Savate is a French style of foot and fist fighting. Systematized in post-Napoleonic France, savate is the only martial arts native to Europe that still exists in both sport and combative forms. The precise origin of the art is unknown, and puzzled even its earliest practitioners. It is known that 17th-century sailors of Marseilles were required to practice stretch-kicks to keep them in condition for ocean voyages.
Some historians speculate that these sailors were influenced by contact with the Asian martial arts during their occasional visits to Burma, Thailand, and China. Certainly, street fighting in the barrooms and alleys of French seaports did begin to feature crescent kicks to the head, body, and legs-though they lacked power and often missed the opponent altogether. Sailors called this form of foot-fighting "chausson," or "slipper," in reference to the felt slippers they wore when practicing stretch-kicks.
Meanwhile, perhaps influenced by chausson, the soldiers in Napoleon's army developed an unofficial punishment for regimental misfits. A group of soldiers would hold the offender in place while another kicked him severely in the buttocks. The punishment was called "la savate," literally "old shoe," but might be best translated as "booting." Perhaps Parisian soldiers introduced savate to the public, booting undesirables in the shins or confronting the disorderly with a leg kick. Whatever the case, by the beginning of the 19th century the ruffian elements of Paris brawled with their feet rather than their fists, and their kick-fighting was popularly called savate.
Eventually, a young man named Michael Casseuse sought out the better street fighters and observed and categorized their techniques. The result was a refined fighting system. His offensive techniques emphasized front, side, and round kicks to the knee, shin, or instep. The hands were held low and open to defend against groin attacks. Palm heel strikes were used to attack the face, nose and eyes.
In 1824 Casseuse authored a pamphlet on savate that caught the attention of Parisian polite society. Almost overnight he became the country's most sought after master of self-defense. His clientele ranged from the wealthy to the noble and included both Lord Seymour and the Duke of Orleans (heir to the French throne). Street fighters throughout Paris and across France, many of them chausson practitioners, regularly descended upon his school to challenge his mastery. Fortunately, Casseuse, himself an excellent fighter, always rose to the occasion. But as a result of these encounters with chausson, savate came to include both mid-level and high-level kicks, in addition to Casseuse's low kicks.
Later, Charles Lecour, one of Casseuse's best students, journeyed to London to study bare-knuckle boxing from England's most respected teachers Adams and Smith. Upon his return to Paris in 1832, he synthesized English boxing and Casseuse's savate to create "la boxe Francaise," or "French boxing." Lecour also introduced the use of boxing gloves for training, which minimized accidents and increased the art's popularity. Again, France's elite took notice and Lecour became a sought after fight master.
Lecour and other major teachers regularly opened their schools for public viewing of full-contact competition patterned after the London Prize Ring rules. And in 1850, Louis Vignezon, nicknamed the "Cannonman," emerged as savate's first major ring champion. Vignezon carried a cannon on his shoulders as he made his way into the ring, to dishearten his opponents. His greatest fame came from knocking out the giant wrestler "Arpin the Terrible" with only four kicks.
One of the few men who could stay in the ring with Vignezon, and thus serve as an adequate sparring partner, was his best student, Joseph Charlemont. In 1862 Charlemont toured Europe challenging fighters of all stylistic persuasions. He was undefeated in the ring: When Charlemont returned to France he introduced fencing theory and footwork, added wrestling techniques, and improved kicking and punching techniques. He was the first to prove the value of high kicks. He is still considered the greatest savateur of all time.
Charlemont's fighting system used the same fighting stance found in modern fencing. His punches were based on a forward lunge and included straights, swings, and uppercuts. His kicks, on the other hand stressed speed and accuracy above power. The leg was lifted straight from the floor to the target with little preparatory recoil.