I recently traveled to Yangon, Myanmar to corner my student Jordan Lucas in his ONE FC MMA fight. I love training at local gyms whenever I travel to corner fighters so this was a great opportunity to train in the homeland of Lethwei, the Burmese style of kickboxing.
I was lucky enough to have some private Lethwei training sessions set up for me by Joey Kyaw from Transcend Fitness and Martial Arts Center where I also coached a few BJJ classes. Joey also helped with a lot of the research and information for this article.
The coaches I worked with in my training sessions were Saw Te Aung a former professional Lethwei fighter who has fought over 300 matches winning the sports most prestigious title, the Golden Belt, in 1996. I also trained with Professional Lethwei Coach Kyaw Soe who has worked as the head trainer for some of the top gyms and fighters in the sport.
I was very interested to see the contrast between Lethwei and other forms of Kickboxing. I have previously trained in Muay Thai in Thailand and had several Muay Thai bouts in Australia and the UK, I have also done some training in other styles of kickboxing including training trips in Holland to learn some of the Dutch style and some Savate (French Kickboxing).
My first impressions of Lethwei is that it is understandably, very similar to Muay Thai but with two big differences. Fighters don’t wear gloves and headbutts are allowed.
The history of Lethwei
Myanmar has experienced many wars throughout history including conflicts with Siam (Thailand), China, Britain as well as civil wars between the states within the country. Lethwei like many other martial arts, was developed during these wartime periods before gradually evolving into a sport.
The earliest evidence of Lethwei can be traced back to drawings found in Rakhine State dated 600 AD. It is widely accepted that modern Lethwei originated from Bagan, the former capital of Myanmar, where drawings of the sport dating back to 1100 AD have been found in local temples.
Kyar Ba Nyein, who competed in Western Boxing at the 1952 Olympics, pioneered modern Lethwei by developing the current rules and promoting the sport throughout the country and internationally. He travelled around remote regions of the country where many villagers still actively practiced Lethwei and brought talented fighters back to Mandalay and Rangoon where he developed their skills using more modern training methods.
Traditionally, Lethwei bouts were contested in sandpits before boxing rings were introduced in the 1960’s. This was probably influenced by British boxing as the country had been colonised by Britain in the previous century. Although the Burmese adopted the use of the ring, they did not take on the use of Boxing gloves .
Up until ten years ago Lethwei bouts could last for fifteen rounds. Often there would be no time limits on the last round so the match would go on until one fighter could not continue.
In the modern rules, Lethwei fights range from three to five rounds. There is usually no scoring system and the match is declared a draw unless one fighter is knocked out. If a knockout occurs, the boxer is revived and has the option of continuing the bout. Scoring systems are only used for tournament fights where it is necessary to have a clear winner.
With Myanmar being isolated from the rest of the world for so long, the Burmese say they were not pressured to evolve their sport as their neighbors in Thailand did. I asked the coaches if they thought there may be a need to change Lethwei to make it more acceptable to an international audience. They told me there been no pressure or lobbying for the use of gloves or banning head butts and if those rules were imposed then Lethwei will lose its charm and uniqueness and become too similar to Muay Thai.
There seems to be a wider variety of techniques used by the Myanmar fighters than those typically seen in Muay Thai. As there is no scoring system, there are no techniques which are judged to be better or score more highly than others. Scoring systems will inevitably lead fighters to focus more on the high scoring techniques, for example using more body kicks instead of low kicks or punches. Lethwei is exclusively focused on knocking your opponent out regardless of what technique you use.
I was interested to find out if Lethwei had been influenced by other martial arts and fighting styles. The trainers informed me that all the techniques we worked on (which are shown on the video clips) were taught to them by their trainers and they consider them all be Lethwei techniques. However they could not be sure if these techniques were derived from other martial arts. My trainers told me that Japanese Martial Arts are very popular in Myanmar so they would not be surprised if some techniques such as spinning kicks have been inspired by Karate.
The warm ups used in Lethwei training sessions were actually focused more on functional mobility exercises rather than the traditional medium paced run followed by half an hour of skipping commonly seen in gyms in Thailand. I found this to be much more effective and time efficient and appeared to be another example of Lethwei adopting modern training methods rather than sticking to traditional practices.
Another discovery I made was that the inclusion of headbutts can change the dynamics of the clinch position a lot. The standard techniques and strategies which work well in the traditional Thai Plumm position need to be adapted to take into account the extra danger of headbutts. The fact that the fighters are not wearing gloves also allows their hands more freedom to move and manipulate their opponent.
Influence of Mixed Martial Arts
The Myanmar coaches were not concerned that the increasing popularity of MMA will damage the native fighting sport. There has recently been a surge in the popularity of Lethwei with more people eager to learn this style and Lethwei shows becoming bigger than ever.
Based on the performances I’ve seen from the Myanmar fighters so far in their MMA fights I am sure they will become fan favourites in the sport due to their style and fighting spirit.
If you are interested in learning more about Lethwei and have the opportunity to visit Yangon I can highly recommend Transcend Martial Arts located at Level 5, Junction Mawtin. Corner of Anawratha Road and Lan Thit Road.,Yangon, Myanmar