The Life of a Savate Boxe Francaise martial artist

The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.

– Bruce Lee

Salem Assli CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2010 I found Salem Assli’s books about Savate and JKD and have been interested in his teachings ever since. While studying Salem and his teachings I have been interested in his biography and how he has become who he is. Salem Assli’s mother is from Northern France, her father was Belgian (Flemish), his father was from North Africa, Algeria. His father came to France when he was 16 years old; he had to change the age in his documents, so it stated that he is two years older than he actually was, to enter French territory. While working in textiles in France, he met Salem’s mother. His father later led a team in a plastic manufacturing factory and his mother took care of four kids at home. As a young teenager, Salem Assli was a gymnast and was first in a competition among 80 participants in Northern France. With his best friend in Lille, he was practicing his kicking style in the basement of the newly constructed apartments, after watching Bruce Lee’s movies countless times. So later on while living in Paris, Salem was naturally very good in Taekwondo, having practiced it for only a couple of months in a club. The Head of the Taekwondo Association in France was master Lee Kwan Young, who at the time was a 6th degree Black Belt. There was an interesting situation, as Salem was not a student of Lee Kwan Young and had no plans to move to the US for good. His goal was to visit the USA and study with Guro Dan Inosanto as long as he could, then come back to France and teach the art. 

His goal was to become a teacher in physical education or gymnastics. But once he became more involved in martial arts, the decision was made to teach martial arts. A friend of his told him that if he were going to come back to France and teach Jeet Kune Do (which only a few even knew what that was then), it would have been better to have a Black Belt in some system, or to have a Silver Glove in French boxing. Salem thought that he might also get his Black Belt before he leaves for the US, so he can be a teacher without having to go through all of the formalities and have to learn a traditional style when he comes back. His friend invited him to a Taekwondo class and he got his blue belt in 1-2 weeks. When it was time to go through an examination for a red belt (before the black belt), he gave his A performance in front of the Grand Master and other students. Lee Kwan Young ask the club’s teacher Didier Aubry: 

– Who is this kid?
– Salem
– How many years has he been practicing Taekwondo? 
– Two months answered Aubry with a smile. 

Afterwards the  Grand Master had a private conversation with Salem and told him that his technique is beautiful, he is fast and precise. Still, if he is given a red belt now, not everybody around will understand; they will view this as unfair as Salem had only been training for two months. The Grandmaster said that he will keep Salem on the same level till the subsequent examination, but that on the next one, he would be given the red belt, which would have been followed by a black belt later on, but Salem didn’t continue. He soon left for America and never got a red belt, despite his talent, though today he teaches many Taekwondo and Karate black belt students. 

Salem Assli CC BY-SA 4.0

After Salem came to the US to study under Bruce Lee’s student—Professor Dan Inosanto, he demonstrated his skills and Dan Inosanto advised him to learn and teach Savate and popularize the martial art of his homeland. Salem’s teacher also noted that his footwork was exceptional and his technique was graceful. Interestingly, Salem mastered Savate on his own. His journey started with a book, “Boxe Francaise history and tradition” written by Bernard Plaisait (Student of CountPierre Baruzy, Golden Glove of French Boxing, two times French champion). Back in the years, art was not called Savate, but today it is not called Boxe Francaise anymore; it is formally titled as Savate Boxe Francaise). Bernard Plaisait’s book was an analytical work, with many photos that demonstrated technique step by step. Salem notes that “At the beginning, my fighting ability in Savate was not very good. First, I had to learn moves and forms, but after I went to France and I sparred with holders of Silver Gloves and teachers with years of experience, this allowed me to learn quickly. I used JKD mobility and I had the French footwork ability—and after all those years, I became quite proficient and as people say, “technically flawless.” 

He continued his research of Savate and thoroughly studied the history, including into very traditional, old-style Savate. When he returned to France to pass exams, people around were surprised at his technique but also at his forms as it was not practiced anymore. Nevertheless, Assli finished first in the examination for the silver glove, and first equal in the instructor program among nearly 50 students. 

Today, at the Inosanto Academy, Salem Assli became the first Frenchman to be certified as a Senior Full Instructor in Jun Fan Gung Fu Jeet Kune Do and the Filipino martial arts under Dan Inosanto. At the Inosanto Academy, Salem trained with the son of Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, and Salem was chosen to be the Thai boxing second-round Thai pads holder during Brandon’s examination. In the early years, Salem also taught Hollywood actor Fred Ward for one year. He also trained with Bud Thompson and “Ted” Lucaylucay Jr.

As a writer, Salem has authored two books and is working on his next two books, which are about Savate and Filipino martial arts history. His very first book, “French Savate,” is a compilation of all of his articles on the topics. The first edition of the book came out 20 years ago, and the only 500 copies printed, were sold right away. Meanwhile, in France, there was a demand for a book about Jeet Kune Do in the French language, and since he had already researched the topic, he was able to author the book in six months; it was released in 2002 under the title “Jeet Kune Do Bruce Lee’s Fighting Techniques.” Several editions of this book were printed and the book became a reference and a working tool for many students and instructors in France. 

Salem has also shared information about the book he is currently writing: “I am very proud of what is going to come soon. The book is dedicated to French martial arts. There were many books about Savate, mainly technical ones and recently I saw a book on the history of Savate. But the book I am writing is much more extensive as I have been researching for nearly 30 years for this book. I accumulated a lot of documents and spent a lot of money to get most of them. So far, there are 700 pages; we plan on having two volumes of the book: the first volume would be dedicated to history and the second to technique. I wanted to create something different from anything that has ever been written.”

When Salem was in Paris, he met a historian on French martial arts, Sylvain Salvini, before he passed away. He met him several times and was invited to his house. Sylvain Salvini who was a former President of the International Savate Boxe Française Federation and a Golden Glove told Salem that many people author books, but they have nothing to back them up. He recommended that Salem gather as many documents as possible to back up his ideas, and even provided him with some old photos. His fourth book will be dedicated to Filipino martial arts and it will come out after the book about Savate. He thinks that these books should have been published 15-20 years ago, but because he started traveling worldwide to teach seminars, it was challenging to constantly travel the world over and write simultaneously.

Many people know Salem Assli as a martial arts master, but few know about the other sides of his personality and interests. A close friend and certified instructor of Salem Assli, Nick Cavallino (founder of the Allied Martial Arts Academy Detroit, Michigan) described him as “Graceful, funny and honest”.

Bruce Lee is not the only role model that influenced him. He is keenly interested in French poets and deeply admires the French poet singer Georges Brassens whose songs written with such fluidity speak as well of love, women, friendship, as of his positions against the death penalty, the institution of marriage, clergymen, fanaticism, the stupidity of wars and more. “I am in awe when I listen to him singing,”—comments Salem. Other figures that have influenced his values are Jean Ferrat, Jacques Brel, Bob Marley and Raël.

by Timothy Galvan