Ranked as one of the most brutal martial arts in the world, Lethwei – or Burmese bareknuckle boxing – is a sport that comes out of Myanmar. It involves two fighters brawling it out without, as the name implies, wearing any gloves. Making its way from the sand pits of the country once known as Burma, it slowly makes its rise to the world, as more foreigners and outsiders come to learn of this ancient, yet extreme style of martial art.

Origins of Lethwei: Burmese Bareknuckle Boxing

lethwei Burmese Bareknuckle Boxing

Although there are no exact dates to when Lethwei was created, similar styles of the fighting style can be traced back to as far back as the Pyu city-states in Myanmar, which existed from 200 BCE to 1050 BCE. Along with other Burmese martial art styles such as Banshay and Bando, Lethwei was originally used by the Myanmar army to help battle against neighboring countries, meaning many military officers trained in this fighting style.

The Ways of a Traditional Bout

Unlike American Boxing, fighters are permitted to use more than their fists to fight. One of the primary reasons for Lethwei being known as “The Art of 9 Limbs” is the fact that fighters can use their feet, knees, elbows, and even head to strike down their opponent. Furthermore, instead of wearing gloves, they are required to wear tape and gauze over their fists and feet.

To add to the brutality of the sport, matches are not based on countdown of time or scores, but typically end once one of the fighters are knocked out. There are no points to be obtained, since the only for one to be victorious is to knock the other out completely, or if one of the fighters are unable to continue due to a major injury. By the end of a match, if both individuals are left standing, the bout is considered a draw.

Trainings of Lethwei: Burmese Bareknuckle Boxing

One of the primary reasons for a fight to traditionally go on until a fighter is knocked out was to teach the individuals lessons on doing your best and working hard. The match placed less attention on the ideas of winning and losing.

Moreover, traditionally it taught Burmese people how to prepare for an oncoming bout, hence it provided useful tips on movement, distancing between an opponent, and timing. The brutal nature of a fight would force students to learn how to take a hit, and properly absorb strikes from all sides. As much as offense was important in taking down an enemy, they had to be well prepared to defend themselves as well, since the sport allowed the use of any limb.

Modern Day & Beyond

lethwei Burmese Bareknuckle Boxing
Dave Leduc

Another interesting aspect of the sport, is for each fighter to be given the chance to ‘revive.’ In other words, if there is a knockout, the person can use a time-out and to continue with the bout.  This option can only be used once throughout a fight however.

With the establishment of the Myanma Traditional Boxing Federation, Lethwei had a modification to the rules to help make the sport more regulated. Thus, unlike the traditional times, there are judges to determine winners for when a match is undecided from the lack of a knockout.

Canadians such as Dave Leduc are just a few examples of foreigners that have made a significant mark in the sport, and helped open the door for the sport to be revealed to an international audience. Titled the first non-Burmese fighter to win a Lethwei world title.

What is even more interesting is the growing interest of the sport across genders. In a sport that was traditionally known for men, due to its brutal nature, Moe Pwint Oo, a medical science student, is just one example of some of the women in Myanmar that are becoming involved in the sport. After decades of military rule, the new-found independence is opening many Burmese people to this world, and with gender roles slowly shifting in society, it is no wonder woman are joining in. It has even been noted that some have become attracted to the sport due to the intensity of fitness that is required.

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