by Vincent Giordano

Burmese Lethwei, also known as Burmese Boxing in the West and Myanmar traditional boxing in Myanmar, is a bare-knuckle fighting sport well known for its traditional fighting technique and durability of its competitors. Fighters wrap their hands with only a thin gauze wrap and tape. There are no gloves used, and head-butts and throws are allowed. No judges oversee the matches to determine a points victor. The only way to win is to stop your opponent by a knockout, technical knockout or by a doctor stoppage. If there is no definitive winner then the match is declared a draw.

In ancient times, bare-knuckle fighting, wrestling and weapons were taught not only to the military class but to the youth throughout the kingdom. Many served multiple functions, in one part, a sport that could keep the military functional with active competition, a rite of passage for young men transitioning into manhood, a fighting sport where one could elevate to the level of lauded champion and way to brutally settle a grudge.

The modern landscape of Myanmar has changed considerably in the last decade. The startling transition from military dictatorship to a marginal form of democracy starting in 2011 finally brought the country out of decades of authoritarian rule and international isolation.

Due to Myanmar's controlling junta at the time, Lethwei remained confined to Myanmar and had little outside exposure. The slow lifting of laws that required prior military approval for any public gathering like those at a concert or sporting event allowed a new rush of interest from the business sector eager to revitalize Lethwei.

One benefit of this surging interest has been the staging of many large-scale tournaments in major cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, and the rise of modern training camps, several of which have been sponsored by interested businesspeople. In contrast, many camps beyond the major cities are rudimentary and operate under deep financial hardship.

“It’s been a continual struggle to keep our camp going,” says Saya Ko Aung Pawe Mg, the head of the Yangon-based Aphyu Yaung Thwat Tit Lethwei Club. “All we have is this street in our community to train in. People know us and allow us to train here. We have no ring, very little equipment, but we train hard every day, twice a day. We take every fight we can get to help support the fighters and our small camp.” Aphyu Yaung is a testament to the struggle Lethwei fighters face when they try to survive without any sponsorship or outside support.

Many Lethwei camps are in a similar position to Aphyu Yaung in that they leverage minimal resources to turn out tough fighters. Another camp that is navigating a different path for its fighters is the Thut Ti Lethwei Club run by Saya Win Zin Oo. Saya Oo has long been a fixture on the Lethwei circuit. He is known as the ambassador of Lethwei for having assisted the many foreigners who have attempted to compete or train in Lethwei over the last two decades.

Thut Ti doesn’t have sponsors or donors, but instead derives its income in part from teaching Lethwei to those who want to learn the sport but not fight in the ring. “Our fighters help teach the classes and make money that way. When they fight, the camp gets only 10 percent, and the fighter gets 90. The idea is for the camp and everyone in the camp to be self-sufficient,” says Saya Oo. The fighters at Thut Ti train in the afternoon, and anyone who is preparing for their fights will train then. The open training sessions take place in the morning and evening, so there’s no conflict between fighters and people attending classes.

The key to Lethwei's centuries long survival though lies in the rural villages throughout Myanmar.

The Burmese calendar year is lunar and enlivened by a continual array of festivals. The best-known of these is Thingyan, a four-day celebration culminating on New Year’s Day, and which is closely followed by a series of local pagoda festivals. Lethwei matches are a central component of these festive events. The matches take on a totally different cultural importance and feel than those of the bigger commercial Lethwei shows and spectacles held in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay. The fights are celebratory and the crowds show up to cheer the local fighters. There is a tremendous joy, camaraderie and fighting spirit displayed throughout the festival. In the villages, martial tradition was an important component of the spiritual and physical growth of each young man, and during the lively festival fights he could demonstrate his fighting prowess.

The festival and pagoda fights adhere to time-honored traditions. The fights are fought in several ways, the most traditional of which is in a circle with the crowd surrounding the fighters. Two referees maintain control of the fighting arena at all times. The matches are accompanied by drumming and music. This convention is much the same throughout Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

The fights begin with an opening blessing ceremony followed by presentations of Lethwei Yei. The Yei is a short, explosive display of skill and courage aimed at the opponent and a sign to the audience that the fighter is ready and able to fight. The Burmese version is different from the opening fighter dances of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. The ring is then filled with potential fighters who hope to be paired and allowed to fight. They generally return day after day. Some might even fight multiple times in the week-long fight festivals.

One distinguishing feature of the Thingyan and pagoda fights is that they are more about the celebration than blood lust. The refs want a spirited bout and often – especially with children – keep the bouts short and lively. The crowd and promoters often reward the more spectacular and gutsy fighters with money for their spirited performance.

Lethwei is growing in the commercial sector, sponsored by rich businessmen and government agencies looking to dominate and control it as a commodity. However, the rural pagoda festivals remain untouched by commercial interests and control.

“Lethwei has survived in the rural communities for as long as the sport has been fought and practiced,” explains Saya Win Zin Oo, head of the Yangon-based Thut Ti Lethwei camp, “I believe it will always remain that way. Lethwei can have all the organizations and controlling factors it wants, but traditional Lethwei lives and breathes in the rural areas that honor and maintain it as an ancient tradition that is part of life itself.”

Lethwei once was an ancient sport that prepared men for combat and served as a rite of passage into manhood. Today, the sport is a symbol of prowess and strength for the people of Myanmar, who for decades have been beaten down and stripped of their pride and dignity by a brutal dictatorship. Its spirited revival offers the youth in the rural communities a chance to transcend their own social and physical limits through fighting.

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Story and Photos ©2015, Vincent Giordano. All rights reserved.