by Vincent Giordano
Lethwei is a diverse and durable fighting sport that has evolved over the decades. It has slowly risen from the ashes of military control, which limited its expansion to global notoriety in the wake of the opening of Myanmar.
The sport itself has been sold as older and better than the neighboring modern Thai sport of Muay Thai illuminated by the fact it maintains a ninth weapon – the headbutt – as a factor in its superiority. We have examined this aspect in our previous article and shown it had little effect in previous outcomes over the decades and how the headbutt was part of the original arsenal of Thailand and Cambodia.
These notions tend to overshadow a deeper art that has struggled for survival through decades of suppression and limited means of promotion and expansion.
Today, what most people see is modern Lethwei, a fast-evolving sport that has slowly adjusted many of the old techniques, in exchange for a fighting sport that can be fought across all boundaries and countries. A process that modern Muay Thai struggled with and went through many decades ago.
The problem with Lethwei becoming a commodity for organizations to sell “their brand” of the sport to the world is the secondary factor involving the immediate rise of coaches and masters teaching their own versions of the sport claiming to teach the authentic art.
The fighting arsenal was almost identical throughout Southeast Asian countries during the bare-knuckle/bound-fist fighting era. Each country may have favored and encouraged specific techniques based on what they felt were superior but all the techniques where available for a fighter to develop and employ at his discretion under the safety of a no rules umbrella. This is an important element to understand.
I found many of the older Lethwei masters who were forgotten or later in life heralded for their career like the late Saya U Pyi Kyaw and the late Saya U Bo Sein had concise, progressive teaching curriculums that could move from ancient to modern. Some of the younger trainers felt they were best teaching it in a more improvisational manner based on their own experiences. Many combined the two approaches. I felt the older teaching programs were deeper and richer and when matched with teachers that were progressive and embraced modern technology, were perfectly rendered training programs.
Since the opening of the country in 2011, many training camps began to materialize, especially in Yangon. They looked to neighboring Thailand for ideas to see how Muay Thai was currently being taught. The Lethwei camps were almost non-existent in Myanmar prior to that. They were generally people getting together in parks, backyards, gyms, or even in the empty arenas to train several days a week, then ramping up training weeks before the fight events to ready their fighters. The trainers had very little to no modern equipment, maybe a heavy bag and a pair of pads. Nothing was manufactured within the country, so they had to buy them in Thailand and bring them back, which was an expensive proposition most could not afford.
The new template for training was based on the modern Muay Thai training camp but what was unusual was that they were copying from a new evolution of the sport. The government and physical education departments wanted to expand Muay Thai away from the intense training camps to places where everyone-men, women and children could train for fitness and self-defense. The massive growing influx of foreigners coupled with normal everyday Thais made camps much more successful than ever before. The hardcore fighters and tough training regimens remained the realm of the actual competitors within the camps but now there was another aspect that could be exploited for financial gain and that was fitness for everyone.
When the Burmese looked over to see this, they thought it was like this all along, totally ignorant of the decades of progression that led the Muay Thai to this point. So they blindly followed suit, eventually building their camps both large and small like a modern Muay Thai kai muay complete with Thai training gear and structured workouts like the Thais. Fitness, a new aspect of Muay Thai, also became a prominent aspect of training in Myanmar.
The one factor I thought was always good about Lethwei is that they allowed women to train, whereas, in most traditional hardcore Thai training camps, it was forbidden outside of the more progressive camps of the time who catered to women and all foreigners, what we called a farang camp. Although opportunity was few and far between for women in Lethwei, they still trained very hard and fought well in the ring given the chance. Today, women can train freely in both countries in Muay Thai and Lethwei.
The arsenal of techniques in how they are used in the ring and taught is also now evolving with increased innovation coming from much more active competition. The fundamentals, though, are the essential building blocks.
Saya Muang Gyi, Ph.D., gives an overview of the traditional techniques of Burmese Boxing(Lethwei):
“The head was employed for butting against the opponent’s head, body, and limbs.
Hands were used for punching, hitting, holding, pushing, pulling, locking, and throwing.
Elbows were used for striking, blocking, deflecting, and spikes.
Knees were used for close-in attacks against the opponent’s face, body, and legs.
Feet and shins were used for kicking at thighs, calves, arms, body, neck, and head.”
The headbutt has been the focus of a lot of attention pushed as the special ninth weapon. It’s strange to someone like me growing up in New York when I did and having been exposed to the headbutt literally since I was young or some kid in England who has seen or felt one in real-time through a street fight or schoolyard brawl.
This exposure only increased over time through experiences in early Vale Tudo and self-defense training. Many of the early bouts featured headbutts, and in close, some were responsible for knockouts.
This legendary early Vale Tudo bout from 1995 between Crezio and Johil was fought bare-knuckle with headbutts allowed standing as well on the ground. This is simply beyond Lethwei at every level.
You can see the fighter on the bottom using the right defense with the one arm choke in and the open palm wedging in between them trying to keep his opponent’s head from getting the room to rear back and increase the force of the headbutt.
Combat Sambo also allows headbutts in competition. Even when wearing protective headgear, the headbutt still scores a stunning knockout.
You can see headbutts also in African martial arts, where they have been used since their earliest beginnings to street fighting systems throughout the world. It’s not new, and it’s been in practical as well as tactical use for a long time. In the ring, they present problems to fighter safety, so many of the fighting sports eliminated this tactic over time.
In teaching and training the headbutt, there are strengthening exercises using different angles and circular motions. The older methods because of a lack of training tools used two-man exercises with one pushing or pulling while the other works against the tension. Small rubber strips added more tension to the drills. Striking against very soft targets as well as the shoulder of the opponent produced incredible results within this progressive training regimen. Most of these exercises and progressions are rarely seen today but integrated with modern training drills on pads, and using the cement, or weighted pulls add an incredible dimension to the headbutt training.
The old teachers also used specific targeting drills. The Y target is the primary one for striking into the body. Hard to soft target is how these first three attacks work. In this world cup soccer match from 2006, Zinedine Zidane, after having words with his opponent, calmly gets in front of him and lands a clean headbutt to the chest, knocking his opponent flat on his back.
Some Lethwei players have lunged headfirst into their opponent’s chest in an attempt to stop them in their tracks.
The headbutt doesn’t always have to be a full-power attack; one learns to butt into the target to open a target line or to attack by combination sometimes, two headbutts joined together like a one-two jab-cross. The first can be light and fast, then the second hard and explosive. It can also be used to stun or slow down an opponent’s rush or to grind against the opponent’s jaw while holding him in a firm grip.
Beyond the building, strengthening, and learning the actual headbutts, the training moves next into headbutts that are attached or unattached. Attached is using a grab either one hand or two or bridging in with a forearm or slap—there is an attachment of some sort to the opponent’s body. The other is unattached when the headbutt is sudden and straight into the target. Much of this comes through clinch work and finding your own timing and techniques that fit your fighting style, so it appears effortless.
The head also is trained to steer the opponent, and head positioning is of paramount importance to control the opponent before and/or after the headbutt. Some of the older training methods had the person hold his hands behind his back as he worked his way through his opponent’s light blows to headbutt and steer the opponent. Finally, one would learn to counter the headbutt attacks and again learning how to close down the center, especially in the clinch. Today, many trainers use modern pads to integrate the headbutt into the training rounds.
The hand techniques and how they are taught are again changing as a result of more competition especially with foreign fighters. I found the Lethwei hand techniques as they were taught were very different from Western Boxing and Thai, Laotian and Cambodian ring systems. They relied on more front weighted attacks with a push power punch that could be launched into a bull rush combination to stun, knock the opponent off balance or knock him out. I think the refinements made by the late Tiger Ba Nyein in the 1950s helped smooth out the techniques but it remained a bound-fists art so much of what worked was retained from the past. The Lethwei fighters use a lot of punches during the course of the fight. Their rhythm and tempo of attack is different than the Thais. This also comes from having in the past no decision victories so they had to push to take the opponent out or get a draw and this effected how well they were paid. Today, they can fight in bigger tournaments that have decisions. The modern Lethwei gyms seem to be refining the hand techniques much more and using the Thai and focus pads to help along those lines. So today someone might say its exactly the same as Thai boxing or western boxing but that’s a recent development of training people for fitness and/or to compete.
The elbows are well developed throughout Southeast Asia, and it’s a component you can count on being well trained within Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. I liked how some of the older fighters had a backup plan if their hand was broken or swelled to the point of being of no use. They used forearms or elbows to parry, block to get closer to attack with knees or headbutts. There are primary and secondary tools, like in Thailand and Cambodia. Secondary tools like the shoulder, forearms, and various grips add so much to the arsenal, but not much of is it is taught in modern times.
The knees again, like the elbows, are well developed with the Burmese fighters just like with the Thais. The Burmese now have more heavy bags and pads for the fighters to work on. But the clinch is paramount, especially when trying to integrate the knees and headbutts in smoothly. The Thais though, have a superb regimen for training the knees, and they devote a large part of their daily training to the knees and clinch. The Burmese are evolving their routines now to match the Thais, but the Thais have long innovated some incredible training drills and progressions for the knees and clinch work.
The kicks in Lethwei for me were again a bit different. They had more snap on them maybe for a bit more speed. When I held the pads for them in the past, they had a different sort of attacking structure and movement. I think again the outside influence from modern fighters have streamlined it down to look a little bit more like the Thais or Cambodians, but if you see the older and the newer fighters in training and in the ring, you will see what I mean. Outside of that, their arsenal of kicks is pretty much the same as the other neighboring countries.
Footwork is what ties everything together — the Burmese devote time to basic footwork and shadow boxing to develop their fast attacking style.
Sadly, we don’t see as many throws and trips in modern Lethwei as we have in the past. There seems to be less emphasis on them with the newer fighters. The lack of gloves allows for more grip and grabs to happen allowing for an easier flow into the trips and throws. The Burmese are allowed to grab the leg and drive the opponent down or throw him. In Muay Thai, the plough was a wonderful technique to drive your opponent toward the ropes to land a crushing knee into him or to drive and throw him down. I loved this technique and all its variations but in modern times the rules changed due to injury to some fighters getting mercilessly thrown over the top rope. The plough can still be used but restricted to a few steps taking away its brutal driving power. Thai fighters like Namkabuan Nongkeepayayuth was well known for this technique. The Burmese can still use it full power as well use throws and trips. The older fighters would also use a spike after they have slammed the opponent down to the ground with a fast throw or trip then would land on him with a knee or elbow. These type of techniques are now banned and will get you disqualified if you attempt them in the ring as you can see from this sample from 2002:
Slap Boxing is yet another unique drill from the older arsenal and a deep-rooted tradition in bare-knuckle fighting culture. In lieu of boxing gloves and other modern hand protection, the most common form of training was slap boxing. It was used by bare-knuckle and bound-fist fighters throughout Southeast Asia and India.
In Lethwei, some of the great innovative trainers like the late Saya U Pyi Kyaw used both modern and ancient training methods to offer the fighters a well-rounded progressive training routine. The idea was that the slap itself was a formidable weapon that was developed like the hand through incredible conditioning. The slap could be thrown with lighting speed and incredible power and in combination with a variety of punches, could surprise the opponent. The slap boxing training helped the fighter get rid of flinching while tempering the body to adapt to getting hit with a light, then hard slap. The fighters would use footwork to flow in and out of range, thus developing fluid combinations while under attack from their opponent. It has many uses, and you usually start with just hand techniques then adding the other parts of the arsenal slowly. Finally, you could slap box into clinch work. The best trainers keep these exercises then add in the boxing drills with gloves on giving you a completely diverse way of training and developing a fighter safely through progressive increments. The old teachers knew that layers of constant pressure coupled with dealing with contact from a live opponent produced the results they were looking for with or without modern gear.
Lekkha Moun is a distinctive movement seen in almost every Lethwei match. It is a loud, concussive series of three slaps on the arm that demonstrate the courage and strength of the individual fighter and his readiness to fight. The movement is also used to accept or answer a challenge or to challenge an opponent. In a heated contest, the slaps can be rapidly answered back and forth by the fighters, ramping up the tension of the bout. The isolated movement of Lekkha Mount has become the symbol of Lethwei in Myanmar. I included this here because it’s very different from what is displayed in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The actions here derive more from India, as you can see in this photo of a Kushti wrestler calling for his opponent to fight similar in action and meaning to a Lethwei fighters use of lekkha moun.
Lethwei Yei again is yet another unique pre-fight ritual dance that is quite different from what is used prior to the start of a bout in neighboring countries. It is unique to Lethwei and again draws from India and possibly other influences. Lethwei Yei is a distinct Burmese display of rapid movements that can also be read by the experienced audience members who will know immediately that this fighter is from the Kayin state or the Mon state or wherever they hail from.
Another unique aspect of Lethwei is that the traditional matches are still fought in the ancient manner. The holiday fights from ethnic, cultural events to the big Thingyan to Pagoda festivals are filled with these exciting bouts often fought in the dirt or in makeshift rings. Traditional Lethwei is a term that best describes this ancient practice that includes the holiday celebrations all the way through to the fight for the flag tournaments. Modern Lethwei is what has essentially overshadowed it in the big arenas, often televised with varying adjusted rules and Belts/Tournaments organized by big promoters. The different fight arenas make Lethwei diverse in the way it can be presented and fought.
Finally, Second chance or special rest adds an unusual aspect to Lethwei in that it allows a fighter to take a two-minute rest break and be brought back to his corner often after being knocked out, knocked down, or winded.
In any round except the last round, each fighter is allowed to ask for special rest for a period of two minutes once during the fight. No fighter may ask or be allowed special rest in the last round regardless if the fighter has not used it in previous rounds.
The ancient component comes from grudge matches, and high stakes matches where money and pride were at stake, it allows the fighter one last chance to get back to his feet and continue the match after being floored. In modern times, it’s not looked on highly due to what we know now about concussions and deaths in the ring. It is only used in certain tournaments that allow for this rule.
The recent rise of Lethwei has led to many misconceptions about the sport. In time, more of the history and development of Lethwei will help to enrich and deepen our understanding. Much of the confusion stems from different promoters and individuals with their own agendas attempting to sell the art in their own way. Even with the headbutt, we see how diverse the training is, but yet we see very little of this training being taught outside of the closed circles of trainers who have the experience and life-long dedication to craft that has kept this material alive. Hopefully, in time when the sport settles into its place in the world, more of this will come to light for those who truly want to experience and learn about this art from the inside out.
© 2019, Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.