In the last few years Lethwei has boomed in popularity, from being a sport only practised and watched in Myanmar, to a sport that people all over the world pretend they watch, while actually just watching Dave Leduc highlights.
Today we’re going to look over the brutal sport of Burmese boxing and look at some of the Myanmar fighters who make the sport so exciting.
What Is Lethwei, again?
Lethwei, or Burmese Boxing is a ‘cousin’ to Muay Thai. It’s part of the same family of Indochinese kickboxing which includes Muay Thai, Kun Khmer and Muay Laos. In truth, this is actually one martial art which is given a different name depending on the country it’s practised. Nationalism and general dislike of each other prevents each country from admitting it’s practising anything other than its own, unique martial art. In practise however, there is no difference between Muay Thai and Kun Khmer, and any superficial differences come down to one nation favouring a technique slightly more in judging. This is why Kun Khmer is known slightly more for its elbows than Muay Thai, but all this means is that you are seeing exactly the same thing elbow fighters in Thailand do, just slightly more frequently.
Lethwei is slightly different in that its rules have kept in some old-fashioned traditions now long gone from Muay Thai. Use of the headbutt, and a win only attainable by KO (although this rule now depends on the promotion). In a lot of ways this makes it similar to Muay Thai Kard Chuek, the revived KO only bare-knuckle rules of Muay Thai.
However, while Kard Chuek uses rope hand wraps that essentially act as gloves, Lethwei is indeed actually bare knuckle and has an unusual quirk of being able to call a time out. Remember this for later.
Needless to say the emphasis on bare knuckle, headbutt, KO-me-twice-to-win fights puts a cap on how long a fighters career can be. Which is why we don’t typically see Lethwei fighters with fights spanning in the hundreds like Muay Thai fighters do. It also means that Lethwei fights can often turn into brawls, rather than technical affairs, as it’s a sport where if you want to win you NEED the KO, and that inherently encourages brawling. This is a stark contrast to Muay Thai, which while known for its bloody wars, is still overall a more technical affair.
One final quirk of Lethwei, is that it as a sport needs to be parasitic to Muay Thai in order to survive. Due to the poorer economy of Myanmar, and a shallower pool of fighters, Lethwei is very reliant on fighters from other disciplines testing their skills in the art of nine limbs. The more acclaimed fighter you are, the less likely you are to be fighting against the Burmese. Instead you’ll be facing foreign competition, who are usually not accustom to Lethwei rules.
It’s unclear how long these challenge matches have been going on for, but the first foreign fighter to defeat a Burmese Boxer under their own rules was respectable MMA journeyman Akitoshi Tamura.
In this fight his opponent Aye Bo Sein keeps a relentless forward pressure, but seemingly has no idea how to defend himself in the clinch, choosing to keep hammering away at the body with hooks. Trying to punch your way out of a double collar tie is a mistake that everyone makes at some point and should really be avoided, as the positioning you need for body punches to be effective isn’t possible while leaning forward while someone holds onto your neck. It simply leaves you open for knees.
Eventually this forward pressure and lack of care in the clinch results in Bo Sein being KO’d with a knee to the face. History was made, and since then we have seen a lot more fights cross-style being contested under Lethwei rules. This is important to know going forward as even as I highlight some Lethwei greats, you’re going to see them against non-Lethwei fighters frequently.
Tway Ma Shaung
Now retired, Tway Ma Shaung is the greatest Lethwei fighter of all time. A big part of his success is finding a happy medium between legitimately great technical striking and landing body shots in the midst of wild brawls. Body shots being especially potent in bare knuckle bouts, yet always under used. His finesse in a sport based on iron toughness, resulted in a long and legendary career facing only two losses across three decades.
Soe Lin Oo
Soe Lin Oo is the most popular fighter in Myanmar right now, beloved for his aggressive style and incredible toughness. He is a fighter so tough in fact that even in the sport of Lethwei where being able to take headbutts is a prerequisite, he is called The Iron Man.
He is almost reminiscent of early Korean Zombie, in that there is nothing preventing him from learning how to defend himself. He just… doesn’t.
Soe Lin Oo is by no means a technical striker, but he is able to overcome all of his opponents just by virtue of being aggressive and being tough as nails. He’s one of, if not the greatest currently fighting in the lower weight classes, but this hasn’t stopped him from fighting up in weight against fighters like Too Too, who could have had his own section in this article, had there been enough time:
Too Too outweighed Soe Lin Oo by at least 15lbs in this fight, yet the fight still resulted in a hard fought draw.
Thway Thit Win Hlaing
Win Hlaing fights with a style that should be more familiar to Muay Thai fans. He stands apart from most Lethwei fighters in that rather than brawling, he keeps a slow, methodical pace, looking for his left body kick. He picks his shots and his fights are often slow, unfortunately a slow fight in Lethwei is a good way to put fans off you.
It’s also a good way to put the referee of you, as this fight has perhaps the most impatient referee I’ve ever seen. Lethwei is fought as such a high pace that a few seconds of Win Hlaing feeling his opponent out results in the referee scolding the fighters and pushing for more action.
Win Hlaing’s caution and calculation can sometimes be his enemy however. He is more likely to pick up a draw than some of his peers, purely by virtue of not forcing a KO. That said He is still an outstanding fighter with an unbelievably solid record.
Tun Tun Min
We mentioned a time out can be called during a fight earlier. Most people became aware of this fact when they saw Tun Tun Min vs Cyrus Washington. I remember screaming at my TV watching this fight in sheer disbelief that I had just watched a man get KO’d, a time out called, and then that man get promptly sent back out to fight again. Tun Tun Min vs Cyrus Washington is one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen, and it was undoubtedly the fight that shone a light on Lethwei throughout most of the western world.
This probably should have been ruled a knockout for the safety of Tun Tun Min, despite this though, he still fought again after coming to, and has become one of two fighters I’ve seen win a fight after being KO’d, the second of course being Michael Bisping against Anderson Silva.
So, there we have it, a brief look at one of the most brutal sports in the world, and some of the best fighters from it. This article has barely scratched the surface, as there are many great fighters I haven’t even mentioned here today, each as tough as the last.