaise and stick fencing in its training. This began a long association with the military although it is believed that chausson was practised by the French Foreign Legion some twenty years earlier.
The skills became cultural arts and through adventurers, emigration and movements of the military they found their way across Europe, Russia, Africa, England, Canada, America, South East Asia, China and Australia.
Some of the more internationally recognised names during the19th and early 20th centuries were the Michel Cassaux, Lecour brothers, Louis Laboucher, Louis Vigneron, Joseph and Charles Charlemont, Victor Casteres, Pierre Vigny, Jean Joseph Renaud, Herbert Lang, Pierre Baruzy and Roger Lafond.
The Belle Époque (1871–1914) is considered the classical period for savate when it was redefined, expressing human combat movement in an artistic manner.
The second half of the Belle Epoque saw the frightening growth of the underworld Apache (apash) street gangs who became internationally infamous for their street savate, weapons and coordinated mugging methods. In 1907 the police established the Tiger Brigade. Trained in savate and stick fighting they countered all apache trouble spots.
For the non-athletic public it became necessary to simplify the science of savate into a basic self-defence system. Jiu-Jitsu gained interest due to its non-pugilistic yet self defence qualities; ideas that were adopted into other systems of self-defence. During the first quarter of the 20th century many books and self-defence courses appeared for the general public.
At the1924 Paris Olympics, boxe francaise was a demonstration sport and it was the first time that a kickboxing sport was held in the modern Olympics. Its success prompted a number of promotional tours to London, which created a lot of interest, but English boxers protecting their own sport labelled the kicking fit for ‘women and sissies’. This attitude of the English circulated and destroyed its acceptance as a gentleman’s sport.
Further complicating its image was its vicious reputation from the French apaches and the street-kicking practices of the east Londoners. This negative attitude towards kicking was nurtured throughout English-speaking countries for some four decades before kicking as an athletic discipline gained acceptance. Ironically, elements of the sport were being introduced into a number of defence systems at the same time.
During World War 11 the fighting disciplines became part of many Resistance fighters’ training. French who escaped to England joined the French Free Forces. Special French operatives were then parachuted into occupied France where they trained members of the Resistance in hand-to-hand fighting, silent kills, explosives, small arms and intelligence networking.
After the war many of the traditional folk arts disappeared due to lack of interest. Others continued as if unaffected by social and economic changes. In southern France, many of the methods of chausson/savate were influenced by wartime unarmed combat methods. This new synthesis became an underground sub-culture. It was never organised or promoted and has only persisted through the practice of a minority.
In post-war Paris, many prominent instructors had died and others had simply lost interest. The Parisian’s believed that for the disciplines to be more widely accepted it was necessary for it be developed as an international sport.
In 1975, savate was declared a national sport controlled by the Fédération Française de Boxe Française Savate et Disciplines Assimilées’ with partial funding from the Ministry of Youth and Sport. The weaponry was then placed under the management of the ‘Comité National de Canne de Combat et Baton’.
The sport originally named boxe francaise is now promoted as ‘Savate Sport’. Aspects of street savate, is taught to a number of professional and civilian institutions including RAID—Rescue, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion—an elite police counter-terrorist unit.
During the 1970s the Chinese-American martial artist Bruce Lee (1940–1972) created a kung fu craze through his movies. Lee’s style was a combination of Eastern and Western fighting methods and borrowed heavily from savate. His films resulted in a global following of the martial arts by the 1980s.
This was followed immediately by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as founded by the competitive Gracie family. Their revaluation of the Japanese skills made them an international force. The principle was expanded by the Americans who established the cage combat of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Today the martial arts range from combat arts to arts of human movement. This variety in the martial arts spectrum offers something to suit nearly every personality in seeking personal enrichment and the achievement of a perceived reality.
In 1969 Terence Bridgeman established Savate in Australia and developed an integrated syllabus. He has taught a large cross-section of society—from the disabled to counter-terrorist professionals.
Author – Savate Resistance
PhD (Hon) Martial Arts Philosophy and Science
Australasian Martial Arts Hall of Fame
World Karate Union Hall of Fame – USA
MAA- International Hall of Fame
He has acted as an adviser to the ‘Fédération Française Savate Boxe Française’ (FFSBF) and ‘International Federation of Savate’ (IFS). In 1985, he founded ‘Savate Australia’ and in 1989 the ‘Australian Savate Committee’. In 2001 the ‘Bridgeman Savate Association’ (BSA) was incorporated. In 2000 and 2010 the BSA entertained directors from the FFSBF and the IFS, together with specialists in savate sport and defence. In 2002 the FFSBF sponsored the BSA to go to Paris assisted by the Australian Embassy’s Sport Attaché. Visits were made to the National Institute of Sport (INSEP) and to clubs specialising in the classic, sport, defence and weaponry. A special invitation was extended to the delegation to visit RAID, an elite Police Anti-Terrorist unit.
The visit set the format for television documentaries, which Jossette Normandeau presented Deadly Arts-Savate 2003 and Jason Chambers and Bill Duff presented Human Weapon-Savate 2007.
‘Savate Resistance’ is the descriptive term of ‘Bridgeman Savate’. The syllabus is based on six physical ranges that encourage intuitive improvisation.