Jean Lafond, the Magician of Boxe Française

Thanks to Jean-Pierre LeLoup for this guest-post as a tribute to his late teacher, which has been lightly edited – with the author’s permission – for clarity.

At 26, Rue d’Enghien, in Paris, a plaque indicates that here is practiced: “Boxe Française, modern savate, stick, cane, umbrella, fencing and weight training”. With my son, I cross the porch and pass through a courtyard. We climb a well-polished wooden staircase up to the second floor, where the master of the salle is sitting behind his desk, waiting to introduce us to his school. On the left is the massage studio, and here on the right, the main training room with its impeccable parquet floor. At the rear, to the right, the weight training room is equipped with dumbbells and apparatus made by Jean Lafond himself. In the annex are the changing rooms with a shower and a sauna, also self-made. A curiosity adorns the locker rooms: old black suitcases with the names of the regulars who store their boxing gear there.

This setting might seem old-fashioned, but I would call it “traditional” because, here, Boxe Française is a matter of heritage – of lineage. Jean followed the teaching of his father Roger (who followed his own father, Eugene); together, they created and refined the “Roger and Jean Lafond Method.” It is a combat sport. Jean Lafond rejects the term “martial arts” and the title “master” exasperates him. He is an accomplished sportsman, holding a diploma in physical education. He is also a lifeguard and managed a private beach in Normandy with his father for many years.

The physical culture he teaches is far from bodybuilding because it is focused on health, flexibility and fitness, rather than the search for an imposing musculature. Several students from the physical training establishment of Professor Desbonnet, located nearby in the rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, started here when their gym was converted to offices. Their gym had been founded in 1885 by Desbonnet, often called the pioneer of physical culture in France. It had the same Parisian atmosphere of the “Belle époque”. Desbonnet’s original school at 55 Rue de Ponthieu had been the first school in France to offer training in jujutsu, dating back to 1905.

Jean deepened his knowledge by becoming a masseur. For two years, he was the assistant of Doctor De Sambucy, the originator of French osteopathy. This experience influenced his practice and his teaching as he insisted on the respect for the body and its natural possibilities.

Above: Jean Lafond and a student practice canne de combat in his family salle d’armes.

Boxe Française according to Jean Lafond

Courses consist of learning many sequences, with varied levels of contact, to lead the opponent into making errors; priority is given to kicks, usually with the front leg, delivered without retraction before striking in order to be as lively and unpredictable as possible. After a demonstration, the famous magician Gérard Majax told Jean: “We do the same thing. We use misdirection to fool people.” After that, Majax became a regular student of the salle.

Another characteristic, neglected in modern practice, is swinging back the arm when kicking for balance and aesthetics. The blows are fast and in bursts with quick, “stinging” strikes and are followed with a quick return to guard. Generally, we would follow up with an English boxing session.

After the repetition of the techniques, we move on to the attacks. We then realize that the learned sequences come automatically. It becomes an elegant fight, with constant movements and fast techniques to disrupt the opponent. Jean’s role model was the American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson whose elegant style, relaxed and in constant motion, made him a true legend and Muhammad Ali’s hero.

It was almost impossible to hit Jean, who could see every blow coming. “Don’t look where you’re going to hit, you’re giving me an indication!” Other remarks such as ” you couldn’t punch through a paper bag with that” were meant to motivate the student to move to a higher intensity.

The weapons

The main weapon is the fighting stick: a light cherry wood cane. The Lafond method uses the same principles as Boxe Française: feinting and reeling before striking in order to distract the opponent’s attention before delivering an unexpected blow to another part of his body. There is no retracting of the cane before striking, either; everything happens around the wrist, switching from the right hand to the left hand. To protect against the attacks, one puts on a helmet. The strikes come at an amazing speed and it is common to emerge with one’s chest striped by the impacts.

The training of the French grand baton (staff) is done in the same way, keeping it in constant motion by sliding it smoothly between the hands to benefit from all its possibilities.

The defensive handling of the umbrella is also taught with emphasis on hooking with the curved handle. Jean’s father, Roger, taught this method to the British actor Patrick MacNee for the famous TV series ” The Avengers”.

Combining styles for self defence

Jean, like Roger, insisted on the elegant side of their discipline, but they also created “the Panaché de combat ” that uses “dirty” moves. The feint is always the key method used to fend off malicious individuals. It is not only a question of countering attacks, but of taking and keeping the initiative in the fight when confrontation seems inevitable. In this case, words and the gestures are used to divert their attention, followed by a flurry of strikes.

The blows are mainly strikes on sensitive points (chin, plexus, liver, carotids, genitals, etc.). The heel of the palm of the hand is used a lot because many people could get hurt by striking with their fists; the “finger spike” is used because it can be felt even through a jacket, and finally the edge of the hand is not forgotten.

Counters to blows, holds and knives attacks are also worked on with simple techniques, based on natural and fast movements, and a few throws. The ground game is also studied; it is a matter of avoiding being struck when one is on the ground. Elegance is no longer the question; rather, doing everything that is possible and effective to save one’s skin is the order of the day.

The clientele of the salle

The regulars of the Lafond gym are looking for personal defense, a sport and a method of physical training at the same time. We can talk about “customers” because it is a private studio with a professional teacher. The students are numerous because the gym is open from 8 am to 10 pm with group training and private lessons. People also come for Jean’s charismatic personality – his outspokenness, humor and infectious energy. This salle has a friendly atmosphere, and everyone talks with one another. One meets professionals, waiters, neighboring shopkeepers, actors (Clovis Cornillac trained here for 3 years) and prostitutes from the nearby rue Saint Denis; all these people mix in a spirit of bonhomie. If you don’t respect this, the owner will throw you out, as happened to a famous actor who, according to Jean, “played it up” a little too much.

Jean Lafond.

A complete practitioner of combat sports and self defence

The range of disciplines taught at the Lafond hall is rich. Jean was a black belt in karate, but he did not continue in that style. He also did several “technical exchanges” with experts of this martial art who had just arrived from Japan.

He was very friendly with Robert Duranton, a famous bodybuilder and wrestler.

The combat sport that Jean recommended as a complement to his method was academic fencing, because of the work on movements with its own techniques and not “bastardized.” Traditional Judo, supple and elegant, as well as Capoeira with the quality of its kicks and movements also interested him.

Five years ago, I was shocked to learn of Jean’s death. I phoned my son who had been going with me since he was 10 years old to the gym on the rue d’Enghien. He was saddened: “It seems unreal,” he said. Jean was a part of our lives, an example, and his memory will stay with us forever.

Jean was a well-rounded person who savored the pleasures of life. He participated in car races, went on photo safaris, enjoyed gastronomy and shows. On weekends, he often retired to his Normandy home, thought he was truly a connoisseur of Paris, which he crisscrossed on his motorcycle. He only took the metro once in his life!

Jean Lafond was an inspiring character who deeply affected his students. His method is still alive and well, and I personally continue to train daily according to his precepts alone, with my son or with friends.

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