Boxe Française Historique: a Reconstruction of Classical Savate Sparring

The recent HEMAC historical martial arts conference in Dijon, France included this fascinating reconstruction of 19th century Boxe Française – Savate sparring by members of the Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens.

The aim of this sparring match was to faithfully reproduce the techniques presented in the treatises of Charlemont, Leboucher and other savate masters who taught the French art of unarmed combat from the beginning of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th.

For comparison, see this 1896 film of savate practitioners in action:

Note that this type of stylised, light-contact sparring reflects the desire of some professional instructors during the late 19th century to separate French kickboxing from its rowdy, back-alley origins. Instructors such as the Charlemonts wished to promote French kickboxing as a relatively genteel combat game and as a method of physical culture, suitable for middle-class patrons of commercial salles de savate. Inevitably, that rather academic and courteous style drew criticism from other quarters, especially from self defence-oriented instructors and from would-be professional athletes, who advocated for a hard-hitting version of the sport influenced by the no-nonsense ethos of English and American boxing.

Light-contact, academic sparring persists as the “savate assaut” option in modern Boxe Française – Savate, contrasted with the full-contact “savate combat”.

Call for Participants and Instructors: Bartitsucon 2018

Tommy Joe Moore (left, above) of the Bartitsu Lab in Warwickshire, UK is inviting expressions of interest from Bartitsu enthusiasts and instructors for the upcoming Bartitsucon 2018 event, to be held on November 10-11.

Interested parties can learn more about the event and contact Mr. Moore via this link.

Video Lessons from “Bartitsu: Historical Self Defence With a Walking Stick”

Here are two free sample lessons from the new training video Bartitsu – Historische Selbstverteidigung mit dem Spazierstock nach Pierre Vigny, produced by and featuring Bartitsu instructor Alex Kiermayer. Note that the instructional video series is currently only available in the German language, but that an English-subtitled version is expected to become available soon.

“Prof. Vigny’s Fencing School” (1903)

Former Bartitsu Club instructor Pierre Vigny (left) and his wife and associate instructor Marguerite (second from left) pose for a publicity picture featured in the November, 1903 edition of Health and Strength Magazine.

Marguerite displays the “hook around the neck” technique with her umbrella handle, a characteristic manoeuvre from both her husband’s self-defence system and her own method.  Meanwhile, Pierre assumes a lowered version of the Rear Guard with his cane as he prepares to take on the hooligan shown to the far right, who is wielding a belt.  A potential follow-up technique is shown below, from the “Art of Stick Defence”  article in the August 1, 1903 Illustrated London News:

“The Man They Cannot Hang” vs. Sadakazu Uyenishi

In common with most athlete/showmen of his time and place, John Clempert (1878-1940) was not averse to spinning some tall tales about his past exploits. He claimed, among other things, to have served as an enforcer in the Russian Army and to have escaped three times from the confines of a transportation van after having been exiled to Siberia for a political infraction.

Clempert arrived in England circa 1899 and quickly began to establish a reputation as an itinerant strongman, escape artist and wrestler on the music hall circuit. Inevitably his trajectory crossed that of E.W. Barton-Wright and his jiujitsu champions, Tani and Uyenishi, who were likewise gaining fame in the music halls.

At that time, Clempert’s signature feat was as “The Man They Cannot Hang”; a stunt which apparently involved hanging by his knees beneath a trapeze suspended over the stage, only then to release his hold on the trapeze and drop some 15 feet, his descent halted by a noose looped around his neck. Whether or not there was some showbiz trickery associated with this stunt, photographs clearly show that Clempert’s neck muscles were, in fact, unusually well-developed.

Swiss grappler Armand Cherpillod was, along with Tani and Uyenishi, employed by Barton-Wright as a challenge wrestler and instructor on behalf of the Bartitsu School of Arms. In his 1933 autobiography, Cherpillod – who seems to have had consistent difficulty in recalling personal names – offered an exciting account of “Klemsky’s” bout with “Yanichi” (Sadakazu Uyenishi):

As quick as a flash, the Japanese leaped onto the Russian and seized him by the collar of the jacket, one hand on each side of his neck, by crossing the wrists, and learnedly exerted the famous pressure on the carotid arteries, which brings choking, and even unconsciousness. The hold did not seem to have any effect on the Russian, who simply smiled at the audience.

Astonished by this resistance, the Japanese wrestler’s eyes gleamed with malice. He rolled across the ground past the Russian while preserving his hold and, to increase the force of the pressure on the neck, planted his two feet in the pit of Klemsky’s stomach. This tightened the grip so extremely that a net of blood escaped from the mouth of Klemsky and sprinkled his face. It was only then that Yanichi [Uyenishi] released his hold and let fall beside him the apparently lifeless body of the Russian.

The public believed that Klemsky had died. They howled their anger and their disapproval of Yanichi. This latter, triumphant, appeared to be insensitive to the hostile remonstrations of the public. He went to sit down on the sidelines, beside his compatriot, in the manner of the tailors at work, by crossing his legs beneath him.

While the spectators redoubled their cries, our two Japanese entered into an animated conversation and even laughed together, contemplating the victim who did not give any sign of life. Suddenly, one of them rose, as if driven by a spring, and approached Klemsky. He leaned on the body of the Russian and gave some sort of vibration or massage to the cardiac area, which revived the victim gradually.

Then, to the great astonishment of the audience who were now gasping, Klemsky opened his eyes and asked where he was. This seemed magical, and even more than before, Jiu-jitsu appeared to be a most mysterious form of fighting.

When someone asked Klemsky for his impression of the event, he said that while losing consciousness, he had heard the sound of bells.

This account is especially interesting in that it’s one of the few records of a Bartitsu Club champion actually rendering a wrestling opponent unconscious, and one of the very first records of kuatsu (Japanese manual resuscitation techniques) in any non-Japanese media.

Clempert himself later recalled his encounter with Uyenishi in a letter published in the October 17th issue of The Encore:

The first time I ever met anybody under 12 stone was when I took on one of Mr. Barton-Wright’s Japs at the Empire. Beat him in the first five seconds in Greco-Roman style, putting him fairly on his back. He felt as though he was a baby. After that he put me to sleep – not from his strength, but by some sort of magnetism he used. I did not feel any pain. I do not know exactly understand what sort of wrestlers they are. According to my idea, they are not wrestlers but magicians.

I challenge them on the following conditions; Greco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can style or Straps. I put down five pounds if I don’t beat one of them within 10 minutes. But if they want to wrestle in their own way, which is called “self-defence”, I will undertake to defend myself in my own way. This means I shall try to disable my opponent before he can disable me. Some money must be staked, as it is their own style of wrestling. I will not take any responsibility about accidents. Of course, this kind of contest would have to take place where there are no ladies, such as at Wonderland or a sporting club.

Yours truly, John Clempert

Despite this bold challenge, there seems to be no further record of John Clempert taking on a jiujitsu-trained opponent.

In February of 1903, Clempert suffered a serious injury while performing his hanging stunt and was taken to hospital suffering from a “concussion of the spinal cord”. He recovered, but seems to have retired that stunt from his repertoire, thereafter continuing his career as a wrestler and an escape artist in the manner of Harry Houdini. Circa 1909, he also produced a pitchbook, the gloriously-titled Thrilling Episodes of John Clempert, The Shining Star of the Realms of Mystery.

Houdini, however, did not suffer imitators gladly and put legal pressure on Clempert to stop performing several escapes that were a little too directly inspired by Houdini’s own. Clempert apologised and promised to desist, although he did briefly come out of retirement after Houdini’s untimely death in 1926.

An Update on Alex Kiermayer’s Bartitsu Stickfighting Instructional Video

German Bartitsu instructor Alex Kiermayer has collaborated with in producing this new instructional video series on the art of Vigny stick fighting, as incorporated into the original Bartitsu curriculum at the turn of the 20th century.

The series runs to 2 hours and 53 minutes and the German-narrated version is now available as a streaming download via Vimeo and on DVD via this site.

Subtitled English-language versions will soon be available – watch this space for details!

Terence Hill Wields a Mean Cane

Bud Spencer Bartitsu Tribute

A Tribute to a Friend from Nova Scrimia UK – Bartitsu Bristol… a great Italian Actor and Sportsman.. enjoy some Bartitsu Style fighting from the Duo! Farewell #BudSpencer

Geplaatst door Nova Scrimia UK – Bartitsu Bristol op donderdag 30 juni 2016

Readers of a certain vintage may fondly recall the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer buddy comedies of the 1970s, which were best known for their paper-thin plots and gleefully inventive fight scenes.  In this scene, the hulking brawler Spencer does what he does best, while the agile, fast-talking Hill discovers a new slapstick weapon in the form of the gentlemanly cane.

The Martial Shenanigans of Leopold McLaglen

Captain Sydney Temple Leopold McLaglen (1884-1951) was one of the most colourful “characters” of the early 20th century jiujitsu scene.  Charismatic, moustachioed, broad-shouldered and towering at 6’7″ in height,  McLaglen looked every inch the dashing British soldier, and had, in fact, been photographed with his brothers for an army recruitment campaign poster, billed as “the Fighting Macks”.

Reminiscent, however, of Sir Harry Flashman – the fictional protagonist of George Macdonald Fraser’s popular historical novel series, The Flashman Papers – Leopold McLaglen’s stalwart stature concealed the heart and mind of an adventurous con-artist.

McLaglen claimed to have studied Japanese unarmed combat from boyhood with a family servant who was proficient in the art, rapidly advancing to the point where he was able to defeat his instructor.  He also claimed to be the Jiujitsu Champion of the World, based on his highly dubious defeat of a Japanese fighter named Kanada in British Columbia during 1907, here summarised by a local reporter:

For two hours the spectators saw nothing but Kanada crouching on the mat with McLaglen on top of him and there was little, if any, jiu-jitsu to the performance. It was apparent to everyone that McLaglen’s knowledge of the game could be covered with a pinhead.

McLaglen’s enthusiastic self-promotion was, thus, inspired by an essentially meaningless title, as – even if he had won a clear victory over Kanada – there was neither a governing body nor a recognised format of international jiujitsu competition during this period.

During late 1911 and early 1912 Leo McLaglen was again in the newspapers, this time for having been caught impersonating his own younger brother, Victor, who was by then making a name for himself as a boxer and as an actor. While working as a doorman at a Milwaukee movie theatre, Leo began calling himself “Victor Fred McLaglen” and publicly claimed a storied past as a decorated hero of the Boer War, a former British intelligence agent and member of King Edward’s bodyguard corps, and a soldier of fortune who’d chased down criminals in Canada. He also said that he had fought heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in Vancouver during 1909.

Riding on local media notoriety, McLaglen then challenged a fencing instructor to a broadsword match with what appear to have been live blades – the resulting contest was an appalling bloodbath – and shortly thereafter challenged the boxer “Fireman” Jim Flynn, only to be knocked down several times within three rounds. At that point his brother Victor caught wind of Leopold’s shenanigans and sent a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Free Press, denouncing Leo as an impostor but pointedly not mentioning that the two of them were, in fact, related.

Leopold left Milwaukee in disgrace and turned up about a year later in South Africa, where he teamed with strongman Tromp van Diggelen in a touring jiujitsu act. Van Diggelen later wrote that he was surprised to discover that McLaglen’s “paralysing” nerve grips did not actually work, but he was happy to feign being immobilised for the sake of showbiz.

During one performance, however, McLaglen was challenged by a member of the audience who turned out to be a well-known local boxer. As the boxer climbed onto the stage and began removing his jacket, McLaglen unaccountably punched him in the face, causing the pugilist to go berzerk.  Van Diggelen then watched bemusedly as his partner was pummeled off the stage and up a flight of stairs leading to their dressing room.

Leo McLaglen (seated, front and centre) poses with jiujtsu students in the Physical Training gym at Aldershot Camp.

Nevertheless, Leopold McLaglen successfully parlayed his “Jiujitsu Champion” claim into a reputation as a military close-combat expert.  By 1913 he was touring India, China, the Philippine Islands, Australia and New Zealand, teaching and demonstrating his version of jiujitsu and also an unusual system of bayonet fighting, which he also claimed to have invented.   The McLaglen Bayonet System was notable for its incorporation of extreme close-quarters techniques such as trips, disarms and throws.

Trainee soldiers practice tripping opponents during one of McLaglen’s bayonet combat courses.

Although Leopold McLaglen probably was not, in fact, much of a fighter, he seems to have been a decent instructor.  His close-quarters bayonet system was, at least in theory, well-suited to the grim realities of WW1-era trench combat.  Most of McLaglen’s trainees were soldiers and police officers, many of whom were recruited as performers in large public Assault-at-Arms exhibitions starring McLaglen himself, supplementing his jiujitsu and bayonet displays with feats of strength, horsemanship and swordsmanship.

By this time, Leo McLaglen’s jiujitsu claims included purported defeats of a veritable who’s who of (notably obscure) opponents, including:

(…) T. E. Hiria, M. Tani and Prof. Yamagata, one of the best men in Japan, who was engaged by President Roosevelt to teach the American police jiujitsu. Captain McLaglen broke the professor’s arm. Prof. Fukamuchi (Los Angeles), Watanalu, Rondo, Saku, Prof. Shimura and [Henry] De Raymond all sustained defeat, the last named, a man of 350 lbs., retiring with a broken shoulder blade. In Calcutta, January 1913, Capt. McLaglen defeated Prof. Yamasaki and Prof. Toda (…)

Even allowing for the vagaries of transliterating Japanese names into English during the early 20th century, this is a highly dubious list. “Professor Yamagata” is clearly a garbled reference to Yoshiaki Yamashita, who actually was President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal judo instructor, but there appear to be no records of McLaglen and Yamashita ever having met, let alone to the former breaking the latter’s arm.

In the years during and following the First World War, Leo McLaglen produced a series of jiujitsu and self-defence training manuals, including books on his bayonet system and on self-protection for women. His greatest notoriety, however, was to come during the 1930s, when he arrived in Hollywood.

Attempting to break into show business as an actor and director – though his only previous experience seems to have been a supporting role in the British drama Bars of Iron (1920) – Leopold quickly again ran afoul of his brother Victor, who was, by this time, a successful member of the Hollywood establishment.  Their feud led to Leopold suing Victor for $90,000, charging slander and defamation of character.  The trial judge rejected the lawsuit, and it was reported that Leopold refused Victor’s offer to shake his hand afterwards.

Leopold McLaglen (seated, front left) poses with Nazi sympathisers in a private Los Angeles home.

The years 1937 and 1938 proved to be Leopold McLaglen’s nadir.  Still based in Los Angeles, he became involved with the American Nazi underground and apparently masterminded a plot to assassinate twenty-four prominent “Hollywood Jews”, including Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Eddy Cantor and Samuel Goldwyn.  This scheme, which involved planned assassinations by machine gun and explosives, was to have been funded by millionaire sportsman Philip Chancellor, who had originally hired McLaglen as a jiujitsu instructor.

When the assassination plot was uncovered and defused by a network of private investigators hired by Hollywood studio heads, Leo McLaglen attempted to extort $20,000 from Chancellor, which led to his arrest.  In his own defence,  McLaglen claimed that he had, in fact, been working as a secret agent attempting to expose Chancellor as a Nazi spy, but his evidence did not convince the jury and he was offered the choice of either leaving the United States for five years, or spending that time in prison.  Victor McLaglen, by this time an Academy Award-winning actor, paid for Leopold’s boat fare back to England.

Leopold McLaglen died on January 4th, 1951, leaving an intriguing but very deeply tarnished legacy.

“Pelea de Navaja”: a Rare Account of Spanish Knife Fencing from 1848

Bartitsu founder Edward Barton-Wright claimed “the use of the stiletto” among the variety of fighting styles he had studied during his many years as an itinerant mining engineer. Bartitsu itself, however, does not appear to have included any dagger nor knife techniques per se.  Indeed, apart from some ambiguous comments by third parties who witnessed Bartitsu demonstrations, the only references to edged weapons in the Bartitsu repertoire were in terms of defending against them, via Barton-Wright’s “coat trick” or the Vigny cane system.

Barton-Wright’s remark that learning his New Art of Self-Defence should relieve students of “the feeling of disgust at having a dagger about (them)” was typical of English sentiment at the turn of the 20th century. Given that cultural bias against bladed weapons, he was careful to frame his discussions of knife attacks as being committed by “foreigners”. That said, knives were, in fact, widely used in Southern European and Mediterranean criminal subcultures.

The following is excerpted from Chapter IV of “The Pillars of Hercules, or, A narrative of travels in Spain and Morocco in 1848”. It offers a unique technical description of Spanish knife fighting/training, written by David Urquhart, an Englishman who learned the art from a Spanish master in Seville.



A Sevillian whom I was questioning about the frequent assassinations, astonished me by denying that there were any. “What you hear of,” said he, “as murders are duels.” I objected the knife;—he said, “Well, the knife, that is our weapon; we fence, we do not stab; the duel has its laws, the weapon its science.” I thought this must be a figurative manner of describing some rude point of honour, and asked him to show me in what consisted the science. “I am not expert,” he said; “but if you are curious I will take you to a friend of mine, whom you can engage, as he is the best player in Seville; and, since the death of Montez, in all Andalusia.”

I begged immediately to be conducted to the yuecador, and was introduced to the inner apartment; which—as he united the calling of contrabandist to that of fencing-master—was filled with bales of tobacco. The subject was broached as a matter of business. He was willing to give me lessons, but would not undertake to teach me. If I had natural dispositions I might learn “to play” in three months, taking Time by the forelock. I proposed commencing at once; and next morning he came to me by day-light, at the inn— for it required a large room.

A wooden dagger is used for a foil: it is about eight inches long, and in form like the old sacrificial knife: it is held by the closed fingers, the thumb stretching along the blade, and the edge turned inward. Round the left arm is wound the jacket as a shield. My teacher, putting himself in attitude, at once reminded me of the fighting Gladiator. He thus commenced: “You must hold your right hand down upon your thigh; you must never raise it till sure of your blow. Your feints must be with the eye—the eye, hand and leg must move together. When you look here, you must strike there, and spring when you have cut, corta y huya. The left arm must be kept high, the right hand low, the knees bent, the legs wide, the toes forward, ready to spring back or forward. There are three cuts and three parries; one point,—the point is low and at the belly—St. George’s au bas venire: the cut must be across the muscle on the shoulder or the breast, or down well into the groin, so as to let out the bowels. Unless you know how to cut, it is of no use knowing how to fence.”

He knew nothing of our fencing, and was much surprised when I made application of it, and attributed the advantages it gave to a natural instinct for the art. The result was, that in a week he had gone through the whole course, and the last day of my stay at Seville, he brought two of the proficients, and we had a regular assault d’armes, the guests at the hotels being spectators. He honoured me at the introduction by saying, that he feared me more than either of his two compeers, because I sprang better than the one, and cut better than the other.

The attitudes are a study for an artist. There are not the stiff figures and sharp angles of our fencing; but the rounded limb, the gathered-up muscle, the balanced body:—instead of the glance of the steel there is that of the eye. The weapon is concealed under the hand, and pointing down, so that not a ray betokens it. There is no boxer’s fist or cestus, no crusader’s helm or hauberk, no Roman’s sword or shield. It seemed as if the hands and the eye of the man were equal to the claw of the tiger, or the tusk of the boar. It was a combat of beasts rather than a contest of men. There was the ambling pace, the slouching gait of the panther or the lion, or, rather, it was a mixture of the snake and the frog; gliding like the one and springing like the other. This is the war of the knife, the Pelea de Navaja, falsely interpreted war to the knife.

After missing a blow with the right hand, the knife, by a dexterous player, may be jerked into the left; but this, if unsuccessful, is inevitable death. To jerk it at your antagonist is not permitted by the rules of the game. By a sudden spring an adversary’s foot may be pinned after he has failed in a blow. The most deadly of these feints is to strike the foot of your adversary sideways and so bring him down. A celebrated Juccador named Montes (not the Torero), killed in this manner eleven men, and was at last so killed himself.

The mantle or jacket round the left arm is used, not for the purpose of catching the blow, but of striking off the adversary’s arm so that he may not reach. The guarding arm is always within reach, but always avoided; for to strike at it would leave your side open, and the safety consists in keeping under your adversary. The arms of the players were all scarred; but that was in ” love fights.” The edge of the knife is then blunted, or a shoulder is put to it, as in the case of the lances which they use with the bulls.

The Sevillian was right. This is not simple assassination: it is not the stab given in the dark, though of course we could only so understand a man being killed by a knife. A popular song at Seville is, the lamentation of a man imprisoned for “stabbing” another :—he exclaims against the wrong ; justifies his legitimate defence of his maja; calls upon the gaoler to testify to his treatment; and, failing to obtain sympathy, rushes to the grates and appeals to the people:—

Si venga gente pora aca !

There is no song sung with more fervour by the ladies.

This is the most deadly weapon I know; the dirk, the cama, the dagger, are grasped in the hand, and impelled by the leverage of the arm. The navaja may be so used, or plunged right on end like the Hindoo dagger, and also by the motion of the wrist alone: it more resembles mowing with the scythe than thrusting with a poniard: it is accompanied by the action of the sword, in which, as in fencing, the limbs come into play, and thus serves the purpose of a defensive weapon. It is the origin of our fencing; and against adversaries not acquainted with that art, or not armed for it, it still retains all its ancient superiority:—in all cases it would be a valuable accessory to other weapons, without being an encumbrance, and serving for all the ordinary purposes of a knife.

The navaja (pronounced navakha) is a clasp knife, —those worn by professed players are a foot long when closed. There is a spring to catch it behind, to prevent it closing on the hand. When opened there is the click as in cocking a pistol, and the sound is said to delight Andalusian equally with Irish ears. The art of fencing with it is called pelea de navaja.