Myanmar’s traditional martial art is booming – and facing challenges – as it continues to reach out to the world, writes Mathew Scott.

Win Zin Oo has for the past 35 years been overseeing training at his property tucked away past some market stalls and down a quiet backstreet on the outskirts of Yangon.

There’s a fist painted on the bright red gate outside and it’s the first giveaway as to what’s going on here, in behind the iron. A small but distinct “lethwei” sign to the left of the fist confirms that we have found the right place.

Win Zin Oo turned his home into the Thut Ti (Courage) Lethwei Club in the 1980s and ever since there have been a procession of local lethwei champions who have gathered here daily for workouts under a tin roof – among them legendary three-time national champion Lone Chaw – as well as an increasing number of mere mortals, drawn to the martial art both for its physical and mental impact.

“Lethwei can be beneficial not only for fighting but also to promote health, and discipline,” is how Win Zin Oo explains it.

WORLD LETHWEI CHAMPIONSHIP

FOR MANY PEOPLE IT IS THE ART OF THE FARMER, IT IS THE ART OF THE HOOLIGAN, IT IS THE ART OF THE DRUNKARD.

Interest in lethwei has been increasing, rapidly, as Myanmar has opened up to the world with Hollywood action man Frank Grillo (Captain America) has become its latest high-profile fan after coming to Yangon in June to check out the scene.

“The baddest fighting I’ve ever seen,” was the American’s reaction to his first taste of the action, and it’s a common reaction to a martial art where the use of feet, hands, knees, elbows and, often spectacularly, heads are all allowed and where – traditionally – victory comes only via knockout.

The team at Thut Ti are committed to only teaching the tradition art of lethwei, too. Win Zin Oo’s first teacher was his grandfather, before he went on to experience life as a civil engineer. But lethwei called him back.

“At the start we had no shelter, no ring, just a garden,” says Win Zin Oo. “So we had to rob my wife’s garden. It was a small, rudimentary place where people could practice. In my heart I respect all martial arts but I found that this martial art is very effective, it was very unknown – even in Myanmar. At first, for many people it is the art of the farmer, it is the art of the hooligan, it is the art of the drunkard. But it should be valued for culture reasons and for ethical reasons – for its strong values.”

MYANMAR LETHWEI

Win Zin Oo has overseen training at his property on the outskirts of Yangon for the past 35 years.

That was then, this is now and Win Zin Oo says the sport is “booming.” Government support seems still to a work in progress. As Myanmar develops, its leaders have more pressing concerns to address for the time being, says Win Zin Oo. But “as a sport, we have to stand on our own two feet first,” he says.

Today there are three women warming up next to the ring at Thut Ti. Lone Chaw is looking on as they are made to run on top of tyres to get their legs and their blood pumping. Soon they’ll be going to work on a bag, and quickly offer each other words of quiet encouragement as the pounding begins.

“People come for difference reasons,” says Win Zin Oo. “To become a fighter, to become fit. On a personal level, if I were to pick one thing lethwei taught me it would be patience. If you are an angry fighter, if you can’t control your temper, you are beaten already.”

LETHWEI IN MYANMAR

A small but distinct lethwei sign reveals the gym.

Later in the day ONE Championship will host its ONE: Light of a Nation MMA event, which features a host of former lethwei fighters and a few who are competing in both sports. The people at ONE have begun to tap into the potential lethwei offers as a training and recruitment ground for its own stable of fighters, throwing their support behind the World Lethwei Championship (WLC) which was formed last year.

To make the rougher edges of lethwei potentially more palatable for as wide an audience as possible, WLC has tweaked its rules, eliminating injury timeouts and introducing a scoring system – both of which are apparently designed to temper traditional lethwei’s focus on all-out attack, and on knockouts.

Dave Leduc has been at the forefront of lethwei’s rise in international popularity as he has come to dominate the Myanmar Lethwei World Championships, and make his mark globally as its world champion. He’s been openly against messing with the sport’s traditions – penning a letter to the WLC calling on it to resist implementing changes.

The Phuket-based Canadian believes traditional lethwei can continue to rise of its own accord – with prize money and high profile events to suit – and that there is no need for change, as shown by successful events previously held in Japan, and one on the cards for New Zealand.

DAVE LEDUC LETHWEI

“The rawness, the no-point knockout [factors] are the selling points of lethwei,” says Leduc.

“If the guys can survive five rounds of bareknuckle action, it’s a draw. That’s it. I think [WLC] did those modifications to attract more people or make it more acceptable because otherwise it’s very savage. But it’s sad because potentially they are destroying or watering down a centuries-old sport, where the man that wants it the most wins. Lethwei is doing fine, it has never been more popular.”