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Born Warriors Redux: A New Era Begins for an Ancient Sport

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The intensity in Yangon’s Thein Pyu Stadium is palpable. Two Lethwei fighters characteristically charge one another with hard fast volleys of stinging attacks. The arena, originally custom built to promote Lethwei, is comfortable, with tiered seating providing excellent views from all angles. The one startling difference today is that there are cameras everywhere covering the event. No more shoddy coverage or mismatched cameras and bad edits. The audience members join in the reverie enthusiastically, lifting high into the air their iPhones, Samsung Galaxys, iPads, or anything they can record the fights with. Within minutes, personal Facebook and YouTube pages are loaded with images and videos of the fights. Welcome to the new world of Lethwei. Once doomed for decades by a military dictatorship that forcibly cut off any contact to the outside world, Myanmar now revels in the freedom to share any element of society with all those within Myanmar and the world at large.

Lethwei, or as it is more commonly known in the West, Burmese boxing, is a fascinating study of an indigenous combat sport in transition. The name of its home country was abruptly changed in 1989, by the then-ruling junta, from Burma to Myanmar. Lethwei soon after became known as Myanmar traditional boxing. The terms are often used interchangeably, but in the West, it is still known primarily as Burmese boxing, much to chagrin of those who embrace the brutal regime’s name change to Myanmar.

Once marginalized and controlled by one of the longest-running military dictatorships in the world, Lethwei began its slow rise back to prominence when President Thein Sein came to power in 2011 with the promise of democratic reforms that would enable Myanmar to finally reengage with the international community.

This was not the first time Lethwei has had to come back from the brink of oblivion. During the colonial period, the art was suppressed, only surviving defiantly in the rural communities that cherished it. The eruption of World War II and the Japanese invasion brought the country to its knees. The Allied victory and Burma’s eventual independence brought hope back to the people of Burma, and the indigenous traditions slowly began to come back into public view.

The post-World War 2 revival of Lethwei was spearheaded by the popular Western boxer Tiger Ba Nyein, who competed in the 1952 Summer Olympics. Tiger Ba Nyein organized and sponsored a more uniform set of modern rules and regulations for Lethwei, which he spread throughout the country. His tireless work to promote the art encouraged his friend U Ba Than Gyi, the then head of physical education of Burma, to work toward not only supporting its revival but also experimenting with the use of modified boxing gloves like the Thais had developed for their own sport, Muay Thai. The goal was to restore Lethwei as a modern national sport and as an integral part of the burgeoning physical education programs.

The encouragement and sponsorship of these innovative men came crashing down as the sport again slid into near obscurity after 1962 when a brutal military dictatorship took control of the country.

The world has changed tremendously since Myanmar’s deep isolation, which lasted from 1962 until 2011. Despite this, the people involved in Lethwei struggled to keep the art alive in the main arenas, while in the rural communities, the traditional art continued to be proudly practiced during holiday celebrations. But the sport lost its luster and became just another form of entertainment to put on for the public when promoters could organize and fund the shows.

The opening of the country after 2011 introduced many critical elements that helped the growth potential within the sport and business sectors. The ability to move about freely without secret police monitoring your every move (including being able to have conversations with others, especially foreigners), an easier passport process to travel abroad, intermittent levels of media openness without extreme repercussion, and more open communication through the Internet (which most of the population was prevented from accessing during the dictatorship) has increased free-flowing communication with the world.

In turn, businesspeople have flooded the sports sector looking at Lethwei as a commodity to export and exploit. The possibilities have now became more achievable because fighters and trainers can get passports more easily to compete in other countries. The first country to begin holding Lethwei fights was Singapore, supported by the Burmese community there. The Internet has provided a vital portal for posting fights so a wider audience can see these events as they are happening or soon after. This has engaged the Burmese throughout the world to watch and become involved in their national sports, even when they are far from home. They share in the excitement of the current Myanmar vs. Thailand cards, which brought a sense of national pride back to the people.

The world has also changed tremendously rules-wise for combat sports over the last several decades. The rise of mixed martial arts has led to a more stringent set of rules inside the ring and out. The safety of the fighters has become a more and more paramount concern. Mandatory drug testing, along with the fines and suspensions that follow in the wake of negative tests, have helped show the seriousness of the various commissions and promoters to keep the art clean. This, unfortunately, has spelled trouble for Lethwei in the modern arena. The sport is called bare knuckle, but in reality, the hands are covered by a thin gauze wrap that is covered by tape. There are no gloves used at all. The use of the head-butt and some rules, including second chance, seem to have little chance of being included in Western arenas. Fighters currently do not submit to drug testing or blood tests to determine other variables like Hepatitis or AIDS. In time, a modern form of international Lethwei could be created to comply with modern rules and the standards of safety for the fighters and allow Lethwei to eventually be staged throughout the world.

Lethwei is a tough sport. In the main stage tournaments, fights are 5 rounds of 3 minutes each with a 2-minute rest interval in between. It differs from Muay Thai, the more popular national sport of Thailand, in tempo and rhythm. Muay Thai fighters fight with gloves on and have eliminated elements like the head-butt from their arsenal. The opening Lethwei Yei differs considerably from the opening Wai Kru/Ram Muay the Thais use. How a fighter evolves toward the top of his division is very different from in Muay Thai. A fighter can rise from the rural ranks fighting for the flag to gain recognition or work his way through the fight levels that are broken down as amateur/beginner level, where fights are only 3 rounds, semi-professional level, where fights are 4 rounds, and then the professional level, which is 5 rounds.

Unlike the Muay Thai fighters, Burmese fighters do not have the luxury of fighting for a decision at the end of the match. A winner must definitely stop the opponent with a knockout, cut stoppage, or forfeit, or the match is called a draw. Many fighters rely on the outcome, not only for the win but also for the financial reward that comes with it. Fighters get more for a win than a draw. Because of this, fighters try hard to defeat their opponent, often setting a blistering pace from the first round on as they start grinding down and wearing out their opponents.

The matches are grueling, and injuries can be serious. This can be especially seen outside of the main arenas, in the rural communities. Fighting for the flag, once the highest symbol for a Lethwei fighter to capture, is fought with a continuous last round, which sees fighters staggering exhausted and bloody after the match finally concludes.

Getting cut as well as being heavily bruised is a common occurrence for almost every fighter. With no insurance and only a ringside doctor to check, clean, and bandage injuries, fighters must pay for their own medical expenses. The fighter in the end has little money to go to the hospital to cleanly close a deep cut with stitches, something we take for granted in the West. This results in the heavy use of traditional herbal medicine and remedies to help repair these many ring injuries. In time, hopefully, Burmese ringside doctors will be able to better handle cuts with stitches and/or have money provided by promoters to send fighters to the hospital when the cuts are too deep and wide for the doctor to handle. But right now, traditional remedies are in heavy use by fighters throughout Myanmar.

More safety precautions and rules have been slowly implemented. A recent rule called for a competitor to rest at least three weeks between fights. This was due to many fighters traveling and trying to fight in as many matches as possible, often resulting in serious injury or, worse, death.

One aspect that has helped Lethwei’s growth potential, beyond the prospect of more tournaments and opportunities for fighters, is the rise of the modern training camps. Despite this, many of the training camps outside of major cities are still simple and rudimentary. The new camps, which mostly have sponsors, are run full-time with training twice a day in better-equipped facilities. Many have a ring, heavy bags, training pads, and a myriad of other pieces of training equipment that hardly existed in Myanmar before. What is most fascinating is that many camps now combine the old techniques with the new. Some are experimenting with new training routines to get fighters better prepared for each fight. Lethwei training right now is characterized by growth and innovation. It's a new world, having a full-time place to train, as well as the necessary equipment to train a fighter on a daily basis.

Traditional tattoos, especially on the legs, which were once a symbol of pride for a Lethwei fighter, are slowly vanishing. The painful process was part of forging a boy into a man. Each fighter endured the pain and then proudly displayed the final product like a man before the crowd. Popularized during the 12th century, traditional tattooing has been an integral part of the fighter’s persona and was often associated with giving him powers of invincibility and spiritual protection. But modern fighters are spurring this ancient tradition and getting mostly Japanese and Western tattoos. To the young Burmese, discovering the world through social media and television, they see the new tattoo designs as exotic and exciting. The bright, colorful tattoos give them a newfound sense of pride and a distinct identity that was once impossible to feel and exhibit during the severe oppression of the previous ruling junta. In turn, Western tourists are flooding Thailand and Myanmar looking to get traditional tattoos, which are engraved into the skin with a thin piece of bamboo sharpened to a point or a long metal spike. This exciting cultural exchange is opening up a world of possibility, not only for the Burmese but also for those from around the world who want to experience this unique culture for the first time.

Lethwei in the past managed to stage international fight cards with fighters from Australia, Austria, Britain, Japan, Iran, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand, Russia, and the USA participating. The promoters back then needed advance permission from the government to hold these types of events, and it severely limited the number of fight cards that could take place. This restriction has been lessened, and more international fights will certainly be part of Lethwei’s future. In the struggle for a comeback, the imminent threat of mixed martial arts as one of the most popular combat sports in the world, as well as neighboring Muay Thai’s worldwide popularity, shadows Lethwei’s bid to gain a foothold in the world of international sports. The danger of Lethwei weakening from too many organizations, promoters, and government officials trying to control and sell it their own way could damage its rise and potential worth.

While hungry businesspeople and promoters see Lethwei as a commodity they can export for financial gain, the sport has the potential for much more than moneymaking and entertainment. It fosters cultural identity and nationalistic pride in the young people in rural villages throughout Myanmar. It is with these young fighters that Lethwei’s grand aspirations to rise to prominence on a global scale rides.

Story and Photos ©2015 Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.

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