I have always been interested in fighting sports. I grew up obsessed with WWE, Fight Club is my favourite film and I remember watching Holyfield v Tyson, aged seven. But, until savate (pronounced “savat”), I had never done so much as a kickboxing class.
I stumbled on savate by accident. At the start of 2016, I had a lifestyle overhaul, gave up alcohol and cigarettes and started running more. Soon, running wasn’t enough. I searched for kickboxing classes in my area and found the London savate club. I had never heard of it. The site called it an “elegant kickboxing sport from France”. Kickboxing? Elegant? I was intrigued.
Savate combines French kicks – such as a fouetté (a whip or roundhouse kick) – with English boxing. There are two types of competition: combat and assaut. Combat savate is full contact, in which you are looking to knock out your opponent. In assaut savate, the kind practised in most UK clubs, excessive force is forbidden. Yes, you aim to kick and punch your opponent, but you don’t try to knock their head off, only to make contact. You score points for touches and the winner is the fighter who demonstrates the best technique and control. Not fearing for my face means I can think more strategically to anticipate my opponent’s attacks and work out how to counter them. It is in equal parts a mental and a physical workout.
The fights range from three 1.5-minute rounds up to five two-minute rounds, with a minute’s rest between rounds. I was nervous at first, but when nervous energy mixes with adrenaline and becomes an exciting, fast-paced and challenging bout, it makes me want to come back for more.
Savate has given me some incredible opportunities. In the past year, I’ve passed my blue and green glove gradings, travelled to Ireland and Hungary for competitions, become a British vice-champion and joined the GB squad. All without getting a single black eye.
My weekend workout
How often do you train? I train twice a week, run twice a week and fit in a weights session if I can.
Favourite move? Fouetté figure – a lovely French way of saying a kick to the head.
Five ways to get started
1 Find an authentic savate club. Many martial artists put savate on their CV, but fewer have trained with bone fide practitioners or have ever got into the ring. The Great Britain Savate Federation lists clubs with qualified instructors at savate.org.uk.
2 Don’t worry about being fit and flexible before starting. Well-run beginner classes won’t expect you to be Bruce Lee on your first night. Training makes you fitter – it doesn’t presuppose fitness.
3 Get in touch with a local savate club about watching a class to see what it is all about.
4 Boots are the most important piece of kit. The word savate refers to the boot worn by practitioners of old. It is hard to get hold of genuine savate boots in the UK, but a boxing boot without jagged edges or rough soles is similar.
5 Don’t worry about getting your head smashed in on your first night. Savate is a contact sport, but a good club won’t ask you to spar until you are ready.
James Southwood, founder of London savate club and 2014 world champion