Myanmar’s national sport of Lethwei resembles Muay Thai at first glance. Fists, knees, elbows, and kicks are thrown with violent intent inside the ring. Participants can clinch, toss and throw each other to the mat. The distinguishing factor that really catches a first time viewer’s attention is the lack of gloves.
Oh, and the headbutts.
While Muay Thai has been called the “art of eight limbs,” Lethwei is referred to as the “art of nine limbs” due to headbutts being completely legal. Combatants forgo the boxing gloves that we normally see in the ring and use gauze and tape to fortify their fists and add a bit of knuckle protection.
The exciting sport has been slowly creeping onto the radar of martial arts fans worldwide in recent years. UFC Fight Pass recently streamed their first Lethwei event, but no one has lead the charge in helping Lethwei – also known as Burmese bare-knuckle boxing – burst into international markets more than Dave “The Nomad” Leduc.
Leduc, of Canadian descent, is the first foreigner ever to hold the sport’s Openweight Gold Belt. He recently sat down with The Body Lock’s John Hyon Ko to talk about his recent bout, his love and respect for the country of Myanmar and meeting a “fighting icon” on his most recent tour.
The biggest fight in Lethwei history
Leduc defended his belt last August and was challenged shortly thereafter by Tun Tun Min; the man he had won the championship from in 2016. As the champion, Leduc had to accept the challenge to make the fight official. The fight was enticing and would be a huge event in Myanmar, but he had other things on his plate at the time.
“I said guys, I’m in the middle of a tour. I’m making good money. I want to train a decent training camp for this. It’s going to be the biggest fight in Lethwei ever. So they say, yeah, you’re fighting in December or we have to strip you. Honestly, I just wanted to be champ when I was younger and now I’ve done it. I don’t need 25 belts to be happy. I have three belts. I’m good.”
The more Leduc thought about it though, the more it ate at him. Citing his ego, he knew if he didn’t take the fight he’d regret it for the rest of his life. Leduc had worked too hard to give up the belt so easily. “The Nomad” would only get about two weeks of solid training for the rematch due to an injury. The fight happened in December of last year and went to draw which meant Leduc would retain his title. But where did the fight rank on the Canadian’s growing list of accomplishments?
“From a media perspective, a sponsorship perspective and you know, the purse, it was the biggest fight in Lethwei history. The news was crazy about it and it was live on national television. Basically, you know, pretty much the whole country was on stand still for that fight because it was supposed to be his (Tun Tun Min) big comeback”.
Building Lethwei and Myanmar simultaneously
As previously mentioned, you’re much more likely to find videos and gifs from Leithwei fights floating around social media than in years past. A big part of the recent interest can be linked back to Leduc and his presence in major media outlets and online. While he is finally earning his respect in Myanmar, it wasn’t always so easy being an outsider beating up on the hometown opponent.
“They were throwing bottles in the stadium because they were like, who is this foreigner beating up our champ?”
Now he feels much more welcome in Myanmar and hopes to help grow not only the sport but the country as a whole.
“I really generally care about them. I think they felt that and they [have] really adopted me. So for me, [I want] to be their ambassador, because I really feel that the sport of Lethwei is very tightly knit to the economy as well. 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 help indirectly help the restaurateurs, the hotel owners, and the small shop owners. I’m going to help the economy.“
Meeting a fighting icon
Leduc has traveled the world hosting seminars and having fighters from different disciplines come to him for training. The highlight of his recent tour came during a stop in California.
“In LA, after one of my last seminars, I went to see Bas Rutten in his gym. Our agents talked and we were supposed to be there for like an hour or 30 minutes. We ended up [spending] four hours talking about, you know, fighting and his fights in Amsterdam and Holland. And then we did some pads and he made me very happy when he said, Dave, that’s one of the strongest elbows. So I ended up teaching the class that night with him and we spent like seven hours together”.
To say Leduc is a busy man is an understatement. He’s currently working an online academy where fighters can follow along around the world and meet up with him in person for a lesson once a year. He’ll also be releasing the first English language documentary about Lethwei in the near future. But as far as fighting goes, what’s next for the master of the nine limbs?
“We’ve gotten offers from major promotions, ONE FC and MMA [organizations] in Asia, but I need to stay focused on my thing. I like fighting with no gloves and with headbutts: that’s my passion.”
Leduc says he only has a few years left and isn’t sure who will next for him. It has to be someone with a good record, with enough wins. He’s not sure who that someone is currently, though and wouldn’t call anyone out by name.
“I never blatantly challenge because a champion doesn’t challenge, he gets challenged.”
Watch the full interview with John Hyon Ko below and subscribe for more interviews.
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.