Burmese Lethwei – The Art of 9 Limbs
While Muay Thai is famous all over the world, Lethwei from Thailand’s neighbor Myanmar has remained a sport known only to a few outside of the once reclusive state. As the country has increasingly opened up to the world, Burmese Lethwei, an older fighting art than that practiced by the Thais has begun to take its place in the combat sports arena. With the world-class One Championship, Asia’s premier MMA promotion, taking an interest in the sport and starting to promote shows, it is only a matter of time before Lethwei gains a more mainstream following.
Burmese Lethwei differs from the boxing systems of its neighboring countries, in several ways. Muay Thai, Pradal Serey/Kun Khmer and Muay Lai Lao are all very similar to each other, employing knees, elbows, kicks and punches. Lethwei adds a couple more elements to the equation, namely headbutts, almost any kind of takedown and bare knuckles. The fights can only be won by KO or TKO, if they go the distance, they are declared a draw and if the fighters do not show enough aggression, the fight is stopped. There are no weight classes, no scoring system and no judges. This has led some outsiders to see it as overly brutal and even barbaric, but Burmese Lethwei is a complete standup fighting system that deserves respect.
History and Culture
Burmese Lethwei developed from battlefield arts, much like Muay Thai developed from Muay Boran. Lethwei, however, is around a thousand years old, making it older than the Thai system. During times of peace, Lethwei was used as entertainment and was a major part of village and pagoda festivals. Local boys and men still compete in sandy pits in front of the village in order to show their manliness and win money. Lethwei is loved by all the people of Myanmar, not just the majority Bamar people. The Shan, Karen and Kachin ethnic groups have produced several famous fighters over the years. They feel it represents Myanmar’s culture. It is something that has been passed down by generations of ancestors. From the village pit, to the boxing ring, Burmese Lethwei holds the standards of fighting spirit and sportsmanship in the highest esteem. The traditions remain with the sport and before each fight, the boxers perform a dance called the Lethwei Yay and then salute the other fighter with the Lekkha Moun. Symbolic of the Lethwei spirit, the Lekkha Moun involves bending one arm up to the chest and the slapping it near the elbow three times, to tell the other fighter to come and fight. For more detailed history, Phil Dunlap of Advanced Fighting Systems has written in depth on the subject.
People think that there are no rules in Lethwei, but that is not the case. A fight is normally 5 3-minute rounds. Fighters must wear groin guards and moth guards and are allowed to bandage the hands. There can be two cornermen in the ring and one outside. The referee will stop a fight if one fighter is significantly outclassing the other, if cuts and injuries mean a fighter should not continue, or if there is an infraction of the rules. A KO is called after a 10-count that lasts 20 seconds. If a fighter receives 3 8-counts in a single round, a KO is declared. If there are 4 counts in total over the course of the fight, a KO is declared. If there is no KO by the end of the fight, it is a draw. If a fighter is knocked out cold, his corner have an opportunity to call a one-off time out to try and revive him and let the fight continue. The following are prohibited: biting, eye-gouging, spitting, cursing, strangling, intentional groin shots, scratching and attacking an opponent on the ground.
Lethwei has traditionally been practiced only by Myanmar people, with Thais occasionally fighting on the border under Lethwei rules in Myanmar-Thailand grudge matches. In recent years though, foreigners have started to infiltrate the highest levels of the sport. Legendary fighters like Lone Chaw and Tway Ma Shaung now influence the current crop of Burmese fighters like Too Too, Soe Lin Oo, Shan Ko, Tun Tun Min and Tha Pyay Nyo. These top-level fighters go up against foreigners for titles and the Alan Lu Pwe, or champion’s flag. The most famous foreign fighter at the moment is Dave “The Nomad” Leduc from Canada. Leduc, The current world champion, is winning titles by beating the best from Myanmar and the rest of the world. Increasingly, foreign fighters based in Thailand are going across the border to compete in Lethwei tournaments in Yangon and Mandalay.
Outside of Myanmar, Burmese Lethwei tournaments are not very common, but Japan has become a beacon of competitive Lethwei outside of its homeland. This has led to there being several great Japanese boxers like Hikaru Hasumi and Daiki Kaneko taking on fighters from Myanmar and foreigners based in Thailand.
With combat sports gaining popularity all over the world, Burmese Lethwei is destined to grow from strength to strength. It is one of the most exciting boxing spectacles around and the time is right for Lethwei to explode onto the world scene.