Excitement and tension charge the air when Antonio Faria, the challenger from Portugal, started his main event match against the teenage Burmese prodigy Saw Htoo Aung.
The Golden Belt of World Lethwei Championship (WLC) – the title for best light welterweight in the world – was at stake and the 3,000 seats of the Mandalar Thiri Stadium in Mandalay City, Myanmar shook, as music by the traditional Burmese orchestra undercut the staccato howls of the crowd.
Except for wraps of tape and gauze, neither fighter wore anything on their hands – more to ensure that knuckles don’t slip on sweaty skin rather than to protect them from injury. Here, head butts are fully legal, too.
Welcome to lethwei, the 2,000-year-old striking sport, and the most brutal in the world.
Once eclipsed by Muay Thai, its combat sports neighbor made popular by the rise of mixed martial arts, lethwei or traditional Burmese kickboxing, is now enjoying a healthy revival. With its fame comes a proportional rise in interest in the culture of Myanmar itself.
Last month, the World Lethwei Championship held its inaugural live broadcast titled “Mighty Warriors” on UFC Fight Pass, the largest and most popular streaming service for combat sports, with Faria versus Aung as the marquee bout.
This event marked two historic things.
It enabled WLC to bring its brand of lethwei to the world, fusing traditional elements with a concert atmosphere that Western audiences have come to expect from big fights. Think ring girls, LED lights, swaggering walkouts, and EDM music. And getting on UFC Fight Pass – or what UFC President Dana White dubbed as “the Netflix for fight fans” – meant it effectively removed the veil of obscurity over this ancient sport that was once only on the radar of hardcore fight fans.
“The planets aligned in this deal,” said Sean Wheelock, commentator for WLC and instrumental as the bridge between WLC and the UFC Fight Pass. “I put everyone together and I knew that it was a perfect match. The UFC is looking for a different kind of combat sport that they can’t find anywhere else and this fits in nicely.”
Aside from Myanmar, lethwei events have already taken place in Slovakia, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan but none of them as widely commercially available to fight fans.
There are two key differences between kickboxing and Muay Thai that highlight lethwei’s intrinsic penchant for brutality: the lack of gloves and legal head butts.
While lethwei may be slower than other gloved striking sports, there are more potent techniques in the nine “limbs” used: both legs, knees, fists, and elbows – the ninth limb being the head.
“The number one thing I get asked about is the head butts,” said Wheelock. “It creates a different element to it and certainly the fighters go after it.”
In terms of violence and propensity for blood spillage, head butts certainly rack up the hazard factor. During the seven fights on the “Mighty Warriors” card, head butts spelled the difference in many exchanges with swelling in unexpected places, cheeks and brows getting sliced up more than usual. There are numerous ways to deliver a head strike, including one called the Khnoe Gowl Tite or the flying head butt.
“You need a big heart for this,” Faria told VICE before he stepped into the ring. “If you are not a warrior, if you don’t have the fighting spirit then you can’t fight in lethwei. That’s why I predict a KO for my championship fight.”
Gerald Ng, CEO of World Lethwei Championship, argued that aside from its unique fierceness, “the whole point of WLC is to showcase a millennia-old martial art that’s been deep in Myanmar’s culture for so long.”
“It’s never really gotten the international recognition that it deserves. To be able to showcase this to Western audiences who aren’t used to the sport is a fantastic opportunity,” he said.
That lethwei is steeped in ancient history is an understatement. Carvings on the temples of Bagan indicate lethwei fighters duking it out on sand pits, and records exist of lethwei matches dating as far back to the early 11th century, a time before the Pagan Empire replaced the Pyu city-states.
While a cursory search on YouTube reveals grainy footage of lethwei bouts held on docks and construction sites during British colonial rule, in modern-day Myanmar, lethwei is held mainly during special occasions like the Thingyan New Year festival, birthdays, and Buddhist monks’ funerals.
People bring their families to see these matches, often their first exposure to the sport. That includes Aung, the 19-year-old Burmese prodigy fighting against Faria in the main event. The country champion and the holder of the Silver Belt, Aung started fighting in 2007 and has since amassed an astonishing professional record of 10 wins, 3 losses, and 13 draws.
The unusually high number of draws is due to the traditional rules system. Previously, a fighter could only win if they knocked out their opponent or they could no longer continue. If the fight ended with both fighters still standing, it was declared a draw. With no KO, there is no winner.
To attract a wider audience and foreign fighters, rules have been modified. When WLC was still the new kid on the lethwei block three years ago, their packaging, marketing push, and points system encountered much opposition from traditionalists. The camp that wanted lethwei to remain a no-points, KO-only system had very strong and often very vocal adherents.
“Since we are the new lethwei promotion most people here did not understand what we were trying to do,” said WLC’s Chairman U Zay Thiha. “They said I am the destroyer of traditional lethwei. Actually, I’m not. I am promoting it in other ways, with lethwei as a cultural product of Myanmar.”
One of those vocal traditional voices was surprisingly not Burmese but Canadian. Dave Leduc, the Lethwei Openweight World Champion, has become such a popular face and advocate of the sport that he has assimilated many of the Burmese cultural practices, even marrying his longtime girlfriend in a traditional wedding ceremony.
“It's no secret that I have had real concerns at the beginning about the modern ruleset of WLC. Looking back I think it was more a territorial feud, I was protecting my territory,” Leduc told VICE via email. Now, after speaking with lethwei experts, he says he now understands the decision.
Win Zin Oo, one of the sport’s iconic trainers and founder of the Thut-Ti Gym in Yangon, takes the same conciliatory tact. “I appreciate both the modernization person and the purist,” said Oo. “I think their destination is the same: to develop and promote lethwei. Both parties need to work together for the higher goal and then the question becomes: how can we collaborate?”
Back in the ring, Faria executed a blitz of strikes to knockdown Aung. When the referee stood him up the Burmese didn’t survive to the last count but instead shook his head and retired himself. The Portuguese was too much for him.