When most of us think of the French, street fighting is hardly what springs to mind. Cheese, wine and art, mais bien sur. But martial arts? Not so much.
So when I stumbled across a French form of kickboxing called savate while channel surfing one night, I knew I had to check it out. One quick Web search turned up half a dozen different classes in the area. Quelle surprise! There's a thriving community of savateurs in Los Angeles.
In fact, my jaw nearly hit the floor when Nicolas Saignac, 42, a former French Cup champion who teaches savate classes at Bodies in Motion in West Los Angeles, handed me an article about French boxing that ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 11, 1892.
Savate, also called la boxe francaise, is one of the only martial arts to emerge from the West. But Asian martial arts and English boxing have eclipsed it, in part because so many savate masters were wiped out in the first two world wars. "People don't know about it, but the U.S. Army used to train in savate," Saignac says.
After one class, I could see why. If you want to drop some holiday pounds -- heck, if you're looking for a cardio workout that's one step away from a heart attack, savate may be for you. Even though I rollerblade and hike frequently, savate made my face turn, as the French say, rouge comme une tomate. I actually thought I might pass out. Such hard-core conditioning is crucial to savate because fighters stay in constant motion to avoid getting hit or kicked.
"Savateurs really pride ourselves on being able to get out of the way," Saignac says.
Savate, now an amateur competitive sport with weight divisions and a ranking system of glove colors, originated as a form of bloody street fighting among hoodlums in France. Noblemen civilized it in the late 19th century, combining techniques of English boxing with elegant but brutal kicks to the head, gut and legs. (Savate also includes a form of cane fighting called la canne, although this is generally taught separately now.)
It's performed with shoes on -- which makes it different from other types of kickboxing.
"We emphasize harassing the opponent with multiple kick combinations at every level to confuse him," says Salem Assli, president of the California Assn. of B.F. Savate, who teaches at Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Marina del Rey. "There's a great deal of footwork. Other martial artists find it hard to deal with the savateur. It's very frustrating because it's all over the place."
Consider taking various savate classes before deciding what you think of it. The ones I attended at Bodies in Motion and Inosanto were very different. Saignac's class, held three times a week, focuses on aerobic conditioning. (He also trains a small group of competitors in the finer points of savate outside of regular class hours.) Assli's class, held Saturdays, emphasizes technique and partner sparring.
And the School of Savate in West Hollywood -- where I didn't get to try a class -- is run by none other than Michael Giordani, who last year became the first and only U.S. fighter to win a full-contact fight in the world championships.
At Bodies in Motion on a recent Friday, Saignac's class was filled with floor-to-ceiling punching bags, and about a dozen people -- only two of them men -- were warming up. Savate tends to appeal to women because it is less bruising than, say, Thai boxing, which allows fighters to use their shins and elbows.
Saignac taped up my hands and handed me a pair of boxing gloves. Once the music started thumping, we didn't slow down for the next hour: There was no false advertising when they named the place Bodies in Motion. Following Saignac's lead, I started kicking the bag low and high, followed by three punches in rapid succession, jumping around on my toes in between. Kick-kick, punch-punch-punch. Kick-kick, 1-2-3.
After a few minutes with one combination, Saignac demonstrated a second set of moves, and the whole room switched without missing a beat. We did side kicks, round kicks, front kicks and reverse kicks. At one point, two of us circled around, taking shots as if fighting one another through the bag.
Saignac didn't stop to explain much, although he walked around recommending a few minor course corrections. He urged me to breathe out while I punched and to keep my distance from the bag until I was ready to move in for an attack.
Twice in the middle of class, we dropped to the floor for push-ups. Down for 20, then we bounded up again for more kicking and punching. I thought I would die by the time we hit the ground for a final few minutes of abdominal work. I don't think I've ever viewed sit-ups with such relief.