Lethwei: Ancient Brutality Living in the Modern Day

by Kyle Van Pelt

Deep in the jungles of Myanmar, the bravest, most tenacious people train to master arguably the most brutal martial art practiced today.  Lethwei translates to The Art of Nine Limbs in English, as a fighter uses their legs, knees, hands, elbows, and head to strike opponents in vicious kickboxing matches. Fighters endure 5 three-minute rounds and can only win by either knocking out their opponent or injuring them so severely that they cannot continue fighting. Gloves are not permitted. 

Lethwei has been a recorded part of Myanmar’s history for a millennium, yet only in the past four years has it become visible to a global community. A Canadian martial artist named Dave Leduc is largely responsible for bringing Lethwei into the limelight. Leduc initially gained his fierce reputation by winning multiple Thai prison fights (bouts which free men enter to fight prisoners for prize money, while prisoners who win, even felons, attain sentence reductions). In 2016 Leduc traveled to Myanmar and entered the Aung Lan World Lethwei Championship. Leduc defeated champion Tun Tun Min, becoming the first non-Myanmar fighter ever to win the Lethwei world title, and he continues to hold the title today. As an English speaker with a relatively charismatic on camera personality, Leduc attracted a large scale Western audience exposing an obscure martial art to the world. 

Due to international exposure, the unapologetic violence of Lethwei is under constant scrutiny. Point systems and restrictions to certain strikes, namely headbutts, have been proposed by some fighters but never instituted. In Myanmar, a deep sense of tradition makes any change to their martial art seem radical. For 1000 years, Myanmar’s (and potentially the world’s) greatest warriors have been Lethwei fighters; many feel the addition of rules will make today’s fighters weaker.

The only rule added thus far is the technical knockout: doctor stoppage of a fight. Such lack of rules has prevented Lethwei from being legal in several countries including Dave Leduc’s own home country of Canada as well as most of the United States because it is classified as bare knuckle boxing–and in actuality it is far less restrictive than bare knuckle boxing. However, the restriction of Lethwei is slowly reducing, for in 2018 Wyoming legalized bare knuckle boxing. In 2019, both Mississippi and New Hampshire followed suit while several more states are in the legalization process.

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