Lethwei
လက်ဝှေ့
Also known asBurmese boxing,
Burmese bareknuckle fighting,
The Art of 9 Limbs
FocusStriking
HardnessFull-contact
Country of originMyanmar
Famous practitionersList of Lethwei fighters
Sport
Highest governing bodyWorld Lethwei Federation
Characteristics
ContactFull
TypeMartial art
Presence
Country or regionWorldwide

Lethwei (Burmese: လက်ဝှေ့; IPA: [lɛʔ.ʍḛ]) or Burmese boxing is a full contact combat sport from Myanmar that uses stand-up striking including headbutts.[1] Lethwei is considered to be one of the most brutal martial arts in the world,[2] as the sport is practiced bareknuckle with only tape and gauze while fighters are allowed to strike with their fists, elbows, knees, and feet, and the use of headbutts is also permitted.[3][4] Disallowed in most combat sports, headbutts are important weapons in a Lethwei fighter's arsenal, giving Lethwei its name of the "Art of nine limbs".[5][6][7] This, combined with its bareknuckle nature, gave Lethwei a reputation for being one of the bloodiest and most violent martial arts.[8][9] Although popular throughout modern Myanmar, Lethwei has been primarily and historically associated with the Karen people of the Kayin State; vast majority of competitive Lethwei fighters are ethnolinguistically of Karen descent.[10][11][4]

History

Late 19th century Lethwei match in Myanmar. The fighters on the left bears a Htoe Kwin tattoos and hitched up longyi (paso hkadaung kyaik).
Watercolour painting from 1897 depicting a 19th century boxing match. All fighters wear longyi and Htoe Kwin tattoos.

The traditional martial arts of Myanmar are regrouped under a term called "thaing", which includes bando, banshay, naban, shan gyi and Lethwei. According to researchers, thaing can be traced in its earliest form to the 12th century of the Pagan Kingdom dynasty.[12]

In Bagan, it exists some carvings on temples and pagodas in the central Myanmar plains, which appear to show pairs of men locked in combat, suggesting the sport is over a 1,000 years old.[13]

In ancient times, matches were held for entertainment and were popular with every stratum of society. Participation was opened to any male, whether noble or commoner. At that time, matches took place in sand pits instead of rings.[14] Boxers fought without protective equipment, only wrapping their hands in hemp or gauze. There were no draws; the fight went on until one of the participants was knocked out or could no longer continue. Back then, Burmese boxing champions would enter the ring and call for open challenges.[15]

Lethwei went through many years of suppression during the British colonial rule of Burma. The sport was revived under General Ne Win's nationalistic government.[16] Unlike Muay Thai, in Lethwei, punches are generally favoured over kicks because of their ability to draw blood more easily.[17] Traditional matches include the Flagship Tournament, which are still fought throughout Myanmar, especially during holidays or celebration festivals like Thingyan.[18][19] In rural areas, having a skilled child fighter has been a way of escaping poverty.[20]

The New Era

In modern times, the sport is kept alive in Lower Burma in Mon State and Karen State where matches are held for events such as New Year's celebrations.[21]

Kyar Ba Nyein, who participated in boxing at the 1952 Summer Olympics, pioneered modern Lethwei by setting in place modern rules and regulations.[22] He travelled around Myanmar, especially the Mon and Karen states, where Lethwei is more actively practiced. After training with some of the fighters, Kyar Ba Nyein brought some to Mandalay and Yangon to compete in matches.[23]

In 1996, the Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation (MTLF), a branch of the Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports, added the modern Lethwei rules for the occasion of the Golden Belt Championship in Yangon.[24][25][26] The bouts, along with the undercard fights, were organized by the Ministry of Sport, Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation and KSM group. This marked a big addition to the art of Lethwei and potentially would make Burmese boxing more marketable internationally.[27]

On 18 July 2015, ONE Championship held the first Lethwei fight its history inside a cage at the occasion of ONE Championship: Kingdom of Warriors in Yangon, Myanmar.[28] The fight showcased Burmese fighters Phyan Thway and Soe Htet Oo in a dark match and the result was a draw according to the traditional Lethwei rules.[29]

In 2017, ONE Championship and World Lethwei Championship officially entered into a partnership to share athletes to fight in each other's organization.[30][31] On June 30, 2017, ONE Championship held a Lethwei match at ONE Championship: Light of a Nation between Thway Thit Win Hlaing and Soe Htet Oo. Thway Thit Win Hlaing would end up winning a decision according to WLC point system.[32]

In 2016, Myanmar's first international Lethwei promotion called World Lethwei Championship (WLC) launched its events using the tournament Lethwei rules.[33][34]

In 2019, the WLC marked history by broadcasting WLC 7: Mighty Warriors, the first Lethwei event, internationally live on UFC Fight Pass.[35]

A Lethwei match

Opening to the world

From 7 to 12 July 2001, twelve years after Burma changed its name to Myanmar, the first international event took place in Yangon with professional fighters from the United States facing Burmese fighters under full traditional Lethwei rules. The delegation of three American fighters brought by the IKF were Shannon Ritch, Albert Ramirez and Doug Evans. Ritch faced Ei Htee Kaw, Ramirez faced Saw Thei Myo, and Evans faced openweight Lethwei champion Wan Chai. All three Americans lost to the Burmese. A revenge match with American and European fighters was cancelled the last minute by Lethwei promoters and the military in 2002.

From 10 to 11 July 2004, the second event headlining foreigners took place with four Japanese fighters fighting against Burmese fighters. They were mixed martial arts fighters Akitoshi Tamura, Yoshitaro Niimi, Takeharu Yamamoto and Naruji Wakasugi. Tamura knocked out Aya Bo Sein in the second round and became the first foreigner to beat a Myanmar Lethwei practitioner in an official match. International matches continued with the exciting Cyrus Washington vs. Tun Tun Min trilogy.

In 2016, after having previously fought to an explosive draw, Dave Leduc and Tun Tun Min rematched at the Air KBZ Aung Lan Championship in Yangon, Myanmar. The rematch was sweetened by an added bonus: ownership of the Lethwei Openweight World Championship Belt.[36] Leduc became the first non-Burmese fighter to win the Lethwei Golden Belt and become Lethwei world champion after defeating Tun Tun Min in the third round.[37][38]

Following his title defence, Leduc said in an interview, "I have so much vision for this sport. I see Lethwei doing the same for Myanmar as what Muay Thai has done for Thailand."[39]

On 18 April 2017, for his second title defense under traditional rules,[40] Dave Leduc faced Turkish Australian challenger Adem Yilmaz at Lethwei in Japan 3: Grit in Tokyo, Japan.[41][39] This marked the first Lethwei World title fight headlining two non-Burmese in the sport's history and for the occasion, the Ambassador of Myanmar to Japan was present at the event held in the Korakuen Hall.[42]

Sanctioning worldwide

Due to the violent ruleset, Lethwei is difficult to sanction and is illegal in most countries outside of Myanmar.[43] Even though headbutts are allowed in Lethwei, they are banned from most other combat sports including mixed martial arts, kickboxing, and Muay Thai.[44] As of 2022, Myanmar Lethwei is only legal in the following countries: Myanmar, Japan, Singapore, Slovakia, Austria, Thailand, Taiwan, England, United States (only the state of Wyoming), New Zealand and Poland.[45][46] The World Lethwei Federation has the responsibility to sanction and support the growth of Lethwei worldwide outside of Myanmar.[47]

In popular culture

Main article: Lethwei in popular culture

Lethwei has been featured in variety of popular culture and mass media, including written works, live-action film and television and animation in Myanmar and occasionally abroad. In 2016, the sport gained worldwide attention after Dave Leduc, a Canadian challenger defeated Tun Tun Min, a Burmese Golden Belt champion.[48] The same year, Born Warriors released a series of documentaries shot throughout Myanmar. In 2018, Frank Grillo travelled to Myanmar and featured Lethwei in the Netflix documentary FightWorld.[49] In 2019, Lethwei was featured in The Joe Rogan Experience podcast by Joe Rogan with Leduc as guest.[50][51] The sport has also been featured in the popular Japanese manga series Kengan Ashura.[52] In the series, the Burmese Lethwei master named Saw Paing, is so indestructible that an opponent shatters every bone in their hand trying to punch him.[53]

Traditional gesture

Lekkha moun

The lekkha moun is the traditional gesture performed by Lethwei fighters to challenge their opponents with courage and respect. The lekkha moun is done by clapping 3 times with right palm to the triangle shaped hole formed while bending the left arm. The clapping hand must be in form of a cup, while the left hand must be placed under the right armpit. The lekkha moun is done at the beginning of the Lethwei yay and can also be done while fighting.

Illustration of the lekkha moun

This invitation to fight is inspired from the birds of prey, like the eagle, as they flap their wings when flying and hunting.

Lethwei yay

The Lethwei yay could be described as a fight dance. It is performed before the fight as a way to showcase the fighter's skills and as a victory dance after the fight. The lekkha moun is usually confused with the lethwei yay, but the lekkha moun is done along with the Lethwei yay.[54]

Before modernisation, especially in colonial times, the pre-fight dance was more commonly referred to as han yay (ဟန်ရေး). Performed in accordance with the tempo of the traditional orchestra (ဆိုင်း), it incorporated a much more elaborate dance and show of skills. Boastful poetry was sometimes recited along with the dance.[55]

Rules

Bloody Lethwei hand wraps

Permitted techniques

The use of the feet, hands, knees, elbows and head is permitted.

Rounds

Each bout can be booked as a 3, 4 or 5 round fight with 3 minutes per round and a 2-minute break in between rounds. Championship bouts are 5 round fights with 3 minutes per round and a 2-minute break between rounds.

Fighting attire

The Burmese bareknuckle boxing rules prohibits the use of gloves.

The fighters are required to apply the wrapping in front of the fight officials, who will endorse the wraps.

Referee

One referee oversees the fight. The referee has the power to:

Traditional rules

The traditional rules, also known as yoe yar rules, which comes from the Burmese Myanma yoe yar Latway, which means Myanmar traditional boxing.[56] Traditional matches are still fought throughout Myanmar, especially during festivals or celebrations like Thingyan.[18] Traditional Lethwei is notorious for not having a scoring system and for its controversial rule of knock-out only to win.

At the end of the match, in the eventuality that there is no knockout or stoppage, if the two fighters are still standing, even if one fighter dominated the fight, the match is declared a draw. Fighters can win by incapacitating their rivals in a few different ways.

Promotions that use traditional rules

Special time-out

Golden Belt

Not to be confused with the annual Golden Belt Championship, composed mostly of younger rising talent and using the tournament rules point system,[24][26] the traditional Lethwei Golden Belt is regarded as the highest and most prestigious award for Lethwei fighters.[59][60] There is only one Golden Belt champion for each weight categories, with the openweight class champion being considered the strongest fighter in Myanmar.[61] The openweight Golden Belt champion is the equivalent of being pound-for-pound champion in the world of Lethwei.[62]

Win Zin Oo, Lethwei coach and gym owner explains:

If you win the golden belt you are the national champion, there is only one champion in each division, but there is also an openweight champion who is considered to be the best fighter in Myanmar.[63]

Tournament rules

In 1996, the Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation created the tournament ruleset for the inaugural Golden Belt Championship tournament.[56] The two-minute injury timeout was removed and judges were added ringside to determine a winner in the event there was no knockout. This modified ruleset prevents the outcome of a draw and helped choose a winner to advance in the tournament. Myanmar's first international promotion, the World Lethwei Championship, opted for this ruleset in order to follow international safety regulations and have clear winners.[26]

Judging criteria

The knockout is still highly desired under this ruleset, but in the event that a bout goes the distance, judges will present a decision. The 3 judges should score the bout based on:

Fighters have a maximum of 3 knockdowns per round and 4 knockdowns in the entire fight before the fight is ruled a knockout.

Techniques

Aside from punches, kicks, elbows and knee attacks, Burmese fighters also make use of head-butts, raking knuckle strikes and take downs.

Headbutt (Gowl Tite)

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Thrusting/Forward Headbutt ထိုးခေါင်းတိုက် Htoe Gowl Tite
Upward Headbutt ခေါင်းပင့်တိုက် Gowl Pint Tite
Side Headbutt ခေါင်းရိုက် Gowl yite
Clinching Headbutt ချုပ်ခေါင်းရိုက် Choke Gowl Yite
Flying/Diving Headbutt ခုန်ခေါင်းတိုက် Khnoe Gowl Tite
Rushing Headbutt ခေါင်းဆောင့်တိုက် Gowl Sount Tite
Downward Headbutt ခေါင်းစိုက်တိုက် Gowl Site Tite

Punching (Let Thee)

Lethwei fighters landing a punch
English Burmese Romanization IPA
Jab ထောက်လက်သီး Htouk Let Thee
Cross ဖြောင့်လက်သီး Fyount Let Thee
Uppercut ပင့်လက်သီး Pint Let Thee
Hook ဝိုက်လက်သီး Wide Let Thee
Overhand (boxing) စိုက်လက်သီး Site Let Thee
Backfist တွက်လက်သီး Twet Let Thee
Spinning Backfist လက်ပြန်ရိုက် Let Pyan Yite
Hammer fist ပင့်လက်သီး Pint Let Thee
Superman punch လက်သီးပျံ / ခုန်ထိုး လက်သီး Let Thee Pyan / Khone Htoe Let Thee

Elbow (Tel Daung)

The elbow can be used in several ways as a striking weapon: horizontal, diagonal-upwards, diagonal-downwards, uppercut, downward, backward-spinning and flying. They can be used as either a finishing move or as a way to cut the opponent's eyebrow to draw blood.

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Horizontal Elbow ဝိုက်တံတောင် Wide Tel Daung
Upward Elbow ပင့်တံတောင် Pint Tel Daung
Downward Elbow ထောင်းတံတောင် Htoung Tel Daung
Jumping Downward Elbow တံတောင် ခုန်ထောင်း Tel Daung Khone Htoung
Elbow Thrust ထိုးတံတောင် Htoe Tel Daung
Reverse Horizontal Elbow တွက်တံတောင် Twet Tel Daung
Flying Elbow တံတောင်ပျံ Tel Daung Pyan
Spinning Elbow ပတ်တံတောင် / ခါးလှည့်တံတောင် Pat Tel Daung / Khar Hlet Tel Daung

Elbows can be used to great effect as blocks or defenses against, for example, spring knees, side body knees, body kicks or punches. When well connected, an elbow strike can cause serious damage to the opponent, including cuts or even a knockout.

Kicking (Kan)

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Roundhouse Kick ခြေဝိုက်ကန် / ဝိုက်ခတ် Chay Wide Kan / Wide Khat
Spinning back Kick နောက်ပေါက်ကန် Nout Pouk Kan
Outside low kick အပြင်ခတ် Al Pyin Khat
Inside low kick အတွင်းခတ် Al Twin Khat
Hook kick ချိတ်ကန် Chate Kan
Side kick ခြေစောင်းကန် Chay zoung Kan
Axe Kick ခုတ်ကန် / ပုဆိန်ပေါက်ကန် Khote Kan / Pal Sain Pouk Kan
Jump round Kick ခုန်ဝိုက်ခတ် Khone Wide Kan
Step-Up Kick ပေါင်နင်းကန် Pound Nin Kan

Knee (Doo)

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Straight Knee Strike တဲ့ထိုးဒူး Delt Htoe Doo
Spear Knee လှံစိုက်ဒူ Hlan Site Doo
Side Knee Strike ဝိုက်ဒူး Wide Doo
Upward Knee ပင့်ဒူး Pint Doo
Downward Knee ခုတ်ဒူး Khote Doo
Knee Slap ရိုက်ဒူး Yite Doo
Double Flying Knee / Elephant Tusks flying Knee စုံဒူးပျံ / ဆင်စွယ်ဒူးပျံ Sone Doo Pyan / Sin Swal Doo Pyan
Jumping Knee ခုန်ဒူး Khone Doo
Step-Up Knee Strike ပေါင်နင်းဒူး Pound Nin Doo

Foot-thrust

The foot-thrust is one of the techniques in Lethwei. It is used as a defensive technique to control distance or block attacks and as a way to set up attack. Foot-thrusts should be thrown quickly but with enough force to knock an opponent off balance.

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Push Kick နင်းခြေ / တားခြေ Nin Chay / Tar Chay
Toe Push Kick ခြေဦးထိုးကန် Chay Oo Htoe Kan
Jumping Push Kick ခုန်ဆောင့်ကန် Khone Sount Kan

Note - The Myanglish spelling and phonetics based spelling are two different things. The words used are phonetics based words which are more friendly and easy to pronounce for non-Myanmar speaking people. The phonetics wording is provided by Liger Paing from United Myanmar Bando Nation.

Weight classes

Weight class name Upper limit Gender
in pounds (lb) in kilograms (kg) in stone (st)
Light flyweight 105 48 7.6 Female
Flyweight 112 51 8 Male / female
Bantamweight 119 54 8.5 Male / female
Featherweight 126 57 9 Male / female
Lightweight 132 60 9.5 Male / female
Light welterweight 140 63.5 10 Male / female
Welterweight 148 67 10.5 Male
Light middleweight 157 71 11.1 Male
Middleweight 165 75 11.8 Male
Super middleweight 174 79 12.4 Male
Cruiserweight 183 83 13 Male

Notable practitioners

For practitioners of Lethwei, see List of Lethwei fighters.

See also

References

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Further reading