by Vincent Giordano
Each country in Southeast Asia has developed and promoted their indigenous sports in their own unique way. For example, one can learn from Muay Thai what has worked and what has not throughout its long history. Lethwei has been kept alive and is still heavily supported by rural communities. I focused primarily on the rural festivals and tournaments because they were an important link to how Lethwei competitions were fought in the distant past. Some seem unchanged by time, while others are fought in a more modern way that we are all accustomed to. It is clear the casual fighter who competes in these rural tournaments is not the professional fighter he needs to be to fight in the bigger events against more seasoned opponents.
This is not to say that the rural tournaments lack top notch fighters and exciting fights, but many of the fighters are not pursuing professional careers. Making consistent money to pursue Lethwei full-time requires a steady amount of opportunities to support the fighter’s fiscal obligations and training. It seems there are more fighters than opportunities at the moment.
One thing Lethwei lacks, which Muay Thai and Pradal Serey utilized to great advantage during their incremental growth process, is a weekly television show. Muay Thai and Pradal Serey have several weekly shows in both Cambodia and Thailand. The shows themselves draw large crowds, as well as the usual throng of rowdy gamblers. In Cambodia, lively weekend-afternoon outdoor shows are televised live and draw a wide cross-section of people, from families to tourists and hardcore fans of the sport.
During Muay Thai’s height of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s (which we now call its “Golden Era”), the weekly television shows were much more than just live events. The shows were jampacked with interviews featuring popular current fighters, as well as visits with former champions, Muay Thai training camp footage, instructional segments, Burma vs. Thailand contests, and highlight reels of great bouts from the past. Today, many of these segments have been preserved and are viewable on YouTube channels as highly valued glimpses of Muay Thai during its more progressive and powerful era.
In their marketing and propaganda efforts to regain recognition for the sport of Lethwei, the Burmese managed to blindly copy the Cambodian claims and vocal media battles, stating that the origins of modern-ring Muay Thai belonged to their native country. However, the fact remains that Muay Thai is a fairly new art, and a slow evolution away from the old bare-knuckle fighting days that the Burmese kept alive.
In their desperate bid to gain acceptance in the modern fighting landscape, the Burmese unfortunately had no choice but to adapt the bigger Lethwei competitions around the modern templates, which were focused on safety and decision-finishes that were firmly established and developed by the Thais and other Western sports to launch themselves quickly into the global spotlight.
Even though the old Cambodian strategy failed to make much of a difference, it did plant the necessary seeds to help reignite a surge of interest in Lethwei within both Myanmar and the worldwide community. It was obvious there was an eager audience that was hungry for a new emerging sport to compete in and exploit. Lethwei fit the bill.
Lethwei has always been an active part of festivals, feasts, religious ceremonies, and major holidays in Myanmar. The communal atmosphere of the Saturday-afternoon outdoor show in Phnom Penh had many families in attendance and reminded me of the rural shows, where people would congregate for free lively entertainment. These shows could serve as a bridge between all the Myanmar communities, utilizing TV and streaming broadcasts to build a massive audience for the sport that will support their own fighters — especially on social media.
A weekly show could also be a breeding ground for the growth of future champions who are not yet ready for the big arena shows. Channel 7 Stadium in Bangkok (which is part of the Channel 7 television station) hosts action-packed cards every Sunday afternoon. It is free (unless you want a ringside VIP seat). The key factor is the successful development of Channel 7 champions in each weight division. These champions will develop a wide television audience who will support and watch them as their careers accelerate and grow.
In Myanmar, this would make sense, as there is a wide divide between rural shows and bigger events. This could be the critical bridge for fighters who want to step up and develop pro careers. A weekly show could be a consistent live event that could be streamed and viewed online and then archived on a web channel or internet site for future viewings. The live-fight card could turn into a popular tourist attraction, a place for diehard fans and families to go on a weekend afternoon.
Additionally, it could be the key driving force needed to create events and fights that people want to see on a consistent basis. The show could be in the modern format, so the fighters would be properly prepared to fight in the bigger organized events. It could be fought in line with whatever developments and rules the major tournaments are currently fighting under. These televised Lethwei broadcasts could present the sport in the same way the big shows do, so as not to confuse the wider viewing audience.
There is not much opportunity to compete in bare-knuckle fights like Lethwei, so one has to build experience — usually, by fighting in other types of events. Additionally, Lethwei currently seems intent on building its future success on foreign fighters, instead of their own native fighters. Therefore, constantly building future Burmese champions seems important at this point, and these future stars need to be developed and groomed in all weight categories.
By participating in a weekly show, the Lethwei fighters could build a television/online following, even as they gain vital experience that could prepare them to step up to a higher class of opponent. Fighters could be developed and groomed in all weight categories, which could offer additional opportunities for foreign fighters who want to gain experience in Lethwei. The shows could also help fighters and camps earn wages for competing. This would give fighters a steady weekly opportunity to make money while developing their professional fighting careers.
Eventually, expanded broadcast streaming events could develop and become much more involved, like the Golden Era Thai TV shows, with segments on fighters, past bouts, and visits to the camps. This could build a fascinating series of stories and livestreams to give the viewer full access to the sport.
During the heyday of the Golden Era shows, many magazines and newspapers featured articles and photographic coverage, which still provide us with excellent insight into the fighters and events of the day. Today, this traditional aspect could be replaced by social media coverage, including blogs, videos, live reporting, and much more. This could provide more opportunities for Burmese and foreign sports writers to write about the sport on a steady basis.
Right now, the business sector is mostly concerned with Lethwei as an export commodity. The sport has been embraced worldwide in a modified format that was created to push its rapid growth using heavy foreign participation. Today, the prime motivators to build Lethwei into a global sport are the major arena shows, and their vital integration with social media to engage and cultivate an active worldwide audience. Therefore, the rise of capable Burmese fighters, as well as foreigners who want to compete, will serve the sport well. One way to further globalize the sport is to build an intermediary TV show for all to compete in on a weekly basis, which the world can watch online and become a part of.
© 2019, Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.