Lethwei, the beautiful, brutal Burmese martial art, holds a certain mystique in the realm of combat sports. With its use of headbutts and lack of traditional gloves, Lethwei – AKA Burmese Bareknuckle Boxing – has earned a reputation as one of the most brutal sports in the world.
Lethwei is something of an answer to Muay Thai. Known as “The Art of Nine Limbs” (as opposed to Muay Thai’s 8 Limbs), it enjoys considerable popularity in Myanmar, its country of origin. However, the sport has grown in popularity and become recognized worldwide for its exciting style and unique elements.
In this article, I’m going to give you a primer on this fascinating sport.
The History of Lethwei
Lethwei dates back to the Pyu Empire in Myanmar, which reigned from the 2nd century BC to the 11th century. Fights back then required no gloves; fighters wrapped their hands in hemp. The matches only ended when one of the combatants got knocked out or could otherwise no longer continue.
Unlike other sports that became socially stratified, Lethwei fights took place between everyone from kings to commoners.
The sport got a modern update in the 1950s when boxer Kyar Ba Nyein formalized the rules and brought awareness of the sport to the contemporary stage. Ba Nyein participated in the 1952 Olympics in boxing, using skills he honed traveling through Myanmar to learn from the greatest practitioners of “traditional” Burmese boxing. This video gives a good overview of the basics of Lethwei:
With rules in place, modern Lethwei has a variety of international events like the Golden Belt and World Lethwei Championship. While the sport maintains much of the more controversial or extreme elements, steps have been taken to bring Lethwei in line with current safety regulations for combat sports.
The Rules of Lethwei
Historically, Lethwei had remarkably few rules except those put in place to ensure brutality. Lethwei takes the bare-knuckle thing seriously, requiring fighters to use only gauze or tape to wrap their hands and electrical tape on their feet.
Lethwei practitioners must apply their wrap in front of the officials to ensure it meets the bout’s standards.
Lethwei bouts consist of three-minute rounds, with two minutes between rounds. Fights last three, four, or five rounds depending on the promotion. Under modern rules, fighters can take a two-minute “time out” to compose themselves after an injury or knockout. Fighters cannot use the timeout during the fifth round.
Lethwei is sometimes called “the Art of Nine Limbs” in reference to the number of body parts fighters can use during a bout.
- Two fists
- Two feet
- Two elbows
- Two knees
- One head
That last one sets Lethwei apart from most other combat sports, including MMA. With headbutting prohibited in most other types of fighting, Lethwei fighters get one more weapon to inflict damage on their opponents.
In addition to the nine limbs, extensive grappling and clinching can take place during a Lethwei fight. Practitioners use throws and takedown maneuvers, along with ground fighting during a match.
In other words, almost anything is in play in Lethwei. Shots to the groin are prohibited, but fighters must defend against a dizzying array of kicks, punches, raking knuckle shots, and even headbutts.
Traditional Lethwei only ends with a knockout. The fighters continue through the rounds until the end of the bout, and under traditional rules, no knockout means no-decision. In the first through fourth rounds, a fighter can use the two-minute timeout to decide if they want to continue following a (brief) knockout or injury.
Knockouts occur when a fighter cannot defend themself after a 10-count consisting of one count every two seconds. Additionally, a TKO may occur with three counts occurring during the same round, or four counts throughout the entire fight.
Each count lasts at least until eight before the fight resumes.
One last means to a technical knockout happens when a fighter ends up in a position where they may incur serious harm. In such cases, a ring doctor or official determines the end of the fight.
The knockouts-only rule remains highly controversial, especially in international competition. For that reason, most fights under “international” standards include a judging component. A panel of judges determines the winner based on the number of strikers per round for matches with no knockouts.
With its bare-knuckle elements and the encouragement of headbutting, Lethwei matches can get bloody. Just the same, the style has an undeniable beauty, with participants using their entire bodies to get the best of their opponents.
Kyar Ba Nyein brought the sport to where it is today. In 1953, he traveled to the regions around Myanmar, where Lethwei had the most practitioners and brought them to the national stage in Mandalay and Rangoon. By introducing them to international boxing competitions, he not only grew the sport of Lethwei, but the sport of boxing generally in Myanmar.
The sport remained mostly relegated to Myanmar until 2001 when the sport hosted its first international competition. American kickboxers Shannon Ritch, Albert Ramirez, and Doug Evans faced off against Ei Htee Kaw, Saw Thei Myo, and Wan Chai, respectively. With these matches, Lethwei had arrived on the international stage.
Today, fighters like Tun Tun Min continue to make a name for Lethwei and Myanmar on the international stage. Tun Tun Min has fought MMA fighter Cyrus Washington three times. Washington took the first bout, and Tun Tun took the second though Washington claimed confusion about the rules.
In their third match, the young Tun Tun Min won in just 71 seconds with a blow to Washington’s eye.
Dave Leduc (find him on Instagram here) made history in 2016 by becoming the first non-Burmese to win the Golden Lethwei Belt. Leduc has found a passion in Lethwei after cycling through several other disciplines.
He has worked tirelessly to promote the sport throughout the world, stating that he sees Lethwei “Doing the same for Myanmar what Muay Thai has done for Thailand.”
Lethwei fighters need specialized training to deal with the unique demands and punishments of the sport.
With the need to defend against everything from sweeps to headbutts, Lethwei requires a total-body fitness and toughness that comes only from hours in the gym. Fighters need to toughen their hands to survive the bare-knuckle component of Lethwei.
Similarly, fighters need to toughen up their shins to take the leg kicks in a fashion similar to other martial arts styles.
Aside from the durability, Lethwei fighters also need to practice a variety of strikes. Fighters more accustomed to boxing or kickboxing may not have the ability to use their knees and elbows as effectively as a trained Lethwei practitioner.
Long story short, Lethwei fitness requires exceptional speed and agility. Strength certainly helps, but most Lethwei experts can dodge and duck with the world’s best fighters. All the heavy blows in the world don’t matter if they don’t land.
Add in some clinch fighting and throws, and Lethwei becomes extremely demanding on cardiovascular fitness. Fighters need exceptional stamina to last even one three-minute round, let alone five – if a fight gets that far.
Lethwei has a lot to offer to the combat sports world. By using nine different strike tools, Lethwei puts a different twist on more popular fighting styles. The result is a fight that looks different from similar sports like kickboxing or Muay Thai.
Don’t expect a headbutting contest, though. Lethwei fighters have exceptional skill in using an array of flying limbs. It might be a little while until the western world thoroughly warms up to Burmese bare-knuckle boxing, but that might be okay.
While MMA has grown increasingly commercialized, Lethwei maintains the raw energy that comes from fighters with more pride than cash on the line. The Dave Leducs of the world will undoubtedly find willing audiences all over the world. Still, at its heart, Lethwei remains an intimate look into one of Myanmar’s finest and most authentic traditions.