Lethwei, or Burmese bare-knuckle boxing, is rapidly growing in popularity. It is the national sport of Myanmar and has been around longer than all modern combat sports.
But what actually is Lethwei? Continue reading for the history, rules, and analysis on the sport they call “The Art Of 9 Limbs.”
The first recorded existence of Lethwei dates back to Pyu Empire, which ruled from 2nd-century BCE to mid-11th century. It is known that Lethwei was successfully used along with other martial arts ‘Bando’ and ‘Banshay’ by ancient Myanmar armies in wars with bordering countries.
During ancient times, matches took place in a sandpit and were for entertainment purposes only. Fighters would wrap their hands in hemp or gauze and there were no draws or point system – the fight continued until one of the participants were unconscious. It was common for champions competing in this era to enter the sandpit and accept open challenges from spectators.
Rules and fight attire
Often referred to as “The Art Of 9 Limbs”, Lethwei allows the use of fists, knees, elbows, feet, clinches, and headbutts. Yes, headbutts. Headbutts are an outright game-changer in combat sports, and they are heavily encouraged in Myanmar’s ancient sport. Fighters must wear tape on their fists and feet, along with shorts, a gum shield and groin protector.
It boasts similarities to Muay Thai through the traditional stance and striking techniques such as the spinning elbow, however, the rules are vastly divergent.
Although they may vary depending on the organization, the generally accepted rules are as follows:
- Five rounds that last three minutes
- Two minutes rest in-between rounds
- The only way to win in Lethwei is by knockout – there is no point system, and if both fighters are standing at the end of the fifth round, it is declared a draw
- If a knockout occurs between the first and fourth round, the fighter may take a special two-minute time-out in order to recover. After this, they can choose whether they want to continue or not. The fighter is only allowed to use this time-out once in the fight.
The only aspect of Lethwei to have changed in the past 1000 years is the introduction of a ring in replacement of the sandpit – the rules have remained the same, allowing the raw brutality and beauty of the sport to flourish for the entire world to see.
Although Lethwei dates back to ancient times, its first established practitioner known to the world was Kyar Ba Nyein, a Burmese boxer who competed at the 1952 summer Olympics. He pioneered modern Lethwei, introducing rules and regulations that remain in the sport today. Soon after his unsuccessful Olympic run, Nyein began traveling across Myanmar, teaching villagers the ancient sport. After months of training, they were often encouraged to compete in competitive matches.
It took until 2001 for Lethwei to reach the international stage – in June of that year, three kickboxers from the USA collided with Lethwei practitioners; one of these kickboxers was Doug Evans, a UFC and Bellator veteran. All three Americans were finished in the first round.
The most popular fighter to materialize from Burmese bare-knuckle boxing is Canadian-born Dave Leduc, who in 2016, became the first non-Burmese fighter to win the Lethwei Golden Belt. Since winning the belt three years ago, Leduc has dedicated his life solely to Lethwei, becoming the spearhead in the sports international rise. In 2016, he was awarded a certificate of honor in recognition for his efforts in being a fundamental part of Lethwei’s international expansion.
Nonetheless, the Canadian doesn’t plan on stopping here. In a recent interview with The Body Lock, Leduc spoke about potentially benefiting Myanmar financially through Lethwei, just like Muay Thai did for Thailand.
“Muay Thai has grown the economy and tourism of Thailand. So I really feel that the more Lethwei grows, the more I’m going to be able to [indirectly] help the restaurateurs, the hotel owners, and small shop owners. I’m going to help the economy”.
Leduc’s enthusiasm for the sport combined with his fierce skill-set and heart has pushed him to stardom in Myanmar. The residents genuinely love and accept their foreign champion as one of their own.
How to watch
World Lethwei Championship, the sports biggest promotion, will be streaming events under UFC Fight Pass. This makes it easier for fans, or curious subscribers, to tune in to highly stacked fight cards, which will feature the likes of Dave Leduc, and his longtime rival Tun Tun Min.
It is evident through this deal with UFC Fight Pass that “The Art Of 9 Limbs” undeniably has a place in the global combat sports market.
Keep your eyes on the sport of Lethwei – big things are coming.
Steven is a Mixed Martial Arts journalist and analyst from the United Kingdom.