Born in the ghettos of Paris, France, around 200 years ago, the fighting art of savate is today renowned for producing technically savvy stand-up fighters with the fastest feet in the West. Yet, while France would be the obvious port of call to anyone looking for expert instruction in savate, the art has surprisingly established a foothold in the East — in the proud karate and jujitsu stronghold of Japan, no less. Savate instructor Craig Gemeiner, first president and technical director of the Australian Savate Federation, recently travelled there to take lessons from several top savate instructors. Here, he reveals what he found out about French fighting in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Upon arrival in Japan, my first stop was the ultra-trendy district of Shibuya. It’s one of the busiest places in the world, where the young and young at heart often congregate around the famous statue of the dog Hachiko, which faces the Shibuya train station. The character of Hachiko is so popular that Hollywood actor Richard Gere recently starred in a movie based on its legend. Showcasing the latest fashions and trends, everything from punk rock, ‘Shibuya gal’, B-girl & B-boy, gothic Lolita, mods and everything in between can be found in this exciting district. But I wasn’t there for the weird fashion parade — I had come to meet the technical director of the Japan Savate Federation and former French savate champion, Franck Morin.
After settling in, I made my way to the base training facility called Multido, at Higashi, Shinjuku. Co-managers Bruno Lacko and Yann Sanchez established the dojo in order to give Japanese people the opportunity to experience a multitude of martial arts under one roof. Fighting styles on offer include savate, Japanese kickboxing, MMA, BJJ, capoeira, judo, aikido, and Krav Maga. Such a variety of contrasting methods being taught at one venue is common in the West, but very rare in Japan.
Personally, I’ve always found it a pleasure to be a student of an equally or more experienced savate coach. The president of the Japan Savate Federation, Liu Kubota, taught my first class at Mulitido. To begin with, he had students working basic savate enchainment (chained combination) drills, progressing to more complex skill sets. These enchainment drills force the student to rapidly memorise a number of combinations along with their defences, then abandon them and move on to entirely new sequences. This type of training develops one of the most important aspects of savate kickboxing: the ability to transition between the three ranges of stand-up fighting. Delivering the right tool at the right distance so as to ‘hit without being hit’ is at the core of savate success. Footwork is another essential aspect, and striking while on the move is a characteristic that is highly developed in experienced practitioners. Our training included plenty of savate footwork patterns involving decalage (stepping along an angular plain, either forward or back) and debordement (to out-flank or move outward). Offensively, these particular footwork skills are used to facilitate not only correct distance, but also to add additional power to strikes. Defensively, they offer a method of evasion by taking the body off the opponent’s attacking line.
After a dozen rounds of enchainment training, Liu had students move onto the Thai pads to develop power and cardiovascular fitness in conjunction with various savate combinations. This had everyone pushing beyond their comfort zones. Following the pad session, we moved on to sparring, or assaut in French. A vital component of savate training, sparring is trained along the lines of either specific tactical themes or in an open format. Some examples of savate’s tactically themed sparring include:
• Distance theme – One fighter is restricted to using long-range techniques (straight punches and fouettes/round-kicks or chasses/side-kicks) while the opponent must use close-range techniques (tight hooks, uppercuts, coup de-pied-bas/inside-edge of-boot kick, and foot-sweeps).
• Technical theme – One fighter attacks with only front-hand punches and rear-leg kicks, while his opponent fires only rear-hand punches and leading-leg kicks.
• Footwork theme – One fighter uses techniques applied in conjunction with linear footwork, against a fighter who must focus on applying techniques. with angular footwork (debordement versus decalage).
• Tactical theme – One person uses feints as much as possible, while the other person focuses on counter-attacks (just one of many examples)
It would be rare to find a savate salle (training centre) that did not include some form of sparring during every session. Among the highlights of Liu’s session, for me, was sparring with Japanese fighter Mariko (Mari) Hara. A finalist at several World Savate Championships, Miss Hara would later become the first Asian to win a full-contact savate world title.
After six rounds of sparring with various members of the Japan Savate Club, we moved to the heavy bag area and worked through a steady flow of savate combinations interrupted with short bursts of non-stop kicking and punching. This aspect of training is designed to replicate the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds experienced in competition. Liu’s classes were extremely physical, but always enjoyable.
The following day, my wife, Yasuko Gemeiner, visited the Multido gym to test for her Yellow-glove grading. Supervised by Franck Morin, the grading was based on the technical and tactical application of feints used in French kickboxing. This involved feints of attitude, technique and trajectory, which were performed at high, medium and low level targets. After demonstrating these against a training partner, it was time for Yasuko to apply them under the pressure of sparring. Two rounds of open sparring were followed by four rounds of assaut, applying specific tactics. Achieving a very high score and successfully passing the Yellow-glove test, Yasuko is now looking forward to testing for Silver-glove rank (the Savate equivalent to Black-belt) in the near future.
On the the third day in Japan, I participated in a savate refereeing course run by coach Morin. Providing up-to-date information on running savate competitions, judging and refereeing, members of the Japan Savate Club kindly offered to assist me by participating in a simulated competition, so I could experience what it’s like refereeing real matches.
Over the weekend I attended a competition in the Tokyo district of Asakusa, where a Multido student was competing in his first amateur Shooto fight. The Japanese love their combat sports, and top fighters receive the same recognition and rewards as highly paid actors. The event was packed out with close to 100 young fighters seeking a victory and a chance to possibly emulate their Japanese champions. In true Japanese style, all spectators and fighters were required to remove their shoes and leave them at the entrance before setting foot on the competition floor. Several hundred pairs of shoes and boots lay about the floor, and when I returned several hours later, I was happy to find my Doc Martin boots exactly where I had left them, such is the Japanese way of respecting other people’s property.
The Multido fighter gave a good account of himself and even though he lost a close decision on points, he was a credit to his coach, Franck Morin.
The following weekend I met with Manuel Tardis, a former French savate kickboxing champion and vice president of the Japan Savate Federation. We began Manuel’s class with a session of focus-mitt training in which we fired off foot-and-hand combinations in between working defensive skills against the mitt-holder. After half a dozen rounds hitting the mitts, we moved into enchainment drills. In savate kickboxing, you never stop moving. It’s not enough to deliver one or two strikes; instead, the focus in savate is to deliver three strikes, at a minimum, whenever going on the offensive. It’s not uncommon for elite savate champions to fire up to 40 or 50 kicks per round while mixing in their boxing skills between kicks.
Manuel challenged each person in the class by presenting a full repertoire of combinations that pushed us physically and tactically. Each training mechanism in savate is designed to develop certain attributes, for instance, the Thai pads and the heavy bag will develop power and cardiovascular fitness while focus-mitts and glove targets are used to improve combinations and speed. Enchainment training in particular focuses on technique, timing, distance and recall of combinations. Combining five-to-six techniques over a three-minute round, Manuel would have us abandon them prior to moving onto a totally new sequence. By working such drills, savateurs are exposed to a full range of combinations and eventually they will settle on those that feel appropriate to their body types and experience.
After training over a dozen rounds of enchainment drills, we got a well-deserved break prior to the sparring session. Manuel began this session by formulating seven rounds of themed sparring and, as an added bonus, he also joined in to spar each of the club members. Themed sparring forces the savate fighter to work outside the confines of their preferred techniques, strategies and comfort zone. This plays an important role in every savateur’s development and provides a smooth transition to open sparring and the competition environment. For athletes suffering injuries, themed sparring allows them to maintain a certain amount of perishable attributes such as cardiovascular fitness, timing and speed.
Next, we pushed through a further eight rounds of open sparring. All skills from the previous themed sparring were put to use, but with limitations lifted to allow techniques and tactics to be applied randomly. During the session Manuel exhibited the prime qualities of an experienced coach. His manner, enthusiasm and sense of humour generated an atmosphere that motivated students to really push themselves through the two-hour class.
It was a memorable end to a trip that was both enjoyable and productive, thanks to Manuel, Liu, Marie, Franck, Bruno, Yann and all the members of the Japan Savate Club. I also left with a newfound liking for my host city, Tokyo. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not much more expensive than any major capital city and offers reasonably priced accommodation, great food, outstanding public transport, a safe environment and incredible history and culture. And, of course, it has great Savate training. Who would have thought?