Saya Win Zin Oo is the founder and senior coach of Thut Ti Lethwei Club in Yangon. He is prominently featured in the Born Warriors documentary trilogy, as well as many other television specials and documentaries focused on the art of Lethwei. Saya Win’s deep understanding of Lethwei, alongside his ability to work across cultural borders, has made him a highly respected global ambassador for the sport.
His own training began at a young age under the tutelage of his grandfather; a farmer and amateur Lethwei competitor. He later continued his Lethwei training under Saya Aung Gyi, Saya Moe Gyoe, Saya Duang Ni and Saya Maung Nyunt.
He has coached many premier Lethwei competitors and champions during his long career, including Maung Maung Gyi, Shwe Du Won, Saw Thae Aung, Saw Thae Myo, Eh Htee Kaw, Shan Lay Thway, Saw Gaw Mu Doe and Lone Chaw among others.
Saya Win Zin Oo currently lives with his wife at his home in Yangon that has been partially converted to house his training camp.
Can you give us a brief update on what has been happening with you since we last visited?
Around that time, I had just left World Vision and went to work for TAG - a development organization. Following this, I transitioned into more of a freelance consultant role for a multitude of different organizations including the World Food Program, USAID, the United States Forest Service and as a trainer for the Incident Command System (ICS), a system used for emergency relief and disaster management. I followed this with some work with the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) as a part time consultant. From that point on, I didn’t work for any organizations on a full- time basis. During this period, I faced many different challenges but at the same time, I had more time to devote to Lethwei.
What’s been happening with the Thut Ti training camp in the last few years?
The gym itself has continued to progress and grow. For example, there are two types of activities here; the first is training for professional fighters, and the second is training for a wide group of people who don’t fall into the first category or who don’t want to compete. The professionals want to dedicate their lives to training and competing, but for the rest, they mostly want to learn Lethwei as a way to get fit, stay healthy, or maybe for self-defense, self-confidence, or sometimes stress-release.
How do you keep the camp running? There are obviously expenses involved even though its technically at your home.
Yes, running a camp will always involve time and money. The way we have to teach is totally different. The bottom line is that every time we do business, we need investment, for I am not a rich man. I try hard to be as principle-oriented as possible while running my club, but if you accept financial assistance from a business entity, (and it’s certainly good when that can happen) things will change. My own personal experience is that there is always something that will be compromised, and for me it comes down to the principles and values I want to maintain.
We have professional fighters who are dedicated to building a fighting career. They are not big-name fighters yet but we have to support their growth and evolution, and this requires resources. I worked it out so the finances we get from training the larger body of students who come to train on a daily basis can be used for sustaining the gym and helping the professionals achieve their goals and stay focused. This is my business model for staying as self-sufficient as possible while enforcing the principles and values I feel are important.
What about the actual teaching and training? The camp seems to be doing well.
Things have been successful for the most part. We have of course had to adjust to the recent health crisis over the last several months. COVID is worldwide, so everything is affected at every level; training has had to be suspended for safety concerns, and people traveling in and out have been affected. We’ve had to address this and help create a safe situation for the public to return to training. Our primary concern is the safety of everyone involved. We are just now starting up our training programs again.
At our gym, we not only have local fighters in training but also many who visit from other countries including France, Portugal, Australia, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Mexico, Germany and England, all wanting to train with us. I have to remind them that it is not a gym with sophisticated equipment but more of a rural, Spartan-traditional gym in terms of physical facilities. It’s also important to understand that we focus on traditional Lethwei only. Though we have great respect for other martial arts, we focus all our attention and resources specifically on Lethwei.
You are able in your camp to select and train the fighters who want to compete. How do you work that out?
Lethwei is not an easy sport by any means. Frankly, you have to be able to deal with the pain of the training as well as the pain of the fight. Fighting is a heavy commitment, so we put them through the training and we see how they develop. Some people come to train and they believe they want to fight competitively and become a champion but then they can’t keep up with the intensity of the training. Some fighters are very intelligent (in terms of ring IQ) and some are very resilient and some can be a combination of the various attributes.
I’ll highlight two of my fighters as an example, Shwe Du Won and Maung Maung Gyi. Maung Maung Gyi is a very intelligent fighter but his resilience is not that high. Shwe Du Won is not that intelligent but he is very resilient. So, as a coach, it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each fighter. People endlessly talk about the many new types of equipment for training or the shiny new gym with air conditioning but it’s not always essential. They are certainly good to have and if you can afford them then you should integrate them into your training. But to my way of thinking and training, it’s not something that is absolutely necessary.
Many have said that Myanmar is not that good at sports in general, including Lethwei. If you are talking about resources alone then maybe this statement is correct to an extent. The best soccer players or the best fighters in Myanmar don’t come from the wealthy elite class for the most part; they are dedicated athletes who apply themselves completely to their sport. Some might have been trained in a camp or gym that is modest in means but they still achieve their goals. It is an ongoing debate as to whether resources are more important or ring IQ, but in my view, IQ is more important. Training though is always going to be tough whether it’s old, new, or a mix of the two.
I see also that you have had many people coming in from Japan to train. Is this because of the Lethwei tournaments that have occurred not only in Myanmar but in Japan as well?
There is a long and healthy tradition of Japan vs. Myanmar fight tournaments, with some being held in Myanmar and the others being held in Japan. The Japanese seem to have grown to enjoy Lethwei very much, and they now want to train in it.
Last December, I had the chance to train two Japanese people who came to the gym. They were not fighters but they did have a martial arts background. Both of them were working in Myanmar at the time, so they wanted to take advantage of the training and they started working with my fighters. In the end, they trained hard enough to fight in the ring and they gained the recognition of the audience for the courage they displayed in their fight. That’s what I am trying to do. I want people to experience Lethwei at all levels. If they are dedicated, they can fight and we will find a place for them to compete. It doesn’t always have to be in the big shows. It doesn’t always have to be about the big champions.
You mentioned the newer, more modern camps. How many camps are there now in the Yangon?
There are quite a few new camps in Yangon and I would say that most of them are established or supported by businessmen, but I feel now it’s going to be a matter of what camps can survive in the wake of the COVID crisis. Many of the businesses or the individuals supporting the camps might have their own personal financial problems that they will need to address. We’ll see what happens in the coming months. It’s going to be about the resilience and the dedication to stick it out through these tough times for each training center.
The large scale Lethwei shows have generated a lot of interest in the sport in the last few years. Can you talk a bit about this new evolution of Lethwei?
There are many positive things to talk about. Obviously, Lethwei is more visible right now globally which is very important as the shows rely heavily on marketing and advance promotion. I don’t fully agree with the constant verbal sparring between the fighters and the histrionics but it is part of the showmanship. It is not something we have had in Lethwei and the introduction of this is somewhat abrasive.
In the village level fights the fighters are very respectful, very soft spoken. They fight hard, sometimes even once per week, and after the fight they show their humbleness, respect and calm demeanor. That's the culture and the values I really love. At the middle promotion level, it's mixed. Some promoters want to copy the big fights, while others want to continue to promote the value of the village cultural level fights. The most important part of this is that luckily one is not erasing the other.
How does it work now for coaches and camps trying to get their fighters into the shows?
I try to develop good relationships with all the promoters, but there is always going to be some form of politics involved. Sometimes you run into certain obstacles like one promotion wants a fighter to fight exclusively for them or if you fight for one then another one might hold it against you. You have to navigate through all these issues. It’s just part of the process.
In the end, my fighters need income because this is their livelihood. As such, on the one hand we have to try to develop relationships as much as we can, and on the other hand we have to keep in mind the values and principles of what we are trying to accomplish. It's not an easy balance. I don't want my fighters to suffer from these kinds of headaches - it’s really for me and my management assistants to deal with. The fighters have to focus on what they are supposed to do and that’s to fight in the ring.
What about the preparation and training for the decision tournaments? You have to prepare the strategy for that.
There has been a big movement toward decision fighting now in the big arena shows and I feel it's more geared toward the Westerner as they want a winner when they can’t knockout or finish the opponent. I mean, it doesn't really hurt the sport too much. It offers a resolution that satisfies both the audience and the fighters. Right now, it’s not all tournaments - just one or two focusing on that aspect.
It’s not something new to me since I go back to the Golden Belt tournaments. I know how to prepare the fighters for them.
The Golden Belt tournaments are an early model for the new modern shows.
Yes, the Golden Belt tournaments, starting back in 1996, were a big introduction to this type of show and an early model of the points system here in Myanmar. The new modern shows are not the first entity to use it and we have built on it for quite some time. You may have also seen it before in the Inter-state and Division Fights (now called Inter-state and Region Fight) which are all decided with the point system.
I am not against the point system as long as it is done fairly with good judging. Lethwei has long been based on the structure and understanding that the fighter must finish the opponent or the fight is ruled a draw. I’m proud of the aspect that the fighters can battle it out - win or lose - for two hours or more. Their tenacity and resilience are the very essence of Lethwei. But I understand we have to also look at the safety and well-being of the fighters who after two hours might have to be taken to the hospital. The point system gives us another alternative with an eye toward safety and clarity.
We’ve talked mostly about the current state of Lethwei in the modern arenas. What about the future of the flag fights?
I'm a huge fan of the traditional flag fights. There are less of them now but they are still being held. Last February, they had a very big pagoda festival in which two flag fight tournaments were included in the festivities.
They are traditional tournaments so they are a bit different to the big modern shows. I guess from the scientific, safety and health perspective there are some concerns because there are no weight categories for the fighters. They are matched by the referees or juries.
The current modern system is a blend of techniques, toughness, and resilience.
The point system goes more to the technical side rather than the toughness and resilience side.
The flag system goes toward toughness and resilience more - you have to have the endurance to fight for possibly two hours.
In the flag system there is a particularly unique aspect – let’s say in the first round, A and B fight and then if A knocks out B they can stop, go out of the ring, and take rest before coming back and fighting again. From a cultural perspective, it's really interesting, but for the average viewer, it doesn’t seem very fair. When this happens people wonder why they came back, and I have to explain to them that it’s a round robin tournament and the pairs are rotated.
It can be very confusing for the viewer not familiar with the rules.
Yes, it can often be confusing for even those of us who are quite familiar with it like you and me. Sometimes what they do is very subjective. An outsider will have a hard time keeping up with what is going on, outside of the excitement of the fights. It’s one of the disadvantages of this way of fighting.
I think watching a tournament like that in the rural community is something a person who loves Lethwei should experience.
Yes. It's part of the culture and tradition of Lethwei.
How do they keep time in these older tournaments?
Now, of course, we have a stop watch to manage time, but I remember when I was young we didn't even have a stopwatch. Sometimes we had to use a clock, which is not very appropriate. But in the flag system, there is no clock. Time is assessed by what is happening and the juries and referees. I think this is what you are referring to.
The popularity of Lethwei and the big fight shows have led to many people now wanting to learn. What are your thoughts on the teaching and coaching aspects of the art?
I think the first thing we need is a dependable way to teach and spread the art. It’s something I have given much thought to, as far as how to make this work.
There are many schools and gyms teaching Muay Thai throughout the world. Some are more organized than others in terms of teaching. There are not that many people qualified to teach and coach Lethwei at the moment. What are your feelings about the teaching of the art?
One question is - are you going for diversity or are you going for standardization? Outside of Myanmar, standardization can become very difficult, which is why I'm working on a program to help with this issue. The program is not a standardization of the art but a developed curriculum to teach to the public.
You are developing the teaching almost like what you have at your gym. One program for the public and the other for competitors.
It’s born from the experience I have had teaching both competitors and people who want to fight, and those who just come to train and learn the art for a variety of other reasons. I want to preserve the uniqueness of Lethwei, especially at a professional level.
There are three things that are unique to Lethwei that I want to keep. The first thing is the headbutt, a very unique component of Lethwei. The second thing is that Lethwei is a standing fight, not a ground fight - the fight stops when an opponent hits the ground. The third thing is that it is fought with bound fists. The hands are wrapped but no gloves are used. These are the three elements that should be in place for a professional Lethwei fight.
I think eventually we need a governing body and an entity to help spread the art globally.
What are your goals now having been involved in Lethwei for so long? Where do you see the art going in the future?
I want to personally contribute to the development and spread of Lethwei as a fighting sport, a martial art, and a form of self-defense and fitness. It is also a deeply rooted part of our culture that I want to share with everyone in order to show the respect and quality of the fighters and teachers. I want it to be something that a diverse audience can understand, train in, and enjoy.
Lethwei was a relatively unknown sport due to the closed nature of the country for many, many years. Now, with the opening of the country and a wide interest in it, things are changing which allows for many opportunities but also the dangerous risks of exploitation and possibly going too far in the wrong direction. How do we structure and systematize it without losing its essence and what makes it unique? For the business sector working to build the sport with us — how can we coordinate, cooperate, and if possible, genuinely collaborate to development and really make Lethwei a unique global sport? These are the challenges that face us in the coming years.
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