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What is Savate? How Savate Evolved from Street Fighting

Photo by Osvaldo george

Most martial arts practitioners and MMA fighters have heard about Savate but could probably not offer further information around this fighting technique. Just because many fighters are not familiar with the ways of Savate is not a reflection on the effectiveness of the combat style. So what exactly is Savate, and how does it stack up against other martial arts?

Savate is a French-developed style of kickboxing that originated as a form of streetfighting. The style uses both hands and feet as weapons, but the kicks can only be executed with the feet. The use of shins or knees is not allowed in the Savate fighting style. Both high and low kicks are used.

Many believe that the Savate techniques have their origins in Pankration, and some moves probably came from this early martial art. However, the style has more recent roots in streetfighting techniques developed in the south of France. We will explore the roots of Savate and its development into the modern style and its relevance in the world of combat sports.

Brief History Of Savate

Savate takes its name from a French word that means “old shoe” in specific reference to the boots that the French military and sailors wore.

Savate has its origins in Marseille, a port town in the south of France in the early 19th century. The sailors who frequented the port developed the fighting style by incorporating streetfighting and high kicks partnered with open-handed slaps.

The reason that open-handed slaps were used instead of punching with a fist was that the law at the time considered a strike with the fist to be a strike with a deadly weapon and carried strict legal penalties.

Two notable characters stand out in the history of Savate that brought the fighting style from the streets to a formalized fighting style as a sport. Savate then became a well-known fighting style in Paris and in the northern parts of France.

Michel Casseaux was the first person to open a fighting school that taught and promoted Savate as a fighting sport. It took some time for the fighting style to rise above its reputation as a streetfighting style and gain public acceptance.

Charles Lecour was a student of Michel Casseaux and learned the technique at his training facility. Charles Lecour was exposed to the English port of boxing and participated in a sparring match with Owen Swift, a British prizefighter. Lecour saw the disadvantages of his martial art against a boxer when he lost the sparring bout to Owen.

Lecour studied boxing and incorporated the techniques to his style to improve the effectiveness of the style. Stick fighting was also incorporated into the methods when taught as self-defense but excluded when taught as a sport.

A student of Lecour, Joseph Charlemont, and later his son, Charles Charlemont, further developed the technique that led to the style being codified into a sport fighting style that we know as Savate today.

Is Savate A Real Martial Art?

Several disciplines have arisen from traditional Savate, and these disciplines are not considered to be martial arts, and they are more fitness and sport-oriented.

Traditional Savate is a real martial art since it developed into a combat style suitable for military use. Savate combines both attack and self-defense techniques and incorporates the use of weapons in the form of sticks, where these humble weapons can be lethal.

The French military teaches their soldiers Savate techniques for hand-to-hand combat in their close-quarter combat training.

Is Savate Good For Self-Defense?

Although Savate originally developed as a street-brawling combat system, this history stands the technique in good stead as a defensive tactic against attacks using streetfighting techniques.

Savate is good for self-defense because a large component of the techniques taught is oriented to defensive strategies against a street attacker who does not follow any rules of engagement. The combination of kicks and boxing can be used effectively against an attacker.

There is a discipline of Savate called Savate Defense, which is dedicated to teaching self-defense techniques from the style, rather than the complete curriculum.

What Is The Difference Between Savate And Kickboxing?

Savate techniques rely heavily on kicks to thwart an attack, which is why the combat style is named after an old shoe, or boot. The inclusion of boxing-style punches makes Savate closely resemble kickboxing, so how do these two styles differ?

Savate differs from kickboxing in that the blows from hands and feet are not delivered with full force. Savate only allows kicks that result in the foot making contact with the opponent, while kickboxing allows knees and shins to be used. Savate has a ranking system, while kickboxing does not.

Many kickboxers learn Savate-style kicking and incorporate the techniques into their kickboxing repertoire.

What are the Different Styles of Kickboxing? Simply Explained

Did Bruce Lee Do Savate?

Savate is a practical, effective martial art with streetfighting roots and techniques that appealed to Bruce Lee’s concept of developing a practical fighting style with real-world application.

Bruce Lee did study Savate when he was developing his Jeet Kune Do philosophy. His mandate of studying other styles and incorporating the best aspects of those styles into his techniques led to incorporating some aspects of Savate into Jeet Kune Do.

Is Savate Good For MMA?

Savate has many striking and kicking techniques that bear a close resemblance to other fighting styles, such as Muay Thai. When an MMA fighter uses these techniques, it is uncertain which is the originating style for the strikes.

Savate is good for MMA because the strikes and kicks taught are designed to be effective in the real world, and they are similar to other martial arts that focus on strikes with the hands and the feet. MMA fighters can benefit from learning Savate and modify the techniques to be practical for an MMA bout.

Many people say that Savate is not good for MMA fighters to learn because it does not incorporate shins, knees, elbows, and clinches. However, the same criticism can be made for other martial arts that MMA fighters learn to enhance their fighting skills, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai.

Is Savate Hard To Learn?

Like any martial art, learning Savate is not something you can take up to learn and become a master practitioner in a year. There is a difference between learning the techniques and mastering them. 

Savate is not hard to learn but takes time to master. It is a comprehensive combat style with many components that can take up to a year to learn with continuous training and practice under a good instructor. Becoming completely proficient in Savate can take several years beyond this.

Combat skills in any martial art require constant practice and discipline to continually hone the skill and perfect the techniques. Savate is no different, and while you can become effective in the methods in the space of a year, it will take several years of practice to be considered a master.


Savate in the early days was considered a fighting style for thugs and street brawlers, but its development into a bona fide fighting style has led to it gaining respect and recognition in the martial arts world.

The practicality of the style and its real-world application make it effective and popular as a self-defense martial art. Although it is not a popular style for MMA fighters to learn since many believe other styles offer more, Savate certainly has techniques that can prove useful to an MMA fighter.