The ancient bare-knuckle/bound-fists tournaments and fights that were held throughout Southeast Asia was a popular pastime and sport of the people, military and royalty. Every fight became a betting contest, as well as a contest of local pride. The general view is that this type of fighting was nothing more than a brutal blood sport fought to the death. This notion has largely been propagated by various forms of media from popular movies and books as well as all through the internet. Martial artists are often heard calling what they do “the older, deadly form” of a specific fighting art all the time to elevate them above the norm and attach themselves to these ancient traditions.
The truth is that some of the matches due to no rules, and the ability to use any number of techniques freely without any outside intervention did result in numerous deaths. Some combatants suffered severe life-long injuries from the brutal matches that often had no weight categories and no time limits.
The brutality of these contests was reflected in the accounts of Thailand at the time and illustrated here in James Low’s article, "On Siamese Literature," published in Asiatic Researches vol. XX pt. 11 in 1839:
“They are often very bloody and would frequently end in the death of one or both parties, did not the king, or other great man present stop the battle before it becomes dangerous. They arm their hands with hard cord, which is warped around them. The Hindoos use the same and also arm their fingers and knuckles with horn or silver knobs. They strike straight forward or in any manner most likely to tell according to their unscientific practice. They are allowed to use their knees, feet, and head in combat."
The late Hardy Stockman, author of Muay Thai: The Art of Siamese Un-armed Combat from 1976, discusses the use of the various hand wraps in ancient practices:
"According to some authorities, it was customary to bind hands and forearms with strips of horsehide in order to protect one's own skin and inflict maximum damage on one's opponent…
The horsehide thongs were later replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton soaked in glue before being tied to a boxer's hand. It is also said that for some matches and with the agreement of both contestants, ground glass was mixed with glue. The fighters wore groin guards of tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist. In those days, there were no such arrangements as weight divisions or three-minute rounds. A bout lasted as long as a fighter could continue. Many a boxer is said to have left the arena on a bamboo stretcher—dead."
Van Roseun and Kevin Doyle in their article, “Elbows, Fists, Knees, and Kicks” talk about the old days of fighting in the Cambodian province of Battambang:
“Death was not uncommon. Contestants knew the risks, and the vanquished could hardly claim to be victims.
Fighters wore glove-like knuckle dusters fashioned from snail shells to injure their opponents in the kickboxing bouts in Battambang province in the early part of the last century.
“Boxers fought until death. During the bout, a stretcher to carry out the dead was brought in; it was kept there in case a boxer died. The winner received a prize from the committee,” recounted elderly villager Pel Yat in a 1974 book on the social history of the province.”
The death of a Cambodian fighter in Bangkok prompted the government to step in and alter the course of Muay in Thailand. Noted scholar Peter Vail in his November 2014 article: “Muay Thai: Inventing Tradition for a National Symbol” discusses the event:
“Suan Kulap is also known as the venue that first experimented with boxing gloves in muay bouts, although rope-binding, or khat chueak, was also still practiced. That changed, however, in December 1928, after a muay bout at the lak mueang or city pillar in Bangkok ended in the death of one of the fighters. Chia Khaek Khamen died from head wounds inflicted by his opponent Phae Liangprasoet from Tha Sao in Uttaradit. Rama VII’s government subsequently passed a decree requiring the use of gloves in muay from then on, although this did not have an immediate impact on bouts outside the capital.”
Deaths from my own experience after often concealed, especially in regards to reporting them throughout Southeast Asia. In modern Lethwei, there have been deaths, not as much as in the past, but still have happened, especially in the smaller shows outside of major arenas were fighters are just matched based on the referees' and judges' discretion. It is not something they want reported to taint their sport. I also believe in Thailand; it was the norm until people started to really watch the sport more closely, especially in regards to child fighting and the damage of concussions on the fighters. Deaths still occur but far less often than in the past. People in Cambodia were more honest and forthright in their discussions about the fatalities that happened in the old bare-knuckle/bound-fists days. The sport is still tough regardless if it evolved into a ring sport or remains tied to the ancient bound-fist traditions, and people will get hurt, some severely.
The old notions of blood sport also reflect around cockfighting all through Southeast Asia and India, where it is still fairly common. They seemed to go hand in hand with the ancient as well as modern fighters. Many fighters and coaches maintained stables of fighting cocks and treated them and trained them just like fighters. Even though frowned upon and outlawed in some places, it still exists, especially as a gambling sport.
Father Vincent Sangermano, in his book, The Burmese Empire A Hundred Years Ago from 1833, illustrates the Burmese love for fighting cocks:
“But there is nothing of which they are most passionately fond than fighting-cocks. Every young man must have one of these animals: he arms its heels with little knives; its victories are for him a subject of the greatest exultation."
While the ancient sport might have been a deadly affair that resulted in death, especially in front of the King or the royal court, where slaves or captives might additionally be brought out for the amusement of the crowd to fight, deaths also most likely resulted from grudge matches or betting fights in rural communities for large amounts of money that would bring out the worst in the fighters. One factor that allowed the fighter to push as far as he wanted was not only the lack of rules but laws that blocked retribution, at least from a legal standpoint.
It is clear in Thailand’s Three Seals Law compiled in 1805 by Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok(King Rama I)and released in several volumes in 1962, allows the contests to happen, and karma is obviously the deciding factor in the outcome:
"If two people agree to box or wrestle, that is fine. Perhaps one gets hurt or even dies. This is not punishable by law. If someone incites them to fight or offers a prize to box or wrestle, that is fine. The promoter cannot be punished because he is, the promoter, had the intention of providing entertainment. It is the fate of the participant."
In Myanmar, since the early days, a similar waiver was used between fighters holding neither fighter responsible for the outcome.
We can see how easily given the factors involved; one could get killed in a contest. The reality is though that the ancient bare-knuckle/bound-fists fighting tradition was fought in several different ways - not always with the intent of killing the opponent.
The late Ajarn Tonglor Yalae, the patriarch of Muay Chaiya, talked to me about the old fighting sport in 1993. He bristled at the thought of someone purposefully going out to kill someone in a bare-knuckle match.
"We did not fight with any intentions of killing or maiming the opponent. We fought to win. I find it much more barbaric in modern Muay Thai with the short rounds and the referee forcing the pace and pushing the fighters to fight harder like caged animals. The pace was up to the fighters before modern ring fighting because there wasn't weight classes that came later. We fought with pride in ourselves, our school, and for our teachers, parents, and ancestors."
Festivals, feasts, and holidays are a special time for the people of Southeast Asia. One of the largest celebrated through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia is the New Year water festival, where fighting to this day still remains an integral part of the festivities. Fighting here took on a totally different component. One distinguishing feature of the holiday fights is that they are more about the celebration than blood lust. The crowds show up to cheer and support the local fighters. There is a tremendous joy, camaraderie, and fighting spirit displayed throughout the festival. In the villages, the martial tradition was an essential component of the spiritual and physical growth of each young man, and during the lively festival fights, he could demonstrate his fighting prowess. In ancient times, a boy could fight to display his skill in an effort to prove his worthiness as a soldier, or as a rite of passage into manhood or to gain a bride.
Lieutenant General Albert Fytche, who served as Chief Commissioner for the British Crown Colony of Burma, talks about the festivals in Burma in his 1878 book, Burma Past, and Present:
"No severe or cruel punishment is allowed, and "the first drop of claret tapped," or blood drawn from a cut lip, or elsewhere, decides the fight….
The combatants on these occasions show admirable temper throughout, and I have never heard of anyone being seriously hurt, or a case of bad blood arising from a boxing match.”
There is a constant reference to fights in Myanmar(Burma) being stopped at first sight of blood.
Henry Ignatius Marshall, author of The Karen People of Burma from 1922, clearly states that a contest ends once a fighter is cut:
“The contest is a sort of catch-as-catch-can affair, in which the object is not to throw the opponent but to scratch him so as to draw blood. The first drop of blood showing on a contestant means that he has lost the match.”
In Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia, in physical practice, there was much detail given in how to cut the opponent's face, with different types of punches and knuckle configurations. The wraps when the art moved from bare-knuckle also became a key factor—knots were put into the ropes to extend out, making it easier to hit and cut the face.
It is fairly easy to see how confusing this can all be. The eye witness accounts from various periods are often conflicting. Even some of the old footage shows competitors demonstrating but using slap-boxing instead of all-out fighting or generally going easy like in a celebratory village match.
In decoding the past bare-knuckle/bound-fist fights, we can see how, over time, the sports changed in each country, some more and some less so. The premodern bouts themselves could easily be deadly affairs given the right atmosphere or reason for the fighters to go that far, but mostly, I believe they were fought in a more celebratory fashion during the festivals and holidays. In modern times, the fights are more regulated with judges, referees, and rules in place to protect the fighters. They retain the unbelievable durability and toughness of their ancestors as they diligently honor the past by carrying on the tradition inside the ring.
All the bare-knuckle arts in their original form most certainly resulted in numerous deaths(even in modern times). But each country, it presents itself differently. They are not the same generic story or evolution.
Myanmar, for the most part, continued the tradition of including fighting (Lethwei and Naban) during celebratory holidays, feasts and festivals as they indeed do to this day. They had a tendency to rigorously adhere to the general rules of safety, including stopping a bout at the first sign of blood or when bleeding had become excessive. The flag fights were the toughest of their battles and certainly tested the mettle of the fighters as an extreme form of endurance. Indeed, these types of bouts resulted in extreme swelling of the face and body, missing teeth, cuts, lacerations, broken bones, exhaustion and even urinating blood at the end of matches - records of deaths are thin (or perhaps masked to avoid criticism of the sport) and generally disputed by the old Burmese teachers, though they clearly happened due the constant push and punishment endured by the fighters.
Thailand at the professional level, through the big spectacle fights and challenge matches, saw unfortunate fatal outcomes. During the holidays however, they would reign in the fighters to keep the mood of the event happy and lively. The fights existed on two levels—a form for celebration(although some foreigners who witnessed the festivals asked why they were so barbaric) and fights at the high level (to the finish if need be – since the law said neither man would be held responsible for the outcome). Although we see in the case of the Cambodian fighter Chia Khaek Khamen, where his death promoted reforms and the evolution of a new ring sport, Phae Liangprasoet his opponent was arrested after the fight as per historian Alex Tsui:
“The Thai(Phae Liangprasoet) was actually incarcerated for three days pending a police investigation into the party responsible for Chia’s death. There was a huge public outcry on safety controls in boxing at the time.
Phae was later discharged from the inquiry, as his defense was: “I only struck for the purpose of winning the contest, and never had the intention to kill the man.” The Cambodian was buried in Mohameden Bay, Bangkok.”
Myanmar kept the old traditions and then began like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos much, much later to build a professional level with professional fighters and modified formats, especially during the late 1960s and 1970s.
In the modern era, as Thailand moved toward a safer model in Muay Thai, an evolution away from bare-knuckle, countries like Cambodia and Laos, then, soon followed suit – not the other way around. Myanmar maintained their bare-knuckle tradition and allowed for changes in safety with modified rules, but it very much remained a tough art still based in its bare-knuckle format with the inclusion of the head butt and other tactics. Thailand, even though they officially outlawed bare-knuckle, saw the Thais continuing to have special bare-knuckle events like the hugely popular Burma vs. Thailand shows. In these bare-knuckle contests, they used full Thai/Burmese bare knuckle rules allowing throws and head butts. So, unofficially, the Thais continued the tradition in their own way more as a homage to the past.
Today, we see Lethwei being sold as what is oddly the most violent of all the fighting arts, along with emphasizing photos of fighters with blood pouring down their face (as if to dispute their long past and rule set of stopping the contest at the first sign of blood). In the West, we have had the experience of Vale Tudo – an art that harkens back to the oldest times of pure open combat, with very few to no rules including headbutts standing and on the ground. This experience, along with the evolution of MMA and even now the revival of bare-knuckle boxing allows us to judge toughness and violence on another level. Since no one in Lethwei has that experience or training, they tend to create a toxic environment where the past doesn’t exist simply because they are ignorant of it. This is a sad evolution that does not remotely echo the strength of a sport that has struggled to survive for decades.
© 2019, Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.