Printed 2004 Paladin Press web site. Republished with permission by Paladin Press
Modified version 2009
Beginning his training in 1975 , Craig Gemeiner has nearly 30 years of experience in the martial arts and self -defense, the majority of it focused on the Western combat arts – in particular, savate and la canne. Recognized as an instructor, researcher, and historian on French savate and its associated combative disciplines, Gemeiner heads one of Australia’s most successful and active savate academy. He is the current president of the Australian Savate Federation Inc, and a recognized member of the world governing body of the art, the Fédération Internationale de Savate . He has written and produced three best-selling videos on la canne, La canne: The walking Stick Method of Self- Defense vol.1,2, 3 which are considered significant in that they are the first in the world to be presented in English.
Ironically, it was through the Korean art of teakwon do (TKD) that Gemeiner first became involved with the Western martial arts. In 1975 , at the age of 11, he enrolled in a local TKD club and was introduced to instructor Ken Mayfield. A 3rd degree jidowon black belt and former Irish amateur boxing champion with 135 fights under his belt, Mayfield counted “The Mighty Atom”, Jimmy Wild, among his boxing coaches.
Competitive from a young age, Gemeiner passed himself off as 18 in the late 1970s and won 5 national and 6 state TKD black belt titles in the adult division, all while under the guidance of Mayfield.
Ken Mayfiled demonstrating self defense skills on his young student -1979
Photos used with permission by Charles Mayfield
Though Mayfield was an accomplished TKD coach, Gemeiner considered him an outstanding boxing and self defense coach. He recalls watching in amazement as Mayfield, who was 60 years old at the time and all of 5 feet 3 inches tall, just played with the younger and much heavier adult black belts. As he watched Mayfield slip, bob, weave, and use footwork to constantly outmaneuver and out punch local and visiting black belts alike, Gemeiner knew that Western boxing was what he really wanted to learn.
Mayfield taught the young lad to box and, recognizing his shift in interest from TKD to the “sweet and noble science,” recommended that he begin training at the Runaway Bay Boxing Club (RBBC), which at the time was operated by Jeff Rowland and the late George “Iron Man” Barnes. Having competed as an amateur for the RBBC, Gemeiner exalts Rowland and Barnes, himself, a former empire (commonwealth) champion, as true professors of the sweet science.
In addition to being an excellent coach, Barnes was also an astute boxing historian. Gemeiner has fond memories of the “Iron Man” teaching him the Jack Dempsey falling step in the aisle of a Greyhound bus as they traveled to a boxing tournament. Such was George’s enthusiasm.
Gemeiner enjoyed the amateur boxing competitions. He wryly recalls an unusual episode in which, after having traveled 4 hours to an outback town to fight in a local tournament, he was picked to fight as the main event of the evening. “Now, being picked as the main event of the night was considered a great honor for a young bloke,” he says, “However, being city folk, we didn’t realize that when a boxing tournament came to a small county town, every man and his dog wanted to enter and compete. There were 70 fights on the card that day, and by the time my fight started it was 2:45a.m. I am happy to say I won the fight.”
Although boxing has come under a great deal of scrutiny by the medical profession of late, Gemeiner sees the value of amateur competition in terms of its character-building qualities. “If a fighter is gob smacked and introduced to the canvas, the situation allows the boxer an option to either quit or muster the courage to get up and continue. The later is a sign of a true champion and is often more important than winning a trophy.” Gemeiner draws a parallel to life’ s up and downs. ” He believes this should be part of every fighter’s philosophy.
While boxing competitively during the early 1980s , Gemeiner competed in several kickboxing tournaments , winning the Gold Coast title on two occasions, In 1982 he opened his first club and began teaching boxing and kickboxing. Though he dabbled in several Asian martial arts, he was always drawn back to his Western combat heritage.
In 1985, while on a trip to California, Gemeiner had his first exposure to French savate by way of Salem Assli. Assli, who at the time was a student of the art, introduced him to the basic kicking skills of savate kickboxing and encouraged him to explore the art further. Gemeiner was hooked. He studied everything on the subject that he could lay his hands on. That same year he opened the first gym on the east coast of Australia to offer instruction in savate (as well as his standard boxing and kickboxing programs). Over the years Gemeiner has trained with a several prominent instructors and Savate champions, and today continues to be coached under the best instructors he can find.
In the late 1980s, Gemeiner and his savate team began promoting the art through demonstrations at various venues, including martial arts tournaments, the 1988 World Expo, multicultural displays, sporting events, charities, nightclubs, and universities. He also competed in several savate exhibition matches held at world kick boxing title events organized by promoter Blair Moore, performing before crowds ranging in size from literally thousands of people to at times, only 10. If there was an avenue to display and promote savate, the Gemeiner Academy would be there.
Meanwhile, his continuing research into the Western combat arts led to an ongoing training association with Mike O’Brien, one of the Australia’s leading fencing masters. ” I have always made a point of training and remaining associated with the best instructors in their respected fields,” says Gemeiner, “so when I learnt that Maitre O’ Brien had been taught by some of the most successful fencing master of the 20th century, including Roger Crosnier, Bela Somos, and Leon Bertrand. I knew I had to learn fencing from this man. Mike is not only my fencing master but also my mentor and close friend.” In 1991 Gemeiner earned his level 1 coaching certificate, and in 2004 he received his Prevot Fencing certification from the O’Brien Academy of Fencing, authorized by the 80-year-old Maitre Michael A. O’Brien.
In 2000 Gemeiner tested and passed the rank of senior free scholar in the art of European long sword under the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) banner. The examination lasted 2 hours and included more than 60 bouts of full-contact weapon fighting. Because he believes ARMA director John Clements upholds the highest of standards and never drops them for anyone, Gemeiner cites this particular achievements as one of his most rewarding. His involvement with historical fencing led to his serving as event coordinator for the 2002 Historical Sword Play Convention, Australia’s premier Western Martial Arts event.
Gemeiner has taught savate in Japan ,United States, Italy, and New Zealand. He has also taught savate and la canne seminars for several combatives groups and for La Canne Italian association in Milan.
Currently busy organizing and facilitating his local, and national savate programs, as well as producing videos, teaching seminars, writing books and essays, and maintaining his award-winning website http://www.savateaustralia.com/, Gemeiner says his primary goal is to get as many people as possible involved with savate and la canne so that they may one day become instructors themselves and in turn help to preserve the skills for future generations to appreciate.
Paladin: By the time you were introduced to savate kickboxing in 1985, you had already by studied and competed in TKD, boxing, and kickboxing and dabbled in several other martial arts. What, specially, hooked you on the French art?
C.G: I think it was a number of things. Physically, I liked savate because it has a style all its own, and while it may seem similar to other systems of kickboxing, it is quite different. I also came to appreciate savate’s tactical approach. Often referred to as “the thinking man’s kickboxing,” the sport is based on what I call “progressive information overload.” Savate kickboxing is tactically demanding, and the more experienced you become as a fighter, the more tactically challenging your training becomes. The sport has an excellent all-around training syllabus. Finally, savate has a history that I find fascinating. It has been linked with military and police training, bare-knuckle boxing, street fighting, fencing, and self-defense, as well as with aristocrats and royalty.
Paladin: How would you describe savate – its principles and techniques – to someone completely unfamiliar with the art?
CG: Well, most people think savate is basically just kickboxing, which couldn’t be further from the truth. So I think explaining a little about the system’s history and development over the past 250 years would be the best way to give those people unfamiliar with the art a general idea about savate.
Savate was traditionally grouped into 3 components. The first group was the street method called la savate, which surfaced in Paris during the latter half of the 18th century. Its practices were used by street fighters and the criminal element, and its fighting techniques consisted primarily of low-line street kicking backed up by open-hand hits and elementary grappling maneuvers.
The second group was the sport component, which was first developed during the mid-1830s. Due to the aristocratic influence and the integration of chausson (a southern French fighting system that was based on high kicking and played more as a game than for street defense), more sophisticated kicking techniques were included, along with English boxing, wrestling, and la canne. This amalgamation resulted in la savate’s being renamed la boxe française, or French boxing. Still the self-defense system continued to be taught alongside the sport to varying degrees. Today savate kickboxing is an amateur French kickboxing system based on constant movement and combinations, with kicks being delivered from a variety of angles and integrated smoothly with English boxing. There are 2 levels of competition; (1) assaut, which is based on precision of hits, and techniques and (2) combat, where hits are delivered with full force.
The third group was savate weaponry, which consisted primarily of both la canne (walking stick) and the baton (two-handed long stick), of which there are various styles in existence. These weapons were adopted into the traditional savate salles (training halls) of the 1800s and today, depending on the systems one studies, can be practiced for self-defense or competition, or as an academic fencing method.
Paladin: Did savate undergo any other developments or changes during its history?
CG: Actually, yes. In the very early 1900s savate underwent another change. This time brought about by the increasing crimes perpetrated by Parisian street gangs known as “apaches.” Local newspapers often described the violence committed by these gangs as similar to that of the Apache Indians of the American Southwest, so the word apache (pronounced ah-PAHASH) was used to describe the gang members. Often referred to as a plague, the apaches terrorized France before spreading throughout Europe, and many law-abiding citizens turned to savate instructors for assistance in combating this epidemic of violence. As a direct result, a specific method of self-defense was developed that maximized savate’ s full complement of self-defense and street-fighting methods to train Parisian civilians to protect themselves against these thugs. This new system of French self defense was referred to as defense dans la rue , later called savate defense.
The various skills that made up defense dans la rue consisted of the savate in particular its low-line kicking techniques, English bare-knuckle boxing, selected grappling maneuvers from la lutte (French wrestling), and the dirty tricks of the apaches themselves. Weapons training included, among other things, the use of the revolver, knife, épée (for dueling), and la canne (walking stick), as well as the improvised combat application of the jacket, belt, scarf, umbrella, and even hat. The art was supplemented to varying degrees with the basic skills from Japanese jui-jitsu. This new system of personal combat became quite fashionable, and today we’re seeing a similar trend, with combatives and reality-based martial arts becoming popular.
Today, the governing body of savate, the Fédération Internationale de Savate, promotes the disciplines of savate defense, savate kickboxing, and savate weaponry.
Paladin: What specific elements of savate are applied to la canne?
CG: It depends on the system of la canne that is practiced. The standard competition form, or what is refered to as “la canne de combat”, does not permit any kicking or punching in conjunction with the use of the cane in competition. There are, however, schools in France that practice a style that includes cane and chausson, and a group in Italy includes the use of 2 cannes and kicking. The walking stick method I teach at my academy is a systemized integration of Vigny la canne (based on the walking stick combative method taught by Pierre Vigny in England during the late 1800s and early1900s) and unarmed skills, including low-line street kicking and the traditional open-hand strikes from savate, along with elbows, knees, head butts, and grappling techniques taken from la lutte.
Paladin: Can you tell us why you choose to specialize in the Vigny la canne method and your process for synthesizing the skills that make up your modern expression of the system?
CG: Originally, I was taught an academic system of la canne, but it lacked the self-defense application I was looking for. So I began researching the history of other la canne systems, and in the early 1990s I came across a manual entitled The ” Walking Stick” Method of Self Defense,” written by Superintendent H.G. Lang of the Indian Police in the 1920s. The author credited 19th century close-combat master Pierre Vigny’ s la canne system as a major influence on the stick techniques presented in his manual; this was my first introduction to the Vigny la canne method. Through further information I obtained from historical manuals and essays, it soon became apparent that by the late 1800s, Vigny had become a well-established and highly sought-after instructor of savate, la canne, fencing, and self-defense. Several high-profile self-defense instructors of the era had penned detailed essays on the Vigny system. Using these essays and Lang’s manual, I was able to cross-reference, catalog, and physically test the techniques in full-contact sparring and scenario-based pressure drills. In my analysis, the system stood up to the pressure better than any other cane method I had studied before.
Paladin: How many of the original concepts and techniques of Vigny la canne are retained in your modern expression of the art?
CG: Through my ongoing research and consultations with various colleagues around the world , who have assisted me greatly, I believe I’ve been able to retain the majority of Vigny’s original concepts and techniques. That said, it’s important to bear in mind that Vigny la canne is product of Western thought and, as such, should never be practiced as a museum piece. The system may sometimes be expressed and presented differently, depending on the socioeconomic climate of the country it’s being taught in. For instance, some areas may favor a fencing approach, where as others prefer a strict adherence to personal protection.
Paladin: You are certainly aware that Paladin Press recently reprinted The “Walking Stick” Method of Self-Defense. What do you know about the history of this interesting manual, and what is your opinion of the instruction it documents?
CG: The book was written during an era of social unrest in India, when the author was forced to look for some form of nonlethal equalizer to combat the commonly carried lathi (basically a very heavy club). Because it was considered a fashion accessory and social acceptable for a man to carry a cane, stick-on-stick encounters were not uncommon. Superintendent Lang realized that his men required a system of stick-fighting that was capable of overcoming the heavier lathi while being versatile enough to be used at long, medium, and close range against both single and multiple attackers. While on leave, Lang traveled to Europe and made a point of learning the Vigny la canne method. Upon returning to India, he produced a syllabus, which is documented in his superb manual. The focus of the book is on self-defense and riot control, not competition. It’s obvious that this was the work of seasoned and streetwise police officer and not an academic fencing master. I personally view Lang’s manual as a simplified version of the Vigny civilian method-something that could be easily taught to large group of men in a very short time.
Paladin: What, in your opinion, makes Vigny la canne a practical method of self-defense today?
CG: I think the system’s longevity really has to be taken into account The fact that Vigny’s walking stick method was included in various training programs in Europe, India, Israel, and the United States gives practitioners the advantage of tapping into more than 100 years of documented history. Modern practitioners can spend time training and investigating either the police or the military components as taught by Lang and others, as well as Vigny’s civilian approach. In short, the system is versatile, time-tested, and still very workable in our modern society.
Paladin: In your view, how does Vigny la canne stack up against other martial arts that are commonly touted as practical methods of street self-defense?
CG: I think it stacks up very well. The skills presented on both La canne videotapes (volume 1,2,3) were recently adopted by several martial arts academies in Australia as part of their self-defense nonlethal weaponry training programs. Having had the opportunity to give seminars in the Vigny walking stick method, the feedback I have received from the host instructors has been very positive and supportive. Many of them see the skills as complementing what they already know and teach.
Paladin: Now that firearms, knives, and even swords are regulated and restricted in Australia, do you think walking sticks are far behind?
CG: I really can’t imagine walking sticks generating the same kind of misunderstanding that has fueled today’s hot political climate surrounding guns, knives, and swords. History is constantly repeating itself: when attempts were made to ban dueling with swords in the 19th century, gentlemen turned to their walking canes. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we’ll see a resurgence of the walking stick, if not as a fashion accessory then possibly as a nonlethal weapon for personal protection. We may not have any other choice.
Paladin: Are you aware of any schools that offer training in la canne (or something comparable) in the United States?
CG: I believe there are several accomplished savate instructors in the United States offering tuition in the “sport”-based method of la canne.
I think that it is a mistake to compare la canne de combat and the Vigny system of la canne, but one often sees such comparisons attempted. Both systems have something to offer; it just depends on whether your priority for using the stick is for competition or self-defense.
The sport approach to la canne, like savate kickboxing, is based on specific techniques suitable for safe participation in competition. This system includes wide cutting actions in the delivery of its attacks, as well as spinning and jumping techniques. La canne de combat is a great spectator sport, and its champions are superb athletes.
The Vigny method, on the other hand, is traditionally based in self-defense, and many of its techniques are not permitted in the sport method (e.g. strikes to the weapon-bearing limb, two-handed stick work, thrusting maneuvers, the use of the free hand to capture and disarm the enemy’s weapon, the use of high guard structures from which to attack and defend.)
Paladin: Where can one obtain the type of stick used to train in Vigny la canne?
CG: I recommend purchasing the Vigny walking stick/ la canne stick from www.woodenswords.com The owner produced the cane based on some of my suggestion.
Paladin: What future plans do you have in relation to la canne and savate?
CG: I’m currently working on, several DVD projects as well as training manuals. Now that the Australian Savate Federation Inc. is up and running, our Aussie team is hard at work promoting the various disciplines of savate around the country and hope to send an Australian team overseas to compete in international savate tournaments in near future.