Lethwei (or Lethawae), Burmese Boxing is a form of martial arts which originated in Myanmar (Burma). More than any other forms of martial arts, Burmese boxing represents a free fighting style ("no-holds barred").
Lethwei is in many ways similar to its siblings from neighboring South-East Asian countries such as Tomoi from Malaysia, Pradal Serey from Cambodia and most of all Muay Thai styles from Thailand. All of them have a similar ancestry, having been influnced by settlers from China and India. Lethwei is the toughest sport among all above mentioned sports, the most of Lethwei bouts finish with deep knockouts and unconsciousness of one of the fighters. That's why women still quite rarely participate in real Lethwei fights.
Burmese Boxing has its roots as the Burmese national unarmed combat sport going back to 1044. Ancient Myanmar armies successfully used Lethwei, Bando and its armed sibling Banshay in winning many wars against neighboring countries. This ancient combative sport is a highly effective fighting art combining hard punching and kicking, similar to Thai boxing, with elusive stepping and footwork. Today, Burmese Boxing is still taught in the old ways. The training regiment is very physical, and instruction focuses on developing proper technique for delivering maximum power with minimal effort.
While Thai Boxing is the science of 8 limbs (hands, elbows, knees, feet) then Lethwei can be considered as the science of 9 limbs, due to the allowance of head butts. In comparison, Lethwei can be interpreted as being bolder and more extreme. Burmese boxers are said to be slightly bigger and taller than their Thai counterparts. The techniques are a bit slower and stronger than in the other Southeast Asian kickboxing forms.
Participants fight without gloves or protection, wrapping only their hands in hemp or gauze cloth. Fighters fight barefoot except for nylon anklets worn to absorb perspiration. Rules are similar to Muay Thai but allow and encourage all manner of take downs along with head butts. Fights are traditionally held outdoors in sandpits instead of rings, but in modern times they are now held in rings. Popular techniques in Lethwei include leg kicks, knees, elbows, head butts, raking knuckle strikes, and take downs. In the past, sometimes biting and gouging were also permitted in the matches.
Anything goes in the ring. All surfaces of the body are considered fair targets and any part of the body may be used to strike an opponent. Common blows include high kicks to the neck, elbow thrusts to the face and head, knee hooks to the ribs and low crescent kicks to the calf. Lethwei matches usually start in long range with kicks to the legs and raking punches to the face in an effort to draw blood. As the match continues, the fighters often end up in a clinch and the primary techniques used are standing grappling coupled with various takedowns and sweeps. As soon as the fighters fall to the ground they must hold up the bout and stand up to continue standing. A contestant may even grasp an opponent's head between his/her hands and pull it down to meet an upward knee thrust. Punching is considered the weakest of all blows and kicking merely a way to 'soften up' one's opponent; knee and elbow strikes are decisive in most matches.
Before the match begins, each boxer performs a dance-like ritual (Lai Ka) in the ring to pay homage to Buddha and to Khun Cho and Khun Tha, the nats whose domain includes Burmese boxing. The winner repeats the ritual at the end of the match. A small musical ensemble consisting of drums, hne, cymbals and bamboo clappers performs during the rituals and throughout the match; the volume and tempo of the music rise and fall along with events in the ring.
Matches traditionally and ultimately would go until a fighter could no longer continue. In earlier times, there no draws, only a win or loss by knockout. No point system existed. Extreme bloodshed was very common and death in the ring was no surprise. Nowadays in the match, if a knockout occurs, the boxer is revived and has the option of continuing; as a result, defense, conditioning, and learning to absorb punishment are very important. Burmese boxers spend a great deal of time preparing the body to absorb impact and conditioning their weapons to dish it out. Matches today are carried out in both the traditional manner and a more modern offshoot started in 1996, the Myanma Traditional boxing. The modern style has changed to make the contests more of an organized sport under the government's organization. The goal seems to be to make it a more marketable sport similar to Muay Thai. Some Lethwei boxers tried to participate in kickboxing and Muay Thai matches outside Myanmar but their extreme style and techniques were banned in worldwide kickboxing and Muay Thai matches thus making them unadaptable to professional sport fighting contests, and consequently unable to win any major titles. There are a number of Lethwei boxers who do compete in Thailand professionally with varying degrees of success.
Myanmar traditional boxing is the high standard of fighting art without weapons. The traditional boxing match is man to man fighting. Thus, it is regarded as manliness. In an ancient saying, if a man has no bruises or abrasions, he is regarded as womanish. So also, if a man does not know the traditional boxing, he is regarded as a sissy. At the time of ancient Myanmar kings, traditional boxing matches were held in grand scale. However, time is being substantially changed and women no longer want to be just spectators. Women have proved their great capability and ferocity in Muay Thai; in which girls now start training in their early age. Although Burmese boxing is one the most strainght forward and brutal forms of oriental martial arts, women do not take fright at this tough fighting game. As male fighters do, they fight without gloves just wrapping their hands. No special breast protections are known, that's why the most of female fighters in this style have underdeveloped breasts. Female Burmese boxers fight very fiercely and recklessly. At the same time, at the end of bouts they demonstrate friendly generous behaviors.
Rules & Regulations
Wrapped fighter's hand.
Photo by Timothy Syrota
The rules and regulations of Myanmar traditional boxing matches varied in accord with different regions long ago. But at present the rules and regulations observed and practiced by the boxers are the same through out Myanmar.
The competitors must strictly follow the following rules and regulations.
- The competitors must have medical checked up and those medically unfit will not be admitted.
- They have to dress neatly and their hair and nails have to be cut.
They have to get on the stage from the prescribed corner in prescribed manner.
- There must not be any hard things under the bandages and in the socks. If these are found, the boxer will be expelled and action will be taken against him/her.
- Oil must not be used on the body more than necessary.
- At the beginning of the match, every competitor has to demonstrate his/her style of fighting (fighting dance Lai Ka). The style might be different but it must not be against the national culture.
- Team leaders or trainers and judges must arrange the competitors to be matched so that they cannot be wounded.
- The two competitors must not fight each other until the ring referees them to do so.
- They must stop fighting if the referees shout "halt" or show with hand or foot.
- A boxer falling down while fighting must be lying flat on the floor and may not be attacked.
- Boxers must not scratch, bite, pull the hair and kick the perineum of each other.
- If they are holding each other for a long time, the referees must stop the match.
- If one of the two boxers steps back and gives up, the match must be stopped.
- If the two boxers are pretending to fight, the referees must stop the match and take action against them.
- If the referees and judges ask one of the boxers to give up the fight, he/she must willingly accept it.
- Boxers must compete according to three conditions that is one will lose because of fear, (Give up the match, because of injury, because of inability to fight anymore.)
- A fighter who does not pay attention to the frequent warnings of the referees and judges is to be declared as a loser.