The country of Myanmar has a long history of combat centered around one of the most brutal martial arts still practiced to this day. Lethwei, or Burmese boxing, is a martial art that has been recorded back to the 2nd century BC in the Pyu city-states of present-day Myanmar. Participants would range from commoners to royalty and contests would be performed in open sandpits and go on until one was knocked out or unable to go on for any other reason. This isn’t the case in matches today where you either have a technical knockout (TKO) or a draw at the final bell as there is no point system that allows winning based on judges’ decision. This encourages fighters to put it all on the line during the fight. For fans of martial arts who are often left disappointed by fights that go to decision, Lethwei is a breath of fresh air.
The sport revolves around the use of all nine points of the body capable of performing strikes: the fists, elbows, feet, knees and the head. All bouts are performed with hand wraps and gauze as there are no gloves utilized in the sport. This prevents a lot of guarding with gloves as is done in boxing and encourages different forms of defense such as distance management and evasion of strikes. A major distinguisher of Lethwei from many other martial arts is the use of the headbutt, which completely transforms dynamics in the clinch from other forms of clinch heavy martial arts such as Muay Thai or mixed martial arts (MMA.) Being able to throw around your own skull allows a fighter to inflict damage from many new positions and forces fighters to consider a new variable which can hurt them. For anyone interested in striking heavy martial arts, Lethwei definitely offers a new perspective on what is possible from headbutts, head kicks, spinning elbows and other ways you can hit your opponent to send him to the canvas.
Lethwei matches open with a Yei, which is a ritual dance that acts as a formal challenge to the opponent as well as a show of honor and courage. It shares similarities to Muay Thai’s “Wai Kru Ram Muay,” which is practiced in the neighboring country of Thailand. The rounds are three minutes long with two-minute breaks in between, and bouts can go up to five rounds at the professional level. Matches open up with a blistering pace as one fighter seeks to best the other as fast as they can. As limbs fly, connecting on the body of either fighter, the fighters are tested in physical and mental toughness as they know they must put the other down or face a draw at the end of the rounds. At the end of the war, whether knockout or draw, both fighters will have endured the best they can and the other could inflict and will both leave the ring as warriors.
Lethwei matches as observed today are very brutal and, depending on who you are, quite entertaining, but Lethwei has not always been an openly expressed sport in Myanmar. The martial art has seen many ups and down when it comes to its practice, especially in the face of colonial rule under Japan in WWII and under the military rule of the country from 1961-2011 with an ongoing military coup going on this year. Lethwei managed to stay alive through the effort of native practitioners of the sport. Modern Lethwei was pioneered by Burmese Olympian boxer Kyar Ba Nyein, who, along with his friend U Ba Than Gyi, the head of Physical Education for the country of Burma, helped revitalize the sport in order to restore it as the national sport and make it part of the physical education system. After 1961, the new military dictatorship brought the sport down again where it was mainly practiced in rural areas and for certain holiday celebrations. Fortunately, after the prior military dictatorship ended in 2011 and the country of Myanmar opened back up to the world, Lethwei was able to find an outlet and reach many more people than it once was able to due to new communication and commercial opportunities that the country had not seen before. This allowed for Lethwei to be observed by Burmese people around the world and people completely new to the sport. Entry of foreigners into the sport has also boosted popularity in the sport with the current Lethwei open-weight world champion being French Canadian David Leduc who became the first non-Burmese to become world Lethwei champion in 2016.
Lethwei is an amazing martial art and part of Burmese history and its revival in Myanmar should be welcomed by fans of combat sports. As a fan of combat sports — and knockouts — I find Lethwei is a welcome change from MMA, boxing, and even Muay Thai in spite of its similarities. For those interested, I encourage you to take a look at and even participate in Lethwei if you can (but I’m not responsible for any injuries).