Meanwhile Elsewhere in the Combat Sport World (diary entry)

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My teacher consultancy’s bespoke course on combat sport history continued after a two week break. Tonight I decided I would round off the Jess Willard story before his defeat at the hands of Jack Dempsey with a match he fought against Frank Moran. Then it was a plunge into other combat sports – duelling, catch wrestling, savate, la canne,  that were captured on film through the Corbett to Johnson era and a little bit beyond.

Savate and boxe Francais was an obvious place to start. The kickboxing sport and martial art that probably evolved amongst the sailors of Marseille, France, and Paris had something of a rivalry with British boxing in the 19th century. We not only have reports of mixed discipline contest between pugilists and savateurs but also commentary from boxing coaches when discussing self-defence. Although there were different types of savate, they mainly centred on kicking with shoes or boots and using open hand strikes.  Charles Lecour is credited with being the savateur who, after sparring with the pugilist Owen Swift, synthesised techniques from British boxing with French savate. The art of la canne (canne de combat or canne d’arme) is also well-documented and the modern self-defence art evolved with and around savate. There is footage from the turn of the 20th century onwards showing savate trained in military lines and at the same time as la canne. We noted the use of the pugilist’s guard and the peculiar skip and stamp motions that are fairly unique to savate. A lot of this footage and history has convinced some martial arts historians to state that early 20th century sport karate was greatly influenced by savate. The 1912 writings of the French journalist Jean-Joseph Renaud, “Defence in the Street”, demonstrates how far ahead the French martial arts world were regarding both being open to cross training and pragmatic self-defence. Some of the savate footage shoot around the time of the Second World War included a demonstration of self-defence techniques separately from sport sparring. I also discussed the possibility of the British disdain of kicking coming from their rivalry with savateurs, which would have occurred with Waterloo still in lived memory.

There was also a similar disdain of ground fighting amongst some 19th century boxing coaches that might be connected to the popularity of France’s Greco-Roman wrestling. Neither bare-knuckle pugilism nor traditional Cornish wrestling (the jacketed style most probably practised by Henry VIII when he fought Francois I who would have been schooled in the very similar Bretton wrestling) allowed ground fighting. Lancashire wrestling, a form submission grappling that permitted ground fighting, had fallen out of favour around the time and was apparently outlived by Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling where ground fighting was also forbidden. However, catch-as-catch-can or simply catch wrestling is regarded to be Lancashire wrestling’s late 19th century successor. Lancashire wrestling apparently had a reputation for being especially brutal and catch wrestling’s name is pretty much an expression for “all-in wrestling” or “By whatever means” or “In any way possible”. The style became a professional sport that was popular around Europe and especially popular in the USA. It was also part of the music hall, fairground, vaudeville and circus culture. We watched footage of a wrestling bout held on a vaudeville stage in Atlanta with the background scenery still in place that demonstrated the very explosive style that combined Lancashire wrestling with Devonshire wrestling (a style that bares some similarity to the shin-kicking grappling sport of purring found in the Cotswolds) and Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling. At the time of music hall footage, ju jutsu/judo teachers were teaching in the UK and the US and also fighting on the music hall and vaudeville scene, inevitably adding their techniques into the catch wrestling melting pot. Catch wrestling, in turn, supposedly birthed the modern sport of freestyle wrestling. Interestling Greco-Roman wrestling had developed several decades before by a French soldier of the Napolonic wars,  Jean Exbrayat, who also found fame introducing and exhibiting his art in travelling fairs. It seems very likely that Greco-Roman wrestling also had a strong influence on the development of catch wrestling. Today Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling are both Olympic sports and grapplers usually cross train to such an extent that only their rules regarding holds below the waist distinguishing them. We also watched highlights from a professional wrestling match using the catch style. By the mid-1920s the sport became the staged spectacle we now know as “pro wrestling”, but catch wrestling still lives on as a niche amateur sport regularly cross trained in by MMA fighters.

Duelling was a worthwhile continuation from this savate as they both share common backgrounds. Duels were fought up until 1967 and many were recorded from the early 20th century onwards. These bouts were no longer the life and death fights famed during the Renaissance era but often fought until first blood or a disabling injury. They are worth watching to see exactly how armed combatants fight with bladed weapons and no protective equipment permitted. What we see is a very defensive and minimalistic style compared to modern fencing or many of the HEMA bouts of today.

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