Saya U Duang Ni - known as “The Red Peacock” - is one of Lethwei’s most charismatic and colorful senior officials in the sport today.
Born in a suburb of Yangon in 1952, Saya Ni began competing in Lethwei as a teenager. In 1980, he transitioned to working behind the scenes as a referee and jurist after a long fighting career. Saya Ni is most prominently known as the “voice of Lethwei," one of the key announcers who travels from show to show throughout the year. He combines the repertoire of a traditional announcer with his stream of improvised, rapid vocal effects, mimicking the over-the-top sounds heard in a hyper Kung Fu film, which punctuate every punch and kick thrown in the ring. Unfortunately, this unique aspect of the live experience is losing its currency in the modern arenas and live broadcasts.
Nonetheless, Saya U Duang Ni’s breadth of experience from fighter, trainer, referee, jurist, and announcer spans several decades. His invaluable knowledge and insights offer us a rare glimpse of the sport from his unique perspective.
How did you first become involved in Lethwei? Were any of your family or friends also fighters?
No one in my family, or anyone I knew, was involved in Lethwei. My younger brother had an interest, so we would go and watch the fights together. This led to us practicing by ourselves on our own. It was fairly common at the time. It was a form of play. We tried to copy the moves of the fighters and make up our own training. I didn’t have any teacher at the time.
When did your formal training begin?
I became more serious and really wanted to compete. So, I fought a novice-level, three-round match at the Kabaraye Pagoda Festival as a test to see how I would do. I didn’t have any formal training or technical skills, but I got a draw. It was a very tough fight. The next day, I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was sore from head to toe.
Soon after, I met a fighter named Saya U Duang Nyo, who was known as “The Brown Peacock." He was teaching near my home, so I began training with him. The training wasn’t like it is today. It was more solo training, then sparring and working with others when you had the people to train with. It was more learning by doing. I was lucky to have met Saya U Duang Nyo, as I got to work with a fighter who could show me how to practice properly, and through his teachings, I gained much more skill and knowledge.
You were coming up during the 1970s. There seemed to be a bit of a resurgence of the sport, but it was still fought primarily seasonally, with no fights held during the rainy season. How did you build your fighting career from that point on?
When I started fighting, I just fought here and there; then, I became more dedicated and persistent. Three months after my first fight, I got a chance to compete in an Aunglan (Flag Fight) in Kyaukpadaung, hosted by Saya Kyaut Pat Tee. Back then, I didn’t know much about the actual Flag tournaments - like the rules and what it entailed - but I wanted to show my courage, so I fought.
This Flagship tournament had eight fighters. You have to move through the quarterfinal, semi-final, and finals, like that. I won the first match in the second round, so I was very happy, but for the semi-final, I had to fight for 45 minutes. In the final match, I had to fight Aung Htoo from Mawlamyine, and it took two hours. I couldn’t knock him out, and he couldn’t knock me out, either. So, it kept going. At the end of the fight, the jury stopped the contest and gave us a draw. We were both awarded the Championship Flag as co-winners. It was a very memorable moment for me.
Did you do anything special in terms of training or nutrition to develop the strength and stamina to fight in these tournaments?
I increased the intensity and volume of my training after that grueling competition. I trained every day. There was nothing special that we had or could afford. We were poor. I ate regular rice and simple dishes. There was no money for special medicines, or vitamins, or anything like that. All we had was the courage that we brought to each fight.
What was your training routine like?
I trained as much as I could. Twice a day was the minimum. I just trained all day long: morning, noon, and night. I practiced shadow boxing while walking on the street. I practiced my kicks in the water. I practiced my punches while I was sitting - and even while running errands from place to place. I hit the sandbag, jumped rope, swam, and did clinching when I had people to work with.
It was good when we had a trainer and maybe four or five other competitors, so we could spar with one another and do our wrestling and clinch work. I always tried to jump rope for 15-20 minutes, followed by another 15-20 minutes of shadowboxing.
So, for you, it was more solo work mixed with training with others when that was available to you. It wasn’t like today, with established camps and consistent training.
We didn’t have what they have today. I absorbed what I could from others, competed and made the adjustments to my training, and tried to get better and better.
How old were you when you got your leg tattoos?
I got them much later than most competitors. I was around 25 when I got mine. I had a friend who did them for me free of charge. It took three and a half days to complete the tattoos, and it was a very painful process.
What other teachers influenced you and helped you along?
Saya U Bo Sein was a big influence on me. At that time, he was quite famous. My fighting style developed from watching and training with him. I also worked with his sons, who were roughly the same age as me. I had a very good relationship with Saya U Bo Sein, and he helped me with my career.
This is also how I got my name, Duang Ni, “The Red Peacock." Saya U Bo Sein liked the way I fought, and he heard that the famous Mon fighter Duang Ni had passed away, so he named me Duang Ni after him.
Did you get a chance to train or compete in Western boxing when you were young?
I trained in boxing for a short time with Sergeant U Maung Than. I did a good deal of sparring with the gloves on to get a feel for it. I didn’t get a chance to compete. I only fought in Lethwei.
In our earlier discussions, you talked about developing your own style of fighting from what you learned and used in the ring. Even your “Lethwei Yay” is your own unique expression that you put together. What was your favorite technique or tactic that you used successfully in the ring?
I tended to favor punches, but I used everything. I am not a tall person, and I had to fight many times against an opponent who was often much taller and heavier. So, I couldn’t use force. For me, it all came down to timing and setting the opponent up. I would evade, slip, and move. I was very tactical. I wanted to use the opponent’s aggression against him.
You had quite a number of fights and won many championship banners. It seems you took advantage of every opportunity you could to compete.
If I wanted to make a living as a fighter, then I had to fight. I was proud to have won an eight-player Flag at the Union Festival that was held at the Kyaikkasan Stadium, which was actually a makeshift open-air arena without a roof. Around that time, I fought a special Challenge fight - more of a “professional” fight, so to speak - against a fighter from the Kayin State, which I won. There were many matches. I won more Flags. I won another at the Mon National Day Festival. I won at Thein Phyu Stadium.
Did you have a favorite fighter when you were competing?
My favorite was Saya Ko Moe Kyoe. I got to attend many of his matches. I also had the opportunity to learn clinching techniques from him, so he was very special to me. There was no one quite like him.
What were some of your toughest fights?
I told you already about the grueling flag fight with Aung Htoo that went on for two hours and ended in a draw. That was tough.
The other fight is rather hard for me to talk about because it’s incredibly sad. This particular fight was very tough on me, not so much physically but emotionally.
When I was 24, I fought in a Flag tournament in Zayatkyi-Gamonekyaw, Taungoo. U Taing Kyaw, my opponent, was not in the same class as me. He was First Class, and I was Third Class. Let me explain; at the time, there were no weight categories. There were divisions - or classes of fighters - like Fourth Division, Third Division, Second Division, and First Division, or class. First Division consisted of the biggest and tallest fighters.
The tragic outcome of that match was that U Taing Kyaw lost his life. He died in the ring. I hit him in the back of the head with an elbow as he was going down, and he never got back up. It was hard for me to deal with. I was 24, and he was 27. He left behind a wife and two children.
I’m very sorry to hear that. I certainly feel your remorse and sadness. In your experience - which is incredibly wide and varied - do these ring fatalities occur more from head or body shots or from an accumulation of blows?
There is no single answer to this, but from my point of view, the headshots cause more damage because they can come from one blow as easily as they can from multiple blows. Generally, the fighters are well-conditioned and can take the body blows, but again, there have been deaths from an opponent’s body being battered. I don’t remember many being from a single blow to the body. Some fighters can also suffer long-term injuries after their matches and may pass away later or have to live with those injuries for the rest of their lives.
I’ve talked to many competitors about the incredible difficulties they encountered trying to earn a living as a fighter. Did you make a living as a fighter? Or did you have to work in addition to competing?
Sadly, I never made enough from fighting to live on. Even now, working as a referee, announcer, and senior jury member, it’s still not enough. I worked as a butcher in a slaughterhouse when I was fighting, but even with that, I sometimes had to work a second or third job. My wife made curry from the meat and intestines that I brought back from the slaughterhouse. She had a small stand and sold the curry to earn some extra money. It was very hard, but I did the best I could for my family.
How did you come to meet Saya Kyar Ba Nyein?
I met Saya Kyar Ba Nyein through Saya U Bo Sein. They were very close and had a good relationship. Saya Kyar Ba Nyein at that time was heavily promoting Lethwei and organized many Lethwei tournaments. They invited me to fight in the Flag matches, and this is how I came to know Saya Kyar Ba Nyein.
Can you tell me about the old photo of you with Sayar Kyar Ba Nyein and several other fighters? Was this for a special tournament or match?
That was a promotional photo for a proposed tournament that we were going to do abroad in Malaysia. I believe in the photo was Saya Kyar Ba Nyein, Win Naing Sein (Saya U Bo Sein’s son), Kyaw Sint, Banyar Nwae, Narga Maung, and me. Saya Kyar Ba Nyein gathered the five of us to train for this special Lethwei competition that he wanted to do in three countries originally. The plan was for us to train for two months to get ready. Unfortunately, the Burmese government rejected the proposal. We even went as far as to offer to take only half our fight money to make it happen, with the other half going to the Ministry of Sports, but they refused, and the fight was canceled.
Did you get a chance to do any training with Saya Kyar Ba Nyein before it was canceled?
No, we didn’t get a chance to train because it was shut down at the proposal stage.
What were your impressions of Saya Kyar Ba Nyein?
He was a Western boxing teacher and competitor who had a tremendous love for Lethwei. He really focused on promoting and organizing many of the big Lethwei tournaments at the time. Saya Kyar Ba Nyein wanted to see the sport grow and become popular throughout the country. I didn’t see him so much as a teacher of Lethwei but as an outstanding promoter of the sport.
You were present at the match between Aung Din and Tha Mann Kyar that was held at Shwedagon Pagoda for the Tabaung Festival in the late ‘70s. It ended in a sort of melee. What happened?
This was a big fight organized by Sayar Kyar Ba Nyein. I was there, working as a gatekeeper. There was a very fast exchange between Aung Din and Tha Mann Kyar just before the fight ended. Aung Din seemed hurt and extended - at least, to me - what we call a “long guard” in Lethwei to hold off the charging Tha Mann Kyar, who hit him with a series of punches that left Aung Din reeling. Aung Din was hurt badly and clearly didn’t want to fight anymore. He protested that he was fouled and had his hand up to signal the referee to stop and was ignored, leading to the first part of the controversy. Saya Kyar Ba Nyein intervened and asked Aung Din to continue with the fight, but Aung Din declared that he wanted to be named the winner, and the fight was over. I personally felt that this was a game Aung Din was playing because Tha Mann Kyar had the upper hand, and I thought for sure Aung Din was going to get knocked out if he continued. Aung Din was clearly trying to manipulate the situation in his favor because he wanted to win, but Sayar Kyar Ba Nyein and the jury were having none of it and asked him to continue the fight.
Sayar Kyar Be Nyein and Tha Mann Kyar tried to talk to the crowd and calm things down. Aung Din, who worked on the docks, had many supporters at the show who worked with him at the port. They began to throw rocks and debris at Tha Mann Kyar, the referee, and the jury. When they started throwing rocks at Tha Mann Kyar, the other side started throwing back. This was when things got out of hand, and the riot broke out.
There was a large crowd there. They had bamboo stands like they have for big events in the Mon State, called “Masalar Sin." When the riot started, the stands collapsed. Several monks and audience members were seriously hurt. Many had to be carried out on stretchers. There were also some fatalities before the police arrived and got everything under control.
When did you finally decide to transition from fighter to working behind the scenes?
While competing in my last one or two fights, I started working on the jury. I was close to 30 years old at the time. I was a referee at the Yothaya-Myanmar event in Kawthoung and worked one or two tournaments after that as a ref. I was trying to see where I fit in, so I could work steadily behind the scenes.
Through this process, you obviously found your calling as an announcer. I believe most of the fights that I attended and filmed; you have been the announcer for.
Yes, being the announcer was great for me because I love going to the fights and being part of the show. My job is a bit different from an announcer in the West, as I sit ringside and work at the microphone throughout the tournament.
Working as an announcer is not really easy. You have to bring the event to life. It’s almost continuous throughout the show because you are trying to amplify every strike with a sound. Who did you learn from or emulate while developing your own unique announcing style?
I got most of my announcing skills from Saya Kyar Ba Nyein. He was a great motivator and speaker. I tried to emulate his style.
This type of announcing is a unique aspect of a Lethwei show. Have you passed on your knowledge and helped others carry on this tradition?
There are those like Aung Kyaw Than, Bamar Lay, and Zabu Kyaw, who have been working hard to be good announcers. Still, there is one other crucial element that has to be developed over time, and that is making a critical decision when a problem arises, like in a knockout match, for example. The person who develops both these skills will lead the others.
You accomplished quite a bit in your career. Did you also teach Lethwei?
I taught Lethwei for free to people who really wanted to learn. When I was young, I was very self-motivated to train and compete. You have to work hard. This is a tough sport, but I found many people didn’t have the same drive and took the training too lightly. This really disappointed me. I put a lot of effort into teaching, and I wanted people to succeed.
What about your life now? So much has changed in the country and with the sport.
It’s still a struggle to make ends meet. Jobs are hard to come by. I work primarily as the Chief Jury for tournaments. I still announce, but in the big modern shows, they don't use the traditional announcer. It is no longer part of modern televised shows. Everything has come to a standstill now with the COVID-19 crisis.
Do you still live in Yangon with your family?
Yes. I had a house, but I rented it out to provide us with a small income. I live now in an apartment with my wife and youngest daughter. I have three daughters. Two are married, and one still lives with us.
Right now, I just try to take care of my health and my family. Everything has changed. I don’t know what is next. I just take it day by day.
© 2021, Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without the author's expressed and written permission is strictly prohibited.