The year is 2011 and it’s summertime in Ottawa. Friday night rolls around, so what better way to celebrate than to head downtown into ByWard Market, the city’s bustling nightlife hub.
This is pre-Uber Canada, so taxis are the MO. Then again, maybe you want to travel in style.
Rummaging in the seldom-visited back-portion of your wallet where only the most ‘crucial’ cards live, you find it – Dave Leduc’s Limousine and Club Service.
Pulling up to Sotto Club, the door into the warm Quebec night is opened by a tall, athletic guy with a shaved head and a beaming wide grin. He introduces himself as Dave, shows you to the area you reserved hours earlier and leaves you to enjoy the night. Periodically he returns; ensuring you’re well fed and watered, shooting the s*** before, hours later, escorting you to your awaiting limousine for the journey home.
As you get in, Dave reminds you that you have his card, to call for another good time at the club somewhere down the line.
A few weeks later you call again, but the phone number is no longer active.
Dave has moved on.
Almost eight years later, Dave is a national hero in Myanmar, and his televised wedding ceremony is watched by some 30 million people.
In Burmese, he is known as ‘ဒေဝ’ or Dawa (pronounced day-wah). It’s a name that was given to him by his adopted countrymen of Myanmar, and translates as either ‘Angel of Death’ or ‘Protector.’ Neither of these connotations are negative, far from it.
They both hail to Leduc’s status as the greatest Lethwei fighter on the planet.
A quick google of ‘Lethwei’ yields startling images. Bloodied men squared up in a ring, devoid of protection save a swaddling of dark-stained cloth wrapped around each hand.
Clearly, it’s fighting, but to what degree? The nth would be the answer. It’s known as ‘The Art of Nine Limbs’; two fists, two elbows, two knees, two feet, one head.
After dominating the sport over the last three years, The Canadian will this week don his guise as Myanmar’s most revered athlete and attempt to steer Lethwei firmly into the global sports marketplace, a feat he’s been building towards since the age of 17.
Leduc’s career today is a far cry from leafy suburban Ottawa; his birthplace and home until the age of 21. Unlike many of those choosing to fight for a living, Leduc enjoyed the comforts of the middle class. In fact, it was these comforts and the lengths he would go to escape them, that put him where he is today.
“I was always the black sheep, I guess,” he laughs. “I wasn’t happy with the life I was living in Canada. I wanted more traveling, I wanted to meet new people. It was a dead-end for me.”
The glitz of working as a host and manager at Sotto Club, one of Ottawa’s trendiest bars, had worn off and at the dawning of his twenties, Leduc had an itch he really needed to scratch – but legally couldn’t.
Competing in striking sports (outside of MMA) was illegal in Canada and despite training since the age of 17 in a wide variety of them, Leduc had reached an impasse.
“I knew I wanted to fight, but because of where I was, I couldn’t,” he says. “I like the expression, in life you don’t ‘half-ass’ things. So I thought; I want to fight, why not do the most brutal sport in the world?”
Aged 19, Leduc was asked to leave his parents’ home – he was suffocating under the routine and comfort of it all. Life, that is and tensions were boiling over.
Ottawa’s Patenaude Martial Arts Academy took him in, and head coach Sifu Patrick Marcil quickly became a mentor. Under his guidance, Leduc found a love for martial arts and a fascination with their cultural bedrocks.
Standing highest in his estimations, however, was Lethwei – a sport as violent as it is alien – practiced almost solely 9000 miles away in the distant land of Myanmar.
But if Canada was the rock, Myanmar was the hard place. Then British-occupied Burma, Myanmar was heavily militarized and offered no easy way in for foreigners wishing to travel, much less settle there. So Leduc opted for its nearby cousin from which to launch the pursuit of his pugilism.
“I left everything,” He says.
“It wasn’t possible for me to go to Myanmar and make money fighting at that time. My friends were already going out to Tiger Muay Thai (TMT) so there were a lot of bodies there for me to punch people. I went there to get ring experience, but my ultimate goal was always to cross over to Myanmar”.
Today, Leduc is one of Myanmar’s pride and joys. The depth of his integration into the nation’s cultural fabric isn’t just unique, it’s almost unprecedented.
Myanmar proudly showcases him; their people’s champion, and he returns the favour.
“This is my tribute to the sport and the culture that has welcomed and adopted me,” he says as he spins the iPhone camera around.
His skin is adorned with images of the country’s cultural history. Most striking, and significant are his legs, which sport the Htoe kwin – the incredibly intricate leg tattoos befitting the nation’s ancient warriors.
“If you can endure the pain of 20 to 30 hours, it’s a sign of crossing over from boyhood into manhood,” he explains.
He also has a proclivity for the Longyi, a sheet of cloth worn around the waist, running down to the feet. In addition to suiting Myanmar’s stifling climate, Leduc’s Longyi – in concert with his ink – tells stories of the country’s bygone warrior years.
“During wartime Myanmar, everybody walked with full length Longyis. But when s*** happens, you lift it up and tie it around your waist to free up your legs for fighting. Then you’d see who had the leg tattoos and you’d think, ‘oh s***’. You wouldn’t know until they showed you.
“Unfortunately, it’s a dying art in Myanmar” he says. “People don’t have the money to do it and it’s not as much in demand. There’s also less people who can do it, the only guy remaining is 70 years old. But I’m going to keep the tradition alive, even if the Burmese guys aren’t going to do it.”
His integration into foreign cultures hadn’t always been so natural; some simply didn’t wear as well as the Longyi eventually would.
“When I first joined TMT, I got a lot of s***,” he says. “The manager there was really old-school and didn’t like my style of fighting. I was coming from a Jeet Kune Do style so a lot of spinning attacks and side-kicks to the body. So in my Muay Thai fights, I wasn’t really fighting Muay Thai at all – it was unpredictable stuff but not so good for their points system.
“He actually pulled me from a big tournament saying, ‘you’re not good enough, you’re going to lose.’ Which was weird because I was knocking everybody out before that. But first-round knockouts aren’t good for gambling industry over there, you have to wait until the second round to give people a chance to bet.”
Leduc knew Thailand wasn’t his final destination, the lure of Lethwei, only a few miles across the border, was always in the back of his mind. But ‘The Land of Smiles’ served a purpose, and his Lethwei journey began shortly after he took part in, and won, the famous Thai Prison Fight programme.
“I was one of only two guys to win that day,” he says. “So the promoter of Prison Fight asked me two years later in 2016, ‘Dave, nobody wants to fight Too Too, he’s the undefeated Lethwei 75kg champion, do you want to do it?’ I was like, ‘hell yeah, let’s do this.’”
It was the dream result – well, for him it was. To anyone else, the offer was insanity. Not to worry, though – outside of his not-so Muay Thai training Leduc had been watching some black and white videos on Lethwei to prepare for such an opportunity.
Not a fight camp per se but he’s a man of these extremes, remember.
What’s more, there was good money to be had, especially considering what he was leaving behind
“I was taking Muay Thai fights for $140 in Phuket stadiums. My friend fought Saenchai for $1000 back then. So, when they offered me $3000-$4000, I wasn’t going to say no. Myanmar has deep pockets. The owners of these promotions don’t give a s***, they have gold mines and all sorts of bull**** so money is no object to them. They just want to showcase their national sport.”
And showcase it Leduc did.
He destroyed Lethwei’s golden boy; lashing long sharp elbows across the champion’s face with reckless abandon and pumped relentless knees upwards into his ribcage and diaphragm. In any other rule-set, it would be a dominant victory. But traditional Lethwei rewards tenacity. Draws are given should both fighters see out the time limit, consciousness intact.
It’s a mark of respect, first and foremost. If you can just keep getting up, you’ll never be a ‘loser’, positioning traditional Lethwei as performance art, as much as a competitive sport.
Combatants enact the traditional Lethwei yay before the contest, circling around the ring, accompanied by frenetic drums and pipes, giving thanks in multiple bows to the crowd, their opponent and the attending crowd. As a natural showman, Leduc revels in the pomp and ceremony, particularly the Lekkha Moun; a traditional gesture of slapping one arm with the other, performed to challenge their opponent with courage and respect.
It’s a ritual he takes extremely seriously, and the audience love him for it – one being as a result of the other.
But out of all the prizes Lethwei has afforded him, his relationship with his wife is perhaps the most special.
“We grew up in almost the same town in Quebec growing up,” he laughs. “But we ended up meeting in Myanmar.”
A former journalist for Montreal News outlet, MTL Blog, Irina Terehova was assigned to interview Leduc in Phuket for a feature in 2016. That same year, in a traditional Burmese ceremony, she became Lethwei’s Queen, much to the delight of the Canadian press.
Like Leduc, Terehova is a trendsetter, not a follower. Together, they make the lifestyle of a fighter and all its complexities work around them, not the other way around. It’s Dave and Irina, or nothing at all.
“We made a pact that we never spend a night apart for the rest of our lives. It’s something we agreed on our wedding day.” He says. “Most of my friends have to leave their wives for two, three weeks at a time to prepare for fights. But for me wherever I fight, you’re getting me two tickets or I’m not fighting – it’s non-negotiable.”
Take a look at Leduc’s Instagram, and you might catch yourself gazing out the window, Wanderlust set to full. Splitting their time between Myanmar, Dubai, and their native Canada – plus wherever Leduc is called to headbutt the next unlucky foe – the couple take on the world one day at a time; a new-school marriage with an old-school foundation.
“She doesn’t have a specific place of work, which is great. At the minute, she’s writing a book so she can do that from wherever we travel. I want her to have a stress free life as much as possible, it’s my job to earn the bread” he smiles.
Though the sport is a world away from typical Western careers, Lethwei has granted Leduc comparable financial success. The creation of official Lethwei promotions has transformed what was once considered a pursuit for the lower classes, into a fully-fledged martial arts business that’s rapidly gaining mainstream momentum, in no small part thanks to Leduc.
“Due to its history, Lethwei fighting has a connotation of being for farmers or uneducated people in Myanmar,” he says. “Now, that perception is changing due to the implementation of the WLC and the life I’m living. I travel all over the world teaching Lethwei in private classes and seminars with people from all walks of life. Lethwei is now becoming cool again for the rich.”
Sizeable fight purses aside, Leduc enjoys significant endorsement deals, from Dubai luxury car provider Deals on Wheels, to Mitasu Oil, the Japanese Giant Motor Oil company that distributes exclusively in Myanmar. He is also the only foreign face of CANAL + Myanmar, showcasing their sports offering to his adopted country’s millions.
To those who can afford a TV, anyway. Fundamentally, Myanmar is still very much an emerging economy relying heavily on agriculture, and much of its population live in abject poverty. But the recent growth in foreign investment means Myanmar’s future is looking brighter by the day.
With so many platforms, Leduc does whatever he can to contribute. He has never felt like an outsider there. Ironically, the contrast he embodies as the foreign face of the national sport is what makes him fit in so well. That and the famously warm hospitality of Eastern Asia.
“Myanmar is the ultimate country of contrast,” he says. “You have Rolex shops right next to a slum. The people are the kindest, most polite people you could ever meet. But when they get in the ring, they are the inventors of the most brutal sport in the world. To me, it’s perfect. I’m also a man of contrast and extremes so I feel very at home – I like to be as kind as possible outside of the ring but in the ring, let’s get down to business.”
Leduc’s status as King of Lethwei is more than just his Instagram tag, it’s a moniker he earned; lining up Myanmar’s most feared and revered, and knocking them down one by one.
Shortly after his dismantling of rising star Too Too, Leduc was called out – a relatively unusual occurrence in the normally respectful sport – by arguably the country’s most famous Lethwei fighter, Tun Tun Min.
The pair would participate in a trilogy of fights between 2016 and 2018 – the first two coming in the space of four months through 2016.
First time out, they fought to an explosive draw. As a result, their rematch was the biggest fight of Leduc’s life, a chance to become the first non-Burmese fighter to win the Lethwei Golden Belt.
Black sheep do, as black sheep do. Leduc battered Tun Tun to the point where he could not continue the second round, thereby getting the strap and proving to all who needed clarification that he was the best in the world.
Their third contest was Hollywood script-worthy. Naturally embittered by Leduc’s status as the foreign usurper of his country’s most prestigious Lethwei title, and an extended period on the sidlelines due to injury, Min was back for revenge.
The date was December 16th, 2018.
Leduc was confident – after all, he’d been conquering Asia one promotion at a time in the two years since their last encounter, and his stock within the hearts of the Burmese had continued to rise.
But this time, under the lights of Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, Leduc would experience something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“It was supposed to be a big comeback so the stadium was filled with his fans,” he says. “Usually, I’m the guy who gets a massive welcome when I fight, but now I’m fighting a guy who’s actually Burmese-born.”
It wasn’t just the crowd that was backing Min, things behind the show curtain weren’t exactly going his way either.
“Everything was against us in that fight,” he says. “They asked me before the fight to shave my beard despite all the other foreign fighters having beards. They asked to check my Vaseline telling me that he (Tun Tun) won’t be getting a lot either, but he comes out and he’s absolutely covered in the stuff. They tried everything possible to get an edge over me. Even before I’d finished my walkout song, they stopped it and put his song on. I looked in the crowd and saw a guy wearing a Tun Tun shirt and for the first time, I started having bad thoughts – ‘What if he knocks me out?’”
Min’s crowd were certainly hoping for that. After all, he’d only lost three times, including his second fight to Leduc, in 62 outings. If anyone could steal the throne back, it would be him.
“As a country, they were so proud of him coming back from an injury, you know. In the papers leading up to the fight, he said that I didn’t have enough power in my hands to knock him out. I said, ‘that’s okay, I only need my elbows’.”
And, indeed, that’s all he wrote.
Min’s durability and sheer will saw the fight end in a draw, but Leduc counts it a win. Not just the mental kind in overcoming his own mistrust – but a punishing, almost scornful display of dominance that, at least for now, has put their rivalry to bed.
“I didn’t touch the floor once” he smiles. “ But I knocked him down about 11 times over the course of the fight.”
Despite being only 27, Leduc knows his Lethwei days are numbered.
He’s at peace with that fact – having beaten the sport’s folklore heroes and other legendary strikers such as Cyrus Washington and Corentin Jallon – in both Burmese and Japanese promotions, after only three (yes three) years of doing the damn thing, his legend isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
But whilst still atop the throne he’s focused on shepherding Lethwei, and by extension, Myanmar out of the combat sports suburbs into the bright lights of the box office. This means moving away from the many belts he acquired in promotions using traditional Lethwei rulesets (no points systems, draws awarded if KOs don’t occur) and towards the sport’s more commercial offering, The World Lethwei Championship – a promotion he has openly criticized in the past for tampering with the sport’s traditions.
But it’s a ‘needs must’ situation; as the only promotion likely to attract big MMA names to crossover, WLC is where Leduc needs to be.
He will debut for the promotion on August 2, welcoming UFC veteran and perennial combat sports journeyman, Seth Baczynski to the sport of Lethwei at WLC: King of Nine Limbs in Mandalay, Myanmar – an event to be streamed on UFC Fight Pass.
It won’t do McGregor vs. Mayweather numbers, but it’s a good start. After all, Baczynski isn’t a no-name; he has wins over top welterweights Matt Brown and Neil Magny, so Leduc’s hoping for a good scrap. Even if he’s not giving him much of a chance.
“I respect his balls,” he laughs.
“It is so hard to get opponents to fight in this rule set, they always say they are keen until it’s time to sign on the dotted line. I’ve never fought a pure MMA guy in Lethwei, he’s going to be solid on his feet, hard to trip and sweep, but to be honest I just want a guy who’s not going to back off when it gets bloody – and I expect a lot of blood.”
Baczynski’s certainly no stranger to that (check out his UFC fight with Lance Benoist for proof).
The headbutts might be a different story though; Lethwei being the only combat sport to allow them. Leduc talks about them with the knowledge of a savant, despite encountering roadblocks to developing his cranium-cracking skills early in his career.
“I think headbutts are the coolest aspect,” he laughs. “It pisses me off when some people say that Lethwei is Muay Thai with headbutts. Muay Thai champions lose when they cross over into Lethwei because they get into the clinch and what’s in the middle? The headbutt. My trainer at Tiger Muay Thai didn’t know what Lethwei was, I had to teach him how to hold pads for headbutts. It’s so closed-minded.”
Fighting Baczynski could be a big turning point for the visibility of Lethwei. But if past is prologue, it needs to nail the marketing – Kickboxing and Muay Thai haven’t enjoyed anywhere near the same Western commercial success as MMA, maybe they’re just not brutal enough?
That may well be Lethwei’s key to success – embrace the brand of equal parts; ancient Asian tradition, competitive sport and blood-red carnival – the Neopolitan ice cream of combat sports. That would certainly draw viewers, especially if more UFC alums transition over and who knows, in years to come we may see the Jon Jones’ or Max Holloways of the world performing the Lekkha Moun
But for now, Leduc is happy to be making a start. He’s come full circle since his days at Soto Club –the gracious host, welcoming any and all comers to his kingdom with his signature beaming smile. Hell, when the night’s over, he’ll even get your taxi to the hospital…
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.