History of Savate





Charles Charlemont teaching in 1899
Charles Charlemont teaching in 1899
It seems that having the name ‘Driscoll’ was a bit of a bad luck omen to English boxers, when matched against French fighters, however, as Jim (aka Jem) Driscoll (1881-1925) later found out. In 1919, he came out of retirement to fight ex-Savateur Charles Ledoux (b.1892) for the European Bantamweight ‘English’ boxing title. Despite being ill with TB, and 11 years older, ‘Peerless Jim’ outboxed Ledoux for the best part of 16 rounds before a solid punch to the stomach forced his seconds to throw in the towel, for only his second ever loss. On this occasion, however, the blow was clearly above the waist, and therefore quite legal.



Another Savate champion who also made it big in conventional boxing was Georges Carpentier (1894-1975). Having become Savate world champion in 1908, he knocked out Battling Levinsky in round 4, on October 12, 1920, to become the world light heavyweight boxing champion. Just eight months later he tried to go one better by taking on Jack Dempsey (1895-1983) for the heavyweight championships. This was actually the very first million dollar gate in the history of the prize ring. Despite some initial and notable successes, especially in round 2, by ‘Orchid Man’ Carpentier, the ‘Manassa Mauler’ was just too big, too strong and too good for him, and Carpentier ended up being knocked out himself, also in round 4.

As far as the rules are concerned, Savate practitioners may kick, with their shoes (chaussures), to the full length of an opponent’s body. In other words, the legs (inside and out), the body (complete torso), the sides of the head, and the front of the face. They may also punch, with gloves (gants) being worn, to the front and sides of the body, face, and sides of the head. The gloves are similar to English boxing gloves, except that the palms are slightly padded for the purpose of blocking and parrying kicks. Because of the efficiency and power of the shoe, most people train and spar using controlled contact, and do not deliberately kick to the knees – although no such rule exists to prevent you from doing so in actual competition.

There are no jackets worn in Savate, and no coloured belts. Coloured glove promotional tests (gradings) do, however, exist. These are as follows: Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow and, for those with exceptional ability, the rank of Silver Glove. The colour of your gloves don’t actually change, of course, but you are entitled to wear a coloured glove patch on the front of your training tunic, or shirt to show your rank. At the time of writing, an Integrale (all-in-one tunic) is worn in all official competitions, although jogging bottoms and t-shirt tops are often worn in training. Once a student reaches Red Glove technical grade, he or she, may then undertake separate promotional testing to become an instructor. It is recognised that the best fighters and technicians don’t necessarily make the best instructors, and vice-versa.

It should always be remembered, however, that Savate originated from a street-fighting method and, as such, has still retained a street-fighting and self-defence aspect within the art. To differentiate between the ring sport and the street system they now use the terms ‘Boxe Savate’ and ‘Savate Defence’.

By the end of the 19th century, there were reckoned to be more than 100,000 practitioners of La Boxe Française (which most people outside of France and Belgium simply call ‘Savate’). In 1920, and 1924, Savate was featured as the demonstration sport in the Paris-based Olympic Games. Sadly, and mainly as a result of the loss of many Professeurs and students alike, in two world wars, those numbers dropped dramatically. Today, things are again improving. There are now something like 30,000 practitioners in France alone, and at least another 10,000 in other parts of Europe. Savate is now represented and officially practised in at least 40 countries around the world, including here in Great Britain.

1 There is no record of this fight in Swift’s own bibliography ‘The HandBook To Boxing’ by Renton Nicholson, London, 1840, as it was regarded by Swift as being a friendly (novelty) bout. Swift was a powerful fighter, especially for a lightweight, and he was responsible for the death of two English pugilists, Anthony Noon, in 1834, and William ‘Brighton Bill’ Phelps in 1838. Which explains why he was in France in 1838 after having fled from the law in England after that fateful fight with Phelps. Had he not killed Phelps, and escaped to France, Boxe Francaise may not have evolved the way it did.

Ollie Batts© 2003