Very few people could have predicted that in the space of just a few short years, one of the world’s most traditional forms of unarmed combat would today be regarded as one of the fastest-growing areas of the hurt business in Asia.

Zay Thiha is one of those people.

As chairman of Myanmar Lekkha Moun, the company behind World Lethwei Championship (WLC), Zay has known for a long time what many across the globe are only starting to realise; that the sport of lethwei, like Myanmar itself, is booming.

Lethwei differentiates itself from other martial arts around the region such as Muay Thai from Thailand or Kun Khmer from Cambodia, simply by its raw nature – and its lack of gloves, headgear and other protective equipment.

Over the past 12 months the number of lethwei events, both domestically and beyond the boarders of its spiritual home in Myanmar, have exploded and Zay says the industry is just getting started.

“Lethwei is a hidden treasure that many martial arts fans around the world are not aware of,” he told ROUGH.

“Within five years, we want WLC to be synonymous with world-class martial arts and well-known to everybody from all over the world.”

WORLD LETHWEI CHAMPIONSHIP WLC1 THE FIGHT NATION

I WANT TO USE LETHWEI TO SHOWCASE MYANMAR TO THE WORLD.

With more than 20 years of experience spearheading the growth of Myanmar’s leading brands in construction, IT, hospitality and sports, Zay is well poised to drive the growth of the country’s most revered combat sports.

In March this year World Lethwei Championship held its first event on a reclaimed field outside Yangon, where some 6,000 people showed up to see Burmese kickboxer Tun Tun Min square off against UK fighter Nicholas Carter in the main event. Just five months later and WLC is readying for its third event, which has now been moved to the 10,000 seater Thuwunna Indoor Stadium.

Zay says right from the beginning the plan was establish WLC fast and hold up to eight major events per year.

“We want to grow the entire lethwei community so we have to show our commitment,” he says.

“Even before our first event, we signed exclusive contracts with all the best lethwei fighters in the country and many top fighters from around the world. To grow the sport, you need to be committed and that’s why we have hit the ground running and you can see the incredible growth in the level of interest just after two shows.”

Alongside this growth of lethwei have been two competing schools of thought about a traditional, no rules approach, versus a more modern judging system that uses a points system to declare a winner. From its first event in March, WLC chose to use the point-based system, a move that Zay says ensures safety of the fighters, but still provides an exciting product to entice old and new fans.

“Martial arts is always evolving and we can see from all different forms of martial arts that they have made changes to cater to the times and that is why we introduced the World Lethwei rules,” he says.

“As a sport, there has to be a winner and loser. We want to incentivise the fighters to give it their all throughout the fight and we also want a way to protect the fighters from trying illegal moves.

“At the same time, we retain the core essence of lethwei which is the gauze handwraps and the headbutts.”

WORLD LETHWEI CHAMPIONSHIP WLC1 THE FIGHT NATION

UNION OF MYANMAR

Zay has been a keen watcher of lethwei for years, but his motivation launching WLC goes beyond his passion for the sport.

“I want to use lethwei to showcase Myanmar to the world,” he says.

“We want to show that lethwei is the truest form of striking martial arts and we want to combine that with world-class entertainment to appeal to international fans, who will then recognise Myanmar as a hub for quality sports entertainment.”

Myanmar is growing at such a rapid pace, but still there is a sense of mystique about the nation which is home to more than 100 ethnic groups and borders some of Asia’s leading economies from India to Bangladesh, China and Thailand.

Next year, WLC plans to host a steady mix of shows in Yangon as well as in other international cities including Singapore, Phnom Penh and Macau.

Domestically, plans to accelerate its growth are already in swing. More than 10 million people watched the last event live on TV, making it one of the most viewed sports show in Myanmar history outside of football.

Zay Thiha World Lethwei Championship

“We want WLC to be synonymous with world-class martial arts,” says Zay.

Lethwei is also seeing its brand of martial arts crossover to mixed martial arts and Zay said that has been a deliberate move.

“We have been a part of the growth of MMA in Myanmar since day one,” he says proudly.

Myanmar Lekkha Moun Company has been the local event promoter for all of ONE Championship’s events in Myanmar and fighters like Phoe Thaw and Saw Min Min have won tournaments in ONE Championship.

“I think there can be a nice balance between fans who will enjoy both MMA and lethwei at the same time. It is contrasting enough that you can watch both and enjoy them together.”

It’s a hugely exciting time for both lethwei and MMA as they gain mainstream acceptance. Hold on to your seats, it’s going to be a wild ride.