In the heart of modern-day Myanmar, the lesser-known martial art Lethwei is fighting for its life. The elder, more deadly, sibling of Muay Thai, Lethwei is a millenia-old boxing tradition that has been kept alive by the last of South East Asia’s fearless bare-knuckle fighters. Practically unknown outside of the country, Lethwei is an ancient “warrior sport” practiced long ago by Burmese soldiers to keep them fighting fit between battles. More akin to street-fighting than other kickboxing martial arts, it is primitive, bloody and fought without gloves or rules. For this reason it was shunned by polite society and the country’s colonial oppressors as a hooligan’s sport, and forced out into rural villages where it continued to thrive and evolve. Speaking to the notorious Lethwei grandmaster and ‘Thut t’ gym owner, Win Zin Oo, reigning Lethwei champion Lone Chaw and photographer Giovanni Gallio, we discuss the cultural legacy and future of a sport that pays its dues in blood and broken bones.
Win Zin Oo, Lethwei Grandmaster
It’s linked to the identity of Myanmar – it’s a fighting art, a sport and a culture.
A Long & Violent Road
Credited for training the toughest, most ruthless martial arts fighters in the world, Lethwei has built a reputation for being one of the most dangerous forms of martial art. Even the hardest MMA fighters recoil in terror at the idea of going five rounds in the ring with a steel-hard Lethwei pro. Known as “the art of nine limbs” this hardcore, contact sport weaponises the whole body using each ‘limb’ in various ways; knees, elbows, and most famously, swift, crushing headbutts. Drummed into a fury by the baying crowd and whinnying pitch of the Burmese flutes, the fighters thrash out with volleys of headbutts, uppercuts and groin kicks that leave their opponents bloodied, broken and laid out cold. Win explains, “It’s very direct and pragmatic. It’s very close to real unarmed fighting.” Watching the matches today, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when fights were more violent. Men are thrown out of the ring for not fighting hard enough and the KO-ed fighters are shaken awake before the bell tolls. But, since the times that gouging and biting were permitted, and death was not uncommon, Lethwei has started to clean up its act in a bid to join the other martial arts in the global arena.
Today, the sport serves as a symbol of strength and national pride for the people of Myanmar. For a country that was, until recently, isolated, marginalised and controlled by one of the longest-running military dictatorships in the world, Lethwei has remained as a national art and a historical legacy. For hundreds of years, Lethwei tournaments have been held at festivals, funerals and celebrations with Buddhist monks and villages gathering in awe around the sand pits to, close enough to feel the spray of blood and sweat. For the people of Myanmar, it offers more than just brutal ringside entertainment, it reconnects them to a cultural identity they were stripped of after years of civil strife and gives the fighters a lifeline out of poverty.
Win Zin Oo, Lethwei Grandmaster
Like with all combat sports you have to be quite crazy to do it.
Eyes swollen shut, teeth knocked out and hair matted with blood, a fighter’s life is a dangerous dance. Giovanni agrees that “like with all combat sports you have to be quite crazy to do it, you can see a lot of blood after five minutes,” but, he adds “in Myanmar, Lethwei is an opportunity for a better life”. For the native fighters, the beating in the ring is a small price to pay for a chance to escape the life of crippling poverty as factory workers, famers or labourers. For families, a child who has natural talent and quick fists, can be a ticket to freedom. With the minimum monthly wage coming in at around fifty pounds a month, a one-hundred pound payout for an amateur fight is an attractive incentive.
Training and fighting child boxers has recently come under fire in neighbouring countries. But in Myanmar, this practice goes relatively unchecked. On his trip to document the sport, Gallio recalls his shock at finding children as young as six years old fighting bare-knuckle in the ring. He adds, “I can remember the first fight I ever saw, these two 15 year old boys started fighting so hard I thought one of them was going to die. It’s not like other martial arts, it’s really instinctive, it’s wild, raw and more animal.”
I. LONE CHOW
Many of the camps outside major cities are rudimentary, breeze block structures with bare walls and open air rings, fighters train hard, dedicated to their regimes that forge bodies of steel. Greeting the dawn with an iron-willed determination, fighters like Lone Chaw train for four hours a day, six days a week; usually warming up before training with a 5k run, sprints and strength building.
Steel-hard units of sinew and muscle, the lethwei fighter’s body is trained to withstand volleys of stinging attacks and spring back with incredible force. Recalling a torturous 45 minute, 15 round match between champions Shwe War Tun vs Shwe Du Wun, Win explains. “The audience was packed in and they fought in a bamboo stadium in the heat of the sun. It was a very tough fight, impossible for a normal person.’ Not these battles require superhuman reserves of strength and hundreds of hours of dedicated training, but they also require a balanced mind.
Win Zin Oo, Lethwei Grandmaster
You can easily get knocked out, but that’s part of life.
“The rural people are very tough naturally and their resilience is the result of a harder way of life,” explains Win, “whilst other people are riding skytrains or buses to work, they are in the rice fields, dragging the cows along.” His champion fighter, protegee and lead trainer, Lone Chaw is a living example of someone who has fought their way out of hardship. In a bid to break free from his impoverished life as a rice farmer, Lone Chaw travelled thousands of miles across the country to Yangon, where he trained tirelessly to become the the most famous and decorated Lethwei fighter in the country. In the early days of his career, he won the public’s attention by flooring a local Nagasaki jujitsu star in under 60 seconds. The trainer observes, “I think for professional fighters the training schedules are very tough but Lone Chaw could bear it. The physical side wasn’t a problem because he was he was used to ploughing farmland every day.” Win remembers the brute strength and fighting spirit that set him apart from others- “before coming to me he was a very raw, raw fighter but, he was naturally hardened from day one because of the life of Lethwei”.
After watching Lethwei champions rise through the ranks of national fame and glory on television sets, the young boys found shadowboxing and jumping tyres in Myanmar’s streets dream only of a better life. It is with these young fighters that Lethwei’s aspirations to rise to the global stage. Many insist that allowing children to participate in the fight remains part of the sport’s tradition, a chance to prove their courage and mark their passage into manhood. Win explains, “many young boys participating in the fights are from rural areas, where Lethwei is maintained as culture. I think it is fine, as long as safety is considered, for example, only fighting for 3 rounds instead of 5.”
They don’t want to kill their opponent, they just want to win the fight.
“The hostility and bad blood that you witness is all inside the ring, outside the ring it’s all about respect.” During his trip to Yangon to document Win Zin Oo’s gym and the tournaments in the area, Gallio was struck by the gentle, brotherly nature of the fighters after the match. He explains, “the fights are really violent but, there’s not as much testosterone, arrogance or attitude as you see in MMA or boxing. They don’t want to kill their opponent, they just want to win the fight” adding, “You wouldn’t find fighters like Conor McGregor in the ring, there’s no trash talking.” After beating the daylights out of each other, the first thing a Lethwei fighter does is help his opponent up, whilst others run to his aid to help clean up the blood. Win explains, “The heart of the fighting system is linked with sporting spirit, after the bloody fight they hug each other. These are the values that I think the people of Myanmar should preserve and maintain.” Gallio adds, “watching the fighters outside the ring, I saw the best way to practice martial arts.” Rather than raging through the streets, jacked up on testosterone and glory of the victory, international stars like Lone Chaw live simple, unassuming lives, greeting their fans with humility.
This sporting spirit is fostered in the fighters from an early age. Win explains that a “noble mind” is what makes a Lethwei champion truly great. “The courage to forget and forgive is very important, somebody punches you and you bleed and the next day you have to sit together. If you’re not at that standard you wont be recognised as a genuine Lethwei fighter. I think it goes back to the politeness, the obedience, perseverance, courage – those are the components of a true Lethwei fighters.”
The conversation turns to the name of the gym he and Lone Chaw set up after his retirement, ‘Thut t’, translating as “courage”. Win explains, “If you have to pick up only one thing that makes a Lethwei warrior, I pick courage.” He adds, “I refer to it as facing something that you’re afraid of and choosing to take the pain with a sense of determination. This spirit it very important to both professionals and the fighters in small villages.” As he speaks, there is a sense that he is not only speaking about Lethwei fighters but, Myanmar’s people. The courage and fighting spirit at the heart of the sport runs deeper, to the core of a nation that has had to pick itself up again and again.