Fighting with feet

Modern French Improvement on the Manly Art


Originated with Paris Toughs Has Been Taken Up in Earnest by Expert Boxers


Special Correspondence of the Evening Star. Paris, November 1 1898


Most Americans and Englishmen arrive in Paris with the idea that the French know nothing of the manly art of self-defense; and most of then are happy in not being undeceived by any violent means. The truth is that the French have their own school of scrapping, brutal and dangerous. They kick like mules.

Of course this sounds absurd. The kicker ought to lose balance. He ought not to be able to recover with sufficient promptness. His kick ought to be avoided easily.

And it ought not to be hard to rush him. This is the instinctive reasoning of the Anglo- Saxon, and the only way to convince him thoroughly is to stand him up against one of these kickers. Certain conditions then present themselves which pugilism, pure and simple, finds no-way of meeting.

Last week I had the opportunity to take some photographs of scientific French savate play. M. Siegfried Sacher, financier and clubman, is, in his lighter moments much devoted to this sort of badinage. His villa, just outside of Paris on the river Marne, is known to many Parisian professional. After fighting comes refreshment. There are gayety and beauty. For the ladies like to come and see the strong men. Chabrier, the prevot of the great Charlemont, is a strong man; so is his confrere, Mainguet; so are the Leclerc’s, so is Pictory. Sacher, who is a handy amateur, was boxing with his master, Chabrier, and I think a few snap shots at the discussion will serve to disclose some of the embarrassing conditions I have mentioned.

Longer Reach

Suppose that an American is standing up against one of these Frenchmen. He would at once discover the first proposition of the savate- that the leg is longer than the arm. Immediately one’s ideas of balance and rushing undergo a transformation. The first French position of the “ low foot” (coup de pied bas) presents such novel difficulties that the Anglo-Saxon boxer generally stops there. The American stands in the usual attitude, as the French professional standing in the picture. His kicking adversary leans back, balanced on one leg, the other being stretched out at an oblique angle. All that the American need do is to rush in and paste him. But the leg that swings between them is so long. It is the mule’s leg.

Start to rush, it flies back, bending at the knee to gain a leverage, and then comes crashing down upon your shin. It breaks the tibia when delivered with full force of an average man. Or the Frenchman can send his heel into your side below the elbow and the rib-breaking coup de flanc.

Here international argument continually flies back to the supposedly unstable equilibrium of the “low foot” position. Balanced on one leg the Americans will say the Frenchman cannot get his blow in with sufficient force to stop a good man; or that the good man will dance around the sprawling “low foot” till he finds an opening .I put this to Chabrier, who said, “He will dance long.” As to the force with which these two first kicks can be delivered, the Paris roughs, with whom the art and term originated, have demonstrated it. Savate means old shoe; and the clogs of the outer boulevards have broken innumerable ribs and shinbones.


When an American stands up against it in a friendly way, as often happens, this is what takes place. The Frenchman says, “I could land on your ribs”- and does it gently. The American will always takes his word for it that he could break a bone. The lessons always end right there, and always must, because the thing is so unequal, there is no way to put a pair of boxing gloves upon the feet. When Frenchman box together it is always in light slippers, with light blows. For points. As in fencing, each bout ends when one is touched. ‘Touched!” cries the other when struck with the foot. Had be been kicked in earnest, with a heavy shoe, he would have been knocked out.

Quick Dancing Step

The fact that the French themselves refer to bend forward suddenly and catch at the “low foot” as in the illustration, is extremely significant; for it is to be notes that it is always possible for one habituated to its tricks to spring around it and get in. That the French think it less dangerous to catch at it ,or, at least , deflect it with the palm turned outward, is , therefore, an indication of prime importance along the whole line of French boxing. French boxing is no kicking match. Kick is not met with kick. Each attack is met with its five or six scientific “parades;” and, as a rule, the attack of the foot is met with the hand. To continually jump back from the advancing “low kick” is the hope that an opening will discover itself is more plausible in theory than in practice. These Frenchmen have a sort of dancing step , incredibly quick, in which the advance foot is lowered an instant to take the body’s weight while the back foot hops up to meet it. It is all done as in one movement, a spring that covers a deal or ground; and the “low foot” is there outstretched again to tease and temp and threaten. It is true that a French boxer with considerable experience of our own pugilism will sometime draw the kicker on by stepping backward; but it is considered much of a sporting tactic, a neat thing to do in the security of the boxing academy. It always risks the broken shinbone when the kicker wears heavy shoes.

I have dwelt on the danger of the “low foot” because its importance cannot be exaggerated. To use it and to meet it is the beginning, the middle and, I was almost going to say, the end of French boxe. Nothing is more instructive than to watch the amateurs at Charlemont’s academy as they spend patient hours in dancing at each other with this impudent low, outstretched toe. To reach down and deflect it means a moment’s safety and a chance to get a blow in of your own. To hold it for an instant till the other hand can clutch it also means a victory. Then the victor does not pull his adversary’s leg, but lifts it high and pushes. Down goes the champion, and a kick would break his balance.

Bone Breaking

This is a brutal talk of breaking bones may need a word of explanation. French boxing is a sport, in one way; but its primary idea is self-defense. The street roughs of French cities always kick when fighting. Nature teaches them to kick as the best way of affecting their purposes. They have always kicked, in an untutored way. For night attackers they have a certain number of kicking tricks, whose merit lies rather in their surprise. These form the real savate, or “old shoe” school, of which the backward “cow kick,” disconcerting but not hard to meet when known, is the most vaunted maneuver. To meet the savate and put Frenchmen of the latter class at an advantage the French boxe was built up, studied, improved and almost perfected. Its professors do not like the name of the savate, its extraordinary merit, in their eyes, is the defensive power it gives. They say they can defend themselves against three. You will ask how. By breaking bones and knock out blows administered in the stomach. A French gentleman, I need not say, would not kick any one unless forced to it; nor would he kick at one he thought his social equal, for these injuries there is the duel. “My card, monsieur!”



Originating in a dire necessity, French boxing has become rather a fashionable sport. Its activities are much allied to those of fencing, in whose practice nearly every amateur is grounded long before takes up the gymnastics of the “low foot” and the high kick. Certainly they are gymnastics!

Few Americans will look unmoved upon the picture of the coup de flanc. With his body almost forming the letter “T,” one leg high up and crooked at the knee, the torso leaning backward almost horizontally, the French professional must present an excessively awkward and unstable spectacle to those accustomed only to the straight stand-up attitude of his opponent. Indeed it will be hard to persuade many that the thing is not a mere gymnastic conceit of the academy and valueless in serious fighting. Nevertheless, and without going into a discussion of the merits of the coup de flanc when practiced between two professionals of equal force- for I believe there is some little controversy of technique- I will be safe I saying that the best way for ordinary man to meet it, even when instructed , is to stand and wait and watch. For the unpracticed there is nothing to be done.

Like a Gigantic Arm

The skilled French boxer is poised there on one leg as on two. The other leg has all the practice and facility of a gigantic arm. It covers the whole body it attacks. It can come driving on the groin, the solar plexus or the ear. Unlike the “low foot,” it cannot even theoretically be stepped around or danced around or rushed. You cannot tell where it is going to land. When it comes it comes with a swiftness gained by its superior length and leverage.

I think that one of the technical weaknesses of the coup de flanc in that, when watched and waited for by a skilled man, the guard against it is almost perfect.


In the match from which I took the photographs the kick turned out to be a high one to the face. Chabrier, the professional, stood poised a moment in the extraordinary attitude you see. I had time to turn a film for the next snap shot. Then, like a flash, the leg shot out, up high. It seemed as if it would break Sacher’s head. It landed on his quickly outstretched arm and swayed him with the shock. He had escaped, but the shock left him no chance for a counter blow before the kicker could recover. In this match I saw the coup de flanc attempted many times. It seldom landed. When directed at the stomach or the groin it was met with an open palm that grasped it for an instant and guided it outward with the aid of its own impetus. Between equals it is brilliant rather than effectual. It ought to be a draw, if I may use the word. But where one of the parties is the stronger it is terrible. In the half light of the night attack it is almost invincible. Against the unpracticed it is deadly.

Add these kicks-a dozen or more in their various combinations of high, low and middle- to all that is already known of pugilism, and set the parties at each other, with all fours, like two enraged cats, springing, crouching, clutching, striking, dodging, feinting, hopping, dancing, kicking at each other’s stomachs, groins, and shins, and you will have a faint idea of what is choicest in French boxing. How far English and American boxing enters into the French system would be impossible to say, because the individual tactics of each fighter vary; but it is a favorite remark of Sacher that “because we kick we are not armless, are we?” This is true; they are not armless, but heir legs are much in evidence!


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