Lethwei Yei is a distinct Burmese display of respect, bravery and courage that also serves as a forceful challenge to his or her opponent. My own personal Lethwei Yei extends to the following individuals who I wish to show my deepest and honest gratitude for their unselfish protection, guidance and teachings through over fifteen years of training and filming throughout Myanmar. My forceful challenge is left for those who viciously blocked, thwarted, pursued and threatened as tools of a brutal corrupt military regime as you didn’t succeed and the power and depth of the writing and documentaries is a testament to that.
U Pyi Kyaw
The late, great Saya and fighter U Pyi Kyaw contributed enormously to this project through his teaching, photographic contributions and his vast historical knowledge of Lethwei. This is a fighter who fought his last bare-knuckle match at age 61. The training programs he developed were well ahead of what most Lethwei training camps offered at the time, which made him not only an outstanding fighter but an innovative trainer as well. We are proud to dedicate Born Warriors Redux to him.
U Hla Thain
The late Saya U Hla Thain was a formidable and prolific teacher from Twante. He was known primarily for his outstanding Thaing teachings but he also taught Lethwei. Saya Thain was a principle at a local school in Twante and his ability to teach clearly and concisely was very impressive. In 2001, I was able to train with him along with an up and coming local fighter named Moe Thee. Moe Thee would remain a friend to me and his fighting life is captured at various intervals throughout Born Warriors and Born Warriors Redux. Saya Thain graciously gave me a copy of his handwritten manuscript on Thaing he drafted in 1984 that explained all the geometric ground patterns that governed the art. I am deeply indebted to Saya Thain for his enormous heart, teachings and boundless generosity.
U Saw Ruby
Lethwei may be entering a new and prosperous era – but we mustn’t forget those whose great humility and genuine skill helped pave the way forward.
Men like the late U Saw Ruby – "The Red Ruby". He was a former Western Boxer and Lethwei fighter. His son, Eh Htee Kaw, is a Lethwei Gold Belt winner. The Red Ruby’s kindness, generosity and assistance during the early stages of our filming were invaluable contributions to the final product. I was sorry to hear he’d passed away just before I returned to Yangon. We dedicate Born Warriors (Part One) to him.
U Bo Sein
Saya U Bo Sein is one of Lethwei’s senior patriarchs. He chalked up over a hundred bouts, and fought his last one in his late forties. Now a senior official in his 80s, you can still see him at Lethwei shows, participating in the opening blessing ceremony and in performances of his Lethwei Yei. He appears in several books on Lethwei, and we’ve had the privilege of training with and filming him since 2002. We try to visit him on every trip. He’s been a priceless resource for our understanding of Lethwei.
Sadly, Saya U Bo Sein passed away on September 9, 2015 in Yangon.
U Maung Gyi, Ph.D.
Saya U Maung Gyi, Ph.D., a Professor Emeritus at Ohio University, is the father of Burmese martial arts in the United States. He is the son of the late U Ba Than Gyi who served for twenty-five years as Director of Physical Education of Burma. Although he is retired from teaching, Saya Gyi continues to mentor and teach a select circle of students through his private, non-profit martial arts organization he founded in 1966. Saya Gyi’s been a tireless teacher, advisor and mentor since we began our film project. His critical eye and accurate teaching have helped deepen and broaden our comprehension of different Burmese martial art forms.
U Bo Dway
The late Saya U Bo Dway was a master of Thaing, Lethwei, Western Boxing and Naban. His Mandalay-based club, Thihahthura Ngouhokha, housed an enormous library he affectionately called the Mandalay Research Center that he established in 1960. Saya Dway’s help was vital to our understanding of Lethwei’s evolution and the influence of many famous masters – including the late boxing Saya U Tiger Ba Nyein – on its growth. U Bo Dway’s grappling background and research into the roots of Indian Wrestling and indigenous Naban greatly advanced my own research and understanding. Saya Dway also contributed numerous articles, photos and drawings that helped to shape our overall knowledge of Burmese martial arts.
U Min Thein Kha
The late U Min Thein Kha was a well-known author, astrologer and political prisoner. He was also an avid Lethwei fan who sponsored his own Lethwei team. Its fighters lived and trained at a rural retreat in Hmawbi. We were the only Westerners allowed to film freely within the compound to capture their training sessions. This rare footage appears in Born Warriors (Part One) in the Training and Training Methods section. To honor him, we dedicate this section to U Min Thein Kha.
U Daung Ni
Saya U Daung Ni – known as “The Red Peacock” – is one of Lethwei’s most colorful and dynamic masters. He can be seen at almost every tournament, helping to pick fighters before the tournament, announcing, and providing colorful commentary and the vocal effects unique to a Lethwei show. He also participates as a senior official in the opening blessing ceremony, where he often demonstrates his Lethwei Yei. Every time we see him, Saya Duang Ni offers candid insight into the Lethwei world. Since he’s been part of almost every big tournament in Burma, his insights are unique – and greatly appreciated.
U Win Zin Oo
U Win Zin Oo is a familiar name to any foreigner who’s tried to learn or investigate Lethwei in Myanmar. We met over fifteen years ago in Yangon after I received his number from a friendly street corner bookseller. Since then he’s guided us through all the ups and downs of our research and training missions. Now he heads his own camp, Thut Ti, along with former champion and trainer U Lone Chaw. For decades, U Win Zin Oo has been a constant presence in Lethwei. My fondest memories will always be going to the early fights with him as guest of U Donkin. It was a time of great strife and dark political upheaval but the great spirit and camaraderie of the fighters, trainers, promoters as well as the audience itself showed the tremendous warmth of the Burmese people and clearly demonstrated that the sport of Lethwei is a carefully woven part of its culture. U Win Zin Oo’s struggle to bring Lethwei to a worldwide audience has never waned and it is our hope that in some small way our work will help him to finally achieve his goal. His astute and insightful commentary anchors both of our Born Warriors documentaries.
U Soe Than Win
When I first began documenting Lethwei in Myanmar, it was a rough and troubling time for the sport. Promoters like U Soe Than Win had to deal with so many challenges to make each tournament happen. Sometimes tournaments would be cancelled at the last minute with little explanation. U Soe Than Win, who I met through U Win Zin Oo, provided me with access to shoot many of his tournaments. His help in letting me be able to freely film and attend the many bouts was an invaluable experience for me. His struggles to bring the sport notoriety and international exposure should not be overlooked. U Soe Than Win is a true pioneer, and the Lethwei promotion of today owes him a huge amount of gratitude that should not be forgotten. I honor U Soe Than Win and thank him for his contributions, not only to Lethwei but to Born Warriors.
U Maung Nyunt
Saya U Maung Nyunt was an outstanding Western Boxer who was the Burmese lightweight champion in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Much like the late Saya U Tiger Ba Nyein, he helped to improve boxing and Lethwei. Saya Nyunt gave us endless insight into what training and competing were like in the ‘50s and ‘60s and in the years since.
U Lone Chaw
I feel a special affinity for Saya U Lone Chaw because I was able to proudly watch his rise through the middleweight ranks to become one of the premiere Lethwei champions of his generation. A quiet, soft spoken man who has successfully transitioned into a top class trainer and coach. Saya Chaw was born in 1976 and began fighting in 1995. He became a one state and division champion and won two Gold Belt free weight championships during his fighting career. He retired in 2012 to concentrate on teaching but did one special exhibition three round fight against former Champ Shwe War Tun at the request of the promoter since his retirement. He has fought against Japanese, Thai and American fighters during his storied career.
U Win Nyein
U Win Nyein is the son of the late Tiger Ba Nyein who was a Burmese Boxer who participated in the 1952 Summer Olympics and was a pioneer in modernizing Lethwei. He worked in the Ministry of Finance as an Assistant Director until his retirement in 1997. U Win was also a prolific writer who established the magazine Shweamyutay in 1991. He created a special literary award for writers who wrote in magazines to help spotlight the outstanding writers of the time. His time with us was invaluable in helping to understand his father’s life and work, which is important in the post World War 2 evolution of Lethwei.
U Moe Thee
U Moe Thee was one of the first people I was able to train Lethwei with as a training partner in Twante. He has studied with some of the best teachers from U Hla Thein to U Bo Sein. U Moe Thee is a 2009 48 kg Gold Belt champion and continues to fight when he can as he transitions into being a future trainer and coach.
U Zin Lin Htunn
U Zin Lin Htunn has been involved in Lethwei as a prominent sports writer and photographer for over a decade. In the past, he often had to travel on his own money to cover the many regional Lethwei events that happen throughout the year in Myanmar. He has generously contributed photographs and helped organize and assist in many of our film shoots. His love of Lethwei is beyond infectious and just sitting watching old Lethwei matches with him you can learn a lot about the fighters and sport beyond what is playing on the screen in front of you.
U Kyaw Soe
Our relationship with Saya U Kyaw Soe goes all the way back to the earlier KLN Lethwei camp in Yangon. He now heads up his own camp Nagaman as a first class coach and trainer. Saya Kyaw was kind enough to allow us to freely film in his enormous training compound. We appreciate his long friendship with us and applaud his enormous success as a trainer.
U Tin Aung
Saya U Tin Aung has been an enormous asset to the production of Born Warriors Redux. He has allowed us enormous insight to the training of Lethwei through unlimited access to his camp training sessions. Saya U Tin has kept us updated on the many tournaments throughout the region and has helped us to negotiate being able to film many of them. He is a former Lethwei competitor who is now a top up and coming coach. His camp is well run with a highly structured and concise workout regime.
U Kyaw Thain Htoo
Saya Htoo, a former Kayin career military man and lifelong Lethwei competitor and trainer, runs one of the oldest Lethwei training camps in the Kayin State. On all our visits to the Kayin State, he was an indispensible source of training techniques, insights and historical knowledge. Saya Htoo was also instrumental in helping us to meet and film many of the important fighters and trainers in his home state.
U Ko Aung Pawe Mg (Myint Zaw)
Saya U Ko Aung heads up Aphyu Yaung Thway Tit Lethwei camp in Yangon. He appears in both Born Warriors and Born Warriors Redux. One of our earliest video shoots featured both Saya U Duang Ni and Saya U Ko Aung demonstrating techniques, warm-ups and then refereeing the bouts we staged for the day. His camp is one of the poorest in Yangon but that doesn’t stop his fighters from competing every chance they can get.
U Maung Maung Lay
Saya U Maung Maung Lay’s long and storied career as a Lethwei competitor began when he was a 12-year-old boy growing up in Mandalay. It ended in 2003 with his final fight, at age 48. His innovative training methods as a coach are documented in the original Born Warriors documentary and highlighted in the Born Warriors: Outtakes Part Two YouTube series. Saya U Maung Maung Lay’s new Mandalay-based Mahar Thway training camp continues to produce exceptional Lethwei competitors under his careful tutelage. His outstanding contributions to the Born Warriors documentaries have been a critical hit with fans and competitors throughout the world.
U Moe Dea War
Saya U Moe Dea War fought over 100 bouts in his 13-year career. Today he’s an up-and-coming Lethwei coach who recently founded the Amarapura Lethwei Camp in his poor rural community in Mandalay, initially taking in seven young local fighters from the surrounding township. Saya War now devotes his time to coaching and training the next generation of Lethwei champions.
U Wazo Myint
U Wazo has been nothing short of a gracious host and a strong ally in our work to bring Lethwei to the world stage. He is the owner of Wazo traditional Lethwei camp in Yangon and both he and his camp are heavily featured in Born Warriors Redux. U Wazo is actively involved in all aspects of Lethwei from promotion to helping to organize and run major competitions.
Story and Photos ©2015 Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.