Ricky Lew, 19, occasionally gets an urge to kick somebody in the head after watching a campy kung fu movie.
And on occasion, Lew lands such a blow without breaking the law.
Lew isn’t a budding Bruce Lee mimic. But thanks to the efforts of three teachers at the recently opened Lomita Fighting and Fitness Academy, he is the first 151-pound American champion in a sport called savate.
The sport bears little resemblance to most martial arts. Opponents don’t bow, nor are they engaged in a spiritual exercise. Savate, which combines standard boxing techniques and easily learned kicks, became famous in France, where about 30,000 people participate.
It’s also known as French kick-boxing.
The three teachers, Steve Crane, Barry Jahn and Matt Diagostine, operated a makeshift savate academy out of Crane’s garage for about a year before renting a vacant shop on Narbonne Avenue in Lomita. Now their academy is home to Lew and about 15 other students of savate and more traditional martial arts.
By January, the teachers expect their academy to obtain official West Coast representation for the soon-to-be-created American Savate Federation. Crane also expects the academy to assist the French national savate team in bringing the second annual American Savate Championships to the South Bay next May.
Six months of training under Crane, Jahn and Diagostine, who opened the academy in September, helped Lew deliver a brain-numbing knockout kick in the finals of the last month’s first American championships in Chicago. He flew home with a red, white and blue championship belt.
Lew describes himself as the kind of guy who sees “Rambo” and immediately wants to join the Marines. So it seems appropriate that he likened his knockout boot to “something out of a ‘Rocky’ movie.”
“I threw the kick with everything I had, but it was weird,” he said. “If you hit a golf ball just right, you don’t feel it, and that’s how it felt. I shocked myself. I hit him in the jaw, and my toe hit right below the ear. He dropped his gloves and fell like a tree.”
Lew bought a drink for his dazed opponent later that evening. He felt particularly generous, considering he had won a championship in only the third true bout of his career.
Most fighters who use the Lomita academy aren’t as fortunate--and would rather not be. Though savate is a highly competitive amateur sport that might obtain demonstration status in the next Olympic Games, they prefer just to study its forms. Though many train to learn effective self-defense techniques, they work out mostly to stay in shape and have fun.
Which makes sense, according to Crane, because participants can learn savate easily while involving themselves in both an aerobic and a competitive activity.
“Americans can adapt much easier to savate than they can to, say, karate or kung fu,” said Crane, an executive vice president of a local petroleum technology company who took a leave of absence to help Jahn and Diagostine open the academy.
“Savate just seems to flow with every young boy who at one time in his life puts on little boxing gloves in his front yard with his friends and they have at it. It’s just a lot more natural than doing the foreign movements of an Eastern art. We find people can really progress quickly, and Americans like to progress quickly.”
Dave Barlow, a savate student of 8 months, says he craves the sport as much as basketball, which he plays competitively in Torrance leagues.
“Savate is a different sort of exercise,” said Barlow, 26, who builds hardwood staircases for a living. “It is similar to basketball in the sense that you are always learning new moves.
“In basketball, once you can dribble and not look, you can learn how to make plays. And in savate, once you know to kick and punch, you can learn how to put them together.”
Barlow has not tried to earn a glove, or rank, in savate. Securing a rank requires participation in a time-consuming seminar run by French experts, and Barlow didn’t have time. Jahn and Diagostine have silver gloves, the rough equivalent of black belts in karate. Crane is just below them with a yellow glove.
“I would like to try for a glove, but not because it is an ego trip for me,” Barlow said.
Eric Gray, 26, agrees. A draftsman in El Segundo by day, Gray trains twice a week for 2 hours. “I’m not really into competing,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to just fight, but I do savate mostly for exercise.”
Lew asks more of the sport. “I’d like to take savate as far as I can,” he said. “I’d like to go to France and become a top dog.”
Should Lew train in France and improve his ranking, he could eventually run lucrative seminars in the United States, a plan one of his teachers will put in motion next month.
Diagostine, who has been kicking and punching for almost 2 years, will move to France in November “to train with the masters,” he said. He hopes eventually to earn a living in savate.
The 23-year-old graduate of Torrance High School says he has devoted his life to the sport.
“That sounds pretty goofy,” he added, “but I’m (at the academy) about 5 hours a day, and I love it.”
Crane, 29, and Jahn, 30, are equally enthusiastic but don’t expect to get rich from French kick-boxing.
Crane said: “I couldn’t give up my job.” And Jahn, who started a family at 16 and spends most of his time constructing floors, said: “I would love to be able to give up flooring and devote my life to savate. If it paid my bills, I definitely would.”
Eight years ago Jahn was looking for a martial art he could really enjoy. As a kid, he had earned a green belt in karate and studied other arts, but never found one that captivated him. Then he found savate, started training with an instructor in Torrance and hasn’t studied anything else since.
“I’ve been addicted,” he admitted.
A savate fighter, Jahn said, plays a chess game. “You have so many different moves and combinations that you have to find out how your opponent is going to react to them and then find out what you are going to do after that,” he said. “You think about your strategy while you are doing it, but you make it up along the way.”
Jahn, Crane and Diagostine received accreditation for their academy in 1987 by demonstrating their fighting techniques at the first savate seminar held by the French national team in this country and organized by Prof. Salem Assli, who teaches savate and other martial arts in Marina Del Rey.
Assli came to the United States 5 years ago to promote savate. Six schools around the country now teach the sport and about 1,000 people participate, he said. Assli is the owner of a second-degree silver glove (Jahn and Diagostine hold first-degree gloves). He said a third-degree glove, the highest rank, is difficult to obtain because it requires judging from third-degree fighters, of whom only five exist worldwide.
On the promotional front, Assli says he is making progress, judging from the savate cover story in the November issue of Black Belt magazine. He also says the Lomita academy will popularize the sport.
“When I came to the United States,” Assli said, “people didn’t know what savate was. I have been advertising and writing articles about it, and what Matt, Barry and Steve are doing is absolutely great. They are still apprentices, but if they keep learning and working, I think the school should work.”
Assli makes it clear that the quality of the recent American championships was poor compared to similar events in France. Next year he expects to assist in organizing the championships, “and I hope the technique level will be superior,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it will be.”
If so, Diagostine and Crane will have to improve. They came home with runner-up medals, but savate, which requires the landing of graceful blows to score points, betrayed them in Chicago to an extent. Professional kick-boxers in superb condition with greater ring knowledge outmatched them.
“That was hard,” said Crane. “Savate is a pretty sport when it is done right, but the guys we fought ran into the ring with ‘kill’ in their minds. Now we will know what to train for next year.”
With the help of South Bay Promotions, Crane is attempting to bring competitive savate to what used to be the Aviation High School auditorium and is now the Aviation Center in Redondo Beach. He said many pro boxers, who often are featured at the Aviation Center, have shown an interest in learning savate.
Instructor Barry Jahn, above, leads a class in a ballet-like kicking exercise at the Lomita Fighting and Fitness Academy. Instructor Steve Crane, left, blocks a kick by Dave Barlow, who has studied savate for 8 months. The academy, which opened in September, hopes to play a role in bringing the second annual American Savate Championships to the South Bay next May.