Story by Jarrod Boyle edited by Peter Dorfman
Salem Assli is a vocational teacher of many martial arts. Ironically, he found his way to the art of his native country through an assiduous study of Jeet Kune Do, the martial art of Bruce Lee.
“I was born in Lille, France, and started to take up sport with football (soccer) and gymnastics, which I practiced as a competition sport between the age of 8 and 18 years old,” says Assli. “In 1974, I discovered, like many young adolescents of that time period, martial arts movies and particularly those of Bruce Lee.”
So impressed was Assli that he began studying a number of martial arts and practicing in isolation until the age of 23, when he set out for the United States to study under Lee’s number one disciple, Guro Dan Inosanto.
Assli broadened his martial horizons even further while in California, studying Thai boxing, Filipino martial arts, Penjak Silat, Bando and more under the direction and encouragement of his mentor, Guro Inosanto.
Having mastered a number of offensive, kicking-based martial arts, Assli was then encouraged by Inosanto to study the martial arts native to his home country.
“Admiring the quality of my kicking techniques, Dan Inosanto pushed me to study the arts of my home country — boxe Francaise savate, the French art of foot fighting — in order for me to then teach it to the students of the Inosanto Academy.”
Assli’s beginnings as a self-taught martial artist served him well, given that he had to learn the art of savate from a book.
“I studied from an old book that Inosanto lent me, and came back from my first trip back to France with the diploma of Monitor and Silver Glove 1st Degree, delivered by no less than national technical director, Mr. Bob Alix.”
Assli distinguished himself among his peers, finishing first in a field of 50 students.
"Mr Alix gave me the technical yellow glove after seeing me on an article that had been published in an American magazine. When he presented the results and handed me the 1st degree silver glove, he declared to all that he had not been wrong by giving me directly the yellow glove without me passing any exams. It was something new within the Federation, and the instructors present were all surprised that I could reach the silver glove without anyone to prepare me or teach me the attributes of French Boxing, and furthermore, finish first. The following year, I obtained in Los Angeles the prestigious diploma of Professor of Boxe Francaise Savate as well as the Silver Glove 2nd Degree from the members of the French Elite Team, including Richard Sylla and Robert Paturel (both several times French and European Champions).”
Assli’s experience of both muay Thai and savate has led him to a number of interesting conclusions regarding their separate kicking styles.
“Many savate practitioners, once they reached their goals, switch to kickboxing because that is where the money is,” says Assli, “most of the time with a high success rate. Instead of confronting the other fighter the way he is expecting it, they make use of footwork, strategy and savate skills to handle the other party.”
Some pundits dispute the success of savate given how many of its kicking techniques rely on the use of a specialized shoe.
“The shoes help, of course, but if the techniques are slightly modified, they still work quite well for the most part. The fact that many have managed to get hold of the highest titles without the shoes proves that it can be done.”
“Key to a successful skirmish with Thai boxers is management of the highly effective Thai clinch.
“In boxe Francaise with the shoes, and depending on the fighter, it is possible as long as the BF savate practitioner stays out of reach and can stab the Thai fighter [with the lead fouette kick]. But if the Thai fighter does clinch and knee, the French boxer will be in trouble as it is not in his game. Now, if it is pure savate, the Thai fighter will have to watch for many vicious and dirty blows — the headbutt and the eye strikes would be some of them.”
“Savate came from the streets, and served only one purpose: street fighting. Savate is everything but a sport; the French hoodlums, or ‘Apaches’ as they were called, have proven its efficiency in self-defense or attacks countless times. They gave trouble to the authorities for nearly two decades and it was only after sending them to fight in the trenches of World War One that France finally got rid of them.”
Savate was also popular with that other colorful historical figure, the duelist.
“Savate was made for duels, also; needless to say that it better have been efficient. The more I studied and researched it, the more similarities I found with JKD. I was extremely surprised when I found a book in Paris, published in 1912, on the subject of street fighting, that I could relate to Bruce Lee and his Jeet kune Do.”
Assli’s enthusiasm for the book soon gets the better of him.
“In this masterpiece, the author J. Renaud, an expert in French boxing/savate, boxing, judo, jujitsu, and French cane fighting — but also a pragmatic street fighter — wrote the following things, and I hereby quote him so as not to betray his words:”Some of the processes that I recommend come directly from the world of ‘Apaches’. I do not have to apologize, these processes are very effective, very safe, audited by the experience of those who constantly use them, and we are no longer talking here about graceful sports, but simple and pure defense.”
Jeet Kune Do was an excellent primer for Assli’s career in martial arts, given that both savate and Jeet Kune Do are fundamentally similar in their outlook.
“I came to train with Guro Inosanto to learn JKD and kali (empty-hand and weaponry), along with savate and muay Thai. These arts fit my personality and my body; I am more of a striker than a grappler [and] even though I love grappling techniques, let’s say that in a street confrontation, I will avoid rolling to the pavement. That being said, I teach ground techniques to my students as well.
“I am attracted by these arts because I simply love their concepts and their philosophy. There are no complete arts, but JKD, kali as taught by Guro Dan and French savate are pretty close in…concept [because] they are meant to be tailored to the individual.”
“It is the colorful past of savate and boxe Francaise that attracted me in the first place, and I wanted to be part of it,” says Assli. “Savate, of course, is way older than boxe Francaise and it was the legacy of all those masters of arms from generation to generation for two millennia that we want to preserve.
“It is also from a cultural point of view very important to save the arts, no matter where they come from; the country or region where it originated can only be richer from its exposition to the eyes of the rest of the world.”
Assli is ambivalent about the role of sport savate as a means for preserving its legacy.
“Unfortunately the French Boxing/Savate Federation [is] more concerned with making boxe Francaise/savate (strictly using hands and feet) an Olympic sport, and so more focus [is on] that goal. Straight from the beginning, I studied and researched the lost art, and this was way before France started to come up with what they now call ‘savate defense’.”
The argument against boxe Francaise is similar to the arguments made against competition by many traditional martial artists; in order to make it ‘safe’ for competition, certain techniques must be eliminated, thereby diluting the art. But Assli believes that both have their place.
“Boxe Francaise is the offspring of savate and chausson; it is a sport with limitations and rules, but with outstanding attributes, such as footwork, mastering of distances, awesome combinations, and a perfect example of an art that teaches the ways of attacks as described in JKD. All this was developed through decades of ring experience. But it is still a sport.
“On the other hand, savate was made for dueling, therefore there were no rules whatsoever. I repeat, no rules whatsoever. When it comes to survival, everything goes. Like they said before a duel, depending on the degree of offence: ‘Vas-t’on de tout?’−French for, ’Does everything go?’
Due to the destructive nature of many savate techniques the emphasis of the art changes.
“In savate there is no need to have awesome footwork, having a perfect control of distances, and so on. But for today’s fighters who want to train and fight for the ring or cage, these attributes can be found in BF savate.”
Just as Jeet Kune Do provided a precursor for Assli’s adventures in savate, so too did his experience of kali provide a touchstone for learning la canne, the French art of fighting with a cane.
“The French cane system is a little bit like the largo mano style in kali…the long-range system. Like BF, cane fighting has its rules and limitations, but in the street defense, you are free to use what works.
“So when you know kali, you can be creative and I have lots of fun coming up with many new techniques and tricks from kali…using the cane style. However, when I teach French cane fighting, I only teach the true art. If I show what other things we can do using other systems, I tell my students where that particular technique is coming from.”
The cane lends itself to modern self-defense with a high degree of efficacy.
“I think that a cane is a perfect weapon for self-defense,” says Assli. “You have to know that in Los Angeles, carrying a stick is a felony, but [carrying] a cane is perfectly legal. How funny that is, when you think of all the things you can do with a cane [when you] combine the techniques of both France and the Philippines.”
Originally, Assli’s knowledge of kali was something of an obstacle to learning la canne, but not in the way one might first think.
“It is not that I had difficulty to find a la canne master to teach me, it was that the master I met was impressed with my Filipino martial arts ability and wanted me to teach him, so he became my student for a while. Myself, I wanted to learn the French cane since I was – and still am – involved in the French martial arts.
“He taught me, but after training together for a while, he told me that he gave up the cane training to focus on kali instead, which he found more practical. I guess that he couldn’t see the benefit of being a cane fighter as his kali training was so overwhelming and new to him; he wasn’t able to see that he could keep both and it was a benefit, not a challenge.
“Of course, there is so much to learn in kali that you can spend a lifetime studying it. Since he was in his late thirties already, he chose to focus on kali.
One of the hallmarks of a vocational martial artist is teaching. It becomes necessary to pass the art on and, in doing so, opens an entirely different skill set. Having developed his own skill as a teacher has meant that Assli has an insight into the instructors that have contributed to his journey.
“I have never met Bruce Lee and even less train with him, but his philosophy sunk in as I tried to read all about him when I was a young teenager. Since I grew up in a family who weren’t religious, I learned to understand that everything came from the work of human beings, whether positive or negative, and that humans are (or should be) free to make up their own goals and think for themselves, and that everything is possible when you set your mind to it.
“From Dan Inosanto I learned humility, which is truly the most beautiful quality of a human being. [The word] Humility comes from the Latin Humus, the earth. That is what we are; nothing else. We are the earth, which for a short moment in time can become conscious of itself. When you realize that, you can only be humble.”
A significant aspect of Inosanto’s contribution was to give Assli a point of reference for his interaction with other teachers and instructors.
“I also learned to be a better teacher because even though [Inosanto] did not teach me how to teach, per se, spending so many years as his student, you learn so much from him without even noticing it sometimes.”
“After training with a teacher’s teacher like Guro Inosanto, you see the other instructors differently; you have a better judgment and learn to appreciate their differences.”
Guro Dan Inosanto’s teaching style seems to have made as much of an impact on shaping Assli as the actual content of his instruction.
“As I said,” Assli continues, “he is a master teacher. His humility allows him to be open to anyone…he can learn from. He is genuinely interested to learn from everyone. If he had to chose only to be a teacher or a student…he will choose to be a student.
“It is logical. When you teach, it boots a little your ego; whether you want it or not, people look up to you. When you are a student, you can grow, and this is what life is all about.”
“Guro Dan is a giver, and this is also what I learned from him. He loves to share what he learns, especially when what he learns can be of help to someone in the class. Sometimes, he will share knowledge that is not technically martial, but rather advice for someone and he will share it to all and whoever is concerned will grasp it…hopefully!”
Aside from Inosanto, Assli expresses particular fondness for Robert Paturel.
“I trained with different French instructors later on, also, and they all had something to offer. Robert Paturel was my favorite because he had an extremely open mind and a sense of humor like mine. We got along very well. The French are very different and as I said earlier, BF savate is very individual and it suits very well their personality.”
“It has become increasingly clear in the modern context of martial arts that the individual is more important than the art itself; the individual is a lens through which a given art will pass. Salem Assli has mastered as unusual combination of both Eastern and Western martial arts, all of which have come to influence one another within the spectrum of his practice.
Additionally, as both an instructor and an author, those arts are passed on in his idiom, which has been shaped in turn through instructors such as Guro Dan Inosanto and Robert Paturel, as much as the arts themselves.
‘Great’ instructors are as remarkable as the arts they teach, and become so through the refinement of a life in the martial arts – the life Assli is still living to the full.