Lethwei is perhaps the best way to time travel, as its style and ruleset harken back to the earliest origins of indochinese martial arts of all kinds. Raw, brutal and uniquely human – Lethwei fighters fight for both glory and survival. . .
LETHWEI, MUAY THAI & THE ORIGINS OF INDOCHINESE FIGHTING
The history of martial arts is very difficult to pin down, as there is so much myth, folklore and general romanticizing about those humble origins. It wasn’t until relatively late in the development of civilization that certain fighting styles were named.
Whereas most historical topics have numerous sources that can be examined, a lot of martial arts history is passed down by word of mouth. Since martial arts is such a niche topic, the truth becomes hard to find.
It becomes even harder when trying to find out the true history of Indochinese kickboxing, which is even older than modern martial arts such as judo, karate and taekwondo. Indochinese kickboxing is an umbrella term that encompasses several different martial arts so similar they are practically the same style. The most known of these styles are Muay Thai (the most famous), Muay Laos, Tomoi, Pradal Serey and the topic of today’s article – Lethwei.
(Title image courtesy of Revgear.)
MUAY THAI VS. LETHWEI: HOW RULES CHANGE THE STYLE
Also known as Burmese boxing, Lethwei is virtually identical to old-school Muay Thai rules. (If you’d like to learn more about Lethwei and one of its brightest stars, check out Muay Thai Guy’s conversations with Dave “Nomad” Leduc here and here.)
While most of us know Muay Thai as a ring sport with boxing gloves and a judge’s decision, traditional kard cheuk rules fights are fought with rope handwraps and no decisions. Lethwei swaps rope handwraps for more modern bandage wraps, but remain identical to Muay Thai otherwise… except for headbutts.
In truth, the difference between Burmese and Thai boxers is not so much the actual technique – their style of kicks, knees and elbows are identical – but rather their approach to fighting. Bare knuckle means punching to the head is risky, headbutts mean the clinch game is changed strongly, and no decisions means you’ll usually see less kicks and more punches.
It also means most Lethwei fights degenerate into outright brawls. This is perfectly fine from an entertainment standpoint, but generally speaking you will not see the same high level of technique and strategy that you get from a Muay Thai fight.
That said, Lethwei is not without its craft. Let’s meet a few of the notable talents from the Lethwei world.
TWAY MA SHAUNG: THE WHIRLWIND OF AGGRESSION
Tway Ma Shaung is considered the best Lethwei fighter of his generation. He’s also a frustrating mix of some real technical brilliance and incredibly fundamental mistakes.
Tway is a fighter who will step forward with his back foot first, shorten his stance and compromise his position. On the other hand, he’s also a fighter who will throw up a high kick and then on the recall, pull his leg back into a beautiful floating check.
What is particularly interesting with Tway is that he’s one of the only Lethwei fighters I’ve seen thus far to understand bare knuckle boxing is best done to the body. Rather than routinely slamming his fists into his opponent’s head, Tway is always looking for a dig to the body whenever he can.
In his bout with Thomas Hengstberger, he dealt with the Austrian’s high guard by going low, for the most part ignoring his opponents guard altogether. When Tway needs to attack the high guard of an opponent, he doesn’t risk his hands, he’ll just go straight for the headbutt.
TUN TUN MIN: YOUNGEST GOLDEN BELT WINNER
Tun Tun Min, the youngest winner of Lethwei’s coveted Golden Belt, on the other hand isn’t much of a body puncher. On the contrary, he resembles a traditional Thai boxer more than any of the other Lethwei fighters I’ve seen.
Teeps and low kicks galore with surprisingly accurate fists, Tun Tun Min is considered the best currently fighting today. He doesn’t really chase for the headbutt, and he sticks to techniques that would serve him well across any style of striking.
Tun Tun Min, who is often at a height and reach disadvantage against Westerners, does what a good kicker should: he punishes aggression. In a sport where reckless flurries are incredibly common, Tun Tun Min excels in teeping the aggressor backwards and countering missed strikes with low kicks.
Despite not being particularly defensively savvy, regardless of whether you hit or miss, Tun Tun Min reacts to every strike thrown at him with even greater aggression. While it can be reckless, aggression is the name of the game in Lethwei.
SOE LION OO: THE LETHWEI DESTROYER
Soe Lin Oo fought to an explosive draw with Jinreedtong, a Thai who worked out that body shots and technical striking was his best chance at winning. Using beautifully timed body kicks, he fought defensively by shelling up and throwing quick low kicks and elbows when put under pressure.
While it would have won him the early rounds on the 10-point-must system, Soe Lin Oo just put his hands up and rushed forward like a bull. His constant forward pressure, level changes and uppercuts that snuck through Jinreedtong’s guard left the Thai unable to answer the onslaught.
It is arguably a drawback to the sport that Soe Lin Oo’s phenomenal performance to come back from behind didn’t earn him a win. It’s equally a shame that Myanmar simply doesn’t have the resources to build a deep talent pool of fighters when compared to Muay Thai.
WHAT IS ‘TRUE FIGHTING’?
It’s certainly tempting to compare the two martial arts, and they really are more similar than they are different, to the point where one has to ask whether these styles are one and the same. There was a point in time in which the rules of Thai and Burmese boxing were identical and headbutts were used in Muay Thai.
Similarly, the Cambodian martial art of Pradal Serey and Thai boxing have no difference at all from a technical standpoint, with the main difference being that the scoring of Pradal Serey favors elbows. There are plenty of Cambodian fighters claiming Muay Thai came after their sport, which given their roots in Bokator is very likely. If the rules are the same, the techniques are the same and the only thing that’s different is the way you score it, then the Western approach to Muay Thai could be considered its own style.
It could be that we are looking at martial arts all the wrong way. It seems clear that Lethwei, Pradal Serey, Muay Thai, Muay Lao and Tomoi are all fundamentally the same martial art, with Lethwei being the most old-school in regards to techniques that are allowed.
Maybe rather than different “styles,” these are really different schools of learning the art of Indochinese boxing. When I look at the ways martial arts are similar rather than the ways in which they’re different, it seems clear to me that differences in style mean little. The true “art” in martial arts is the way of fighting itself – combatting and conquering forces which oppose you.
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- Andrew Bryan is an actor, writer and martial artist based in the UK. He likes long walks on the beach, fighting technique, and history.