Lethwei is a 2000-year-old combat sport that requires the use of nine limbs. Fists, elbows, knees, feet, and more surprisingly the penchant use of headbutts, are all legal and encouraged. It’s origins trace back to the Pyu Empire in 2nd Century BCE, with matches being held purely for entertainment purposes; a fighter would have to render his opponent unconscious in order to be declared the victor.
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With the mainstream internet bursting into existence during the early 1990s, it was only to be expected that the eclipsed regions of the globe were to come alight, and with this their conventional practices and disport.
As it became more voguish and marketable, it was forecasted that foreigners would one day become engrossed and therefore travel to Asia to partake in the sport, and this was in full-affect by the mid-to-late 2010s. Canadian Dave Leduc shook the sport to the core with his emphatic war with national hero Too-Too, and Australian Eddie Farrell lost a razor-close decision to former openweight champion Saw Nga Man.
Another who unpredictably influenced Lethwei since his arrival is Cyrus Washington, an experienced combat sports practitioner all the way from the United States. His trilogy with Tun Tun Min remains some of the most excitable bouts in the sports modern history, as he went on to grab the upset victory during their first encounter in 2014.
Washington spoke to The Body Lock about his Lethwei career so far, the sports worldwide expansion and wanting a Dave Leduc rematch.
“I didn’t put much thought into the difference between gloves and no gloves, I just looked at it as a punch is a punch, and maybe that’s because of the way I grew up,” Washington said when asked about his thoughts heading into his Lethwei debut around ten years ago.
The thought of fighting another man bare-knuckle is daunting enough, let alone the addition of elbows, knees, feet, and headbutts. But for America’s Cyrus Washington, it was just another fight.
“I got in street fights all the time and that’s the main reason why I saw it as another fight. In the press conference, because I was a beginner for Lethwei, they said that there wouldn’t be any headbutts. But, if you watch the fight, you can see my opponent was headbutting me in my very first fight. I didn’t really have a problem with it, I just headbutted him back.”
One may ask how a westerner can become involved in a sport such as Lethwei, particularly in 2010 where foreigners were still a rare occurrence. The multiple-time Muay Thai champion explained how one of his friends, who had experience himself, opened the door for his bare-knuckle career.
“It was very new to me and I didn’t know much about it. This was back in 2010. A friend of mine who knew more about it, who had also had a few fights himself, offered to organize a fight for me over there, and I said yeah. I was living out in Phuket, Thailand, at the time so I went over with a Thai organizer and went and fought Saw Nga Man.”
On top of battling former openweight and golden belt champion Saw Nga Man in his sporting debut, “Black Dynamite” squared off with the much larger Too Too in 2015 under the ‘Monsoon Fight’ banner.
Traditional Lethwei bouts are typically five three-minute rounds, with the fight being declared a draw if both men are still standing for the final bell. However, in his callous and barbaric scrap with Too Too, it was contested over the course of seven rounds.
“[We] fought to a draw but it was seven rounds. The first five rounds were normal five three-minute minute rounds, and then the last two rounds were five minutes long. And that was a push, like I actually had to push myself a lot in that fight.”
Fighting 25 minutes in comparison to the customary 15 while shrouded by the Yangon heat and humidity is a task on its own, notwithstanding the fact that the then-undefeated Too Too was parallel from him, grinning like a sadist as the fight progressed.
Although the fight with Too Too was his most arduous experience in a Lethwei ring, Washington’s trilogy with Tun Tun Min was the most stimulating to watch. The two have feuded for a total of nine rounds, with Washington capturing the inaugural Air KBZ Aung Lan Championship in their first meeting — a truly stunning upset. Nonetheless, Tun Tun Min was able to rally back and win the following two contests, bringing the overall score to 2-1 in favor of the Burmese fighter.
When on the topic of his infamous trilogy, the man from Michigan revealed that he would be swift to accept a fourth fight.
“I’d fight him a fourth time. I feel like I’m the only foreigner that really beat him, and as far as our first three fights they happened, they’re in the past and that’s that pretty much.”
“The king is Burmese, it’s not Dave Leduc”
In December of 2014, Cyrus Washington became the first of two foreigners to defeat the brooding and formidable Tun Tun Min, who was the reigning openweight golden belt champion at the time – the youngest to ever do so. As previously mentioned, he was able to exploit the champion’s weaknesses en route to a third-round knockout upset.
Since their clash five years ago, only one other man has been able to defeat Tun Tun Min, with the pair going on to have a trilogy of their own. That man is Dave Leduc, the current WLC Cruiserweight champion and first non-Burmese golden belt champion, who assaulted Min’s leg to force a forfeit.
Albeit the fight went down as a victory for the Canadian, Washington thinks that it isn’t a true victory, unlike his knockout finish. Additionally, he concludes that the sport would have received international exposure without the help of Leduc, who has doubtlessly elevated Burmese bare-knuckle boxing to new heights.
“I know Lethwei would’ve gotten the exposure anyway, without him gassing himself up to be more than what he really is. If there is any ‘King of Lethwei,’ the king is Burmese, it’s not Dave Leduc, or however you pronounce his name.”
The two fought one another in 2017, with the match ultimately being announced as a draw due to no knockout or TKO finish. It’s been three years, and “Black Dynamite” is still eager for his rematch.
“He’s the reason the rematch hasn’t already happened, I’m ready anytime. I’m always training, I’m always in the gym,” Washington said.
“I’m all set and ready to fight this dude whenever he’s willing to take the challenge. There’s really nobody that hasn’t already fought Lethwei that has the skillset to knock this dude out or to just hurt him, apart from myself.”
Although determined for a rematch with Leduc, Washington is keen to stay away from the World Lethwei Championship – the current home of Leduc – as he believes they are unprofessional.
“I don’t really deal with the World Lethwei Championship, but I heard ONE FC was looking to put on Lethwei fights. I’ve heard that from a few different sources. If they were to do it I’d rather fight through them, I just feel lie it would be more professional, no shadiness, no bullshit you know? But I’ll still go to Burma. I like Myanmar, I like the people there – I’ll still go there and fight for sure.”
It has been rumored for quite some time that ONE Championship will be delving into the world of Lethwei headfirst. This will include regular Lethwei fights being featured on ONE Championship card. If true, the sport will be gifted the opportunity to grow bigger than ever.
“I guess for the benefit of ONE Championship as a promotion, the biggest debut Lethwei fight to have would be myself versus Dave Leduc. I really don’t care who I fight to be honest. If he’s not interested in a fight that’s alright, no problem and no disrespect, as long as he remains as respectful. If not then we can do it anytime anywhere man, I’m always ready.”
The ball’s in your court, ONE.
Steven specialises in MMA and Lethwei. He loves a good 1-2 down the middle.