Muay Thai is known as the art of 8 limbs. But have you heard of the so-called “art of 9 limbs”? It refers to Lethwei which is one of the most brutal martial arts on the planet. It’s not as popular as Muay Thai on the international scene, at least not yet. Lethwei world champion, Dave Leduc has been campaigning for Lethwei as the “most effective striking art in the world” in recent years.
If you have never heard of the sport, get ready to be struck with the dizzying truth about Lethwei, Myanmar’s premier striking art. We will be looking at the sport’s history, its comparison against Muay Thai and the sport’s growth/future through Dave Leduc who is the sport’s biggest proponent.
What is Lethwei?
Lethwei (Burmese: လက်ဝှေ့ meaning: boxing) is a standup striking sport from Myanmar. It shares its roots with other Southeast Asian martial arts like Muay Boran (ancient form of Muay Thai), Muay Lao (Laos), and Pradal Serey (Cambodia).
Muay Thai is known as the art of 8 limbs as it uses the hands (2x), elbows (2x), knees (2x), and shins/feet (2x).
In addition to the 8 limbs used in Muay Thai, Lethwei adds one more weapon that is both brutal and effective. That’s why they call it the art of 9 limbs.
That weapon is the head, because Lethwei allows the use of headbutts in fights. The presence of headbutts is an absolute game changer for martial arts. It’s why many fans and advocates consider Lethwei to be one of the most effective and practical martial arts. It is also extremely savage.
They say this is what gives Lethwei an edge over other martial arts as an effective self-defense technique. Street fights or any other real-life situations don’t follow any rules so you can absolutely make use of this extra weapon.
Other than the headbutt, Lethwei has a few other differences compared to the more globally-recognized sport of Muay Thai. But before we go deeper into the sport, let’s look at its beginnings first.
A Brief History of Lethwei
As with Muay Thai, Lethwei had its origins on the battlefield. The soldiers of ancient Myanmar developed a method of hand-to-hand fighting. Their purpose is to use it once they found themselves without weapons while fighting at war.
Its history can be traced back to about a thousand years in the past, where the earliest known record of the art was made. This was the time when the Pyu Empire ruled the land and the early version of Lethwei was used by the country’s warriors. It was particularly useful for wars and battles against the warriors of neighboring countries.
Even in those early days, Lethwei was used for contents and tournaments. Fighters wore hemp wrapped around their hands when they competed much in the same way as Muay Thai ropes. There were no stadiums back then so sandpits served the purpose of fight venues instead.
If you are wondering what the rules were like back then, well there would have been very few rules enforced at the time. There was only one way for fighters to win and that’s to knock out their opponent. The victor was the last man standing.
The art retained this format for centuries with no significant development. The first few changes only began to manifest themselves in the middle of the 20th century.
Lethwei was started down the path of modernization by Kyar Ba Nyein (Burmese: ကျား ဘငြိမ်း). He was a boxer who represented Myanmar (known as Burma then) in the 1952 Olympics.
Kyar Ba Nyein was responsible for introducing a more organized and modern rule set for Lethwei. The rule set he introduced is what modern-day Lethwei is mostly based on.
Inspired by his career in modern boxing, Kyar Ba Nyein drafted the rules and regulations in 1953. He then set about introducing and promoting the newly crafted rules to states around the then-Burma, in villages where there were prominent Lethwei fighting communities.
Kyar Ba Nyein also brought fighters from remote areas in Mon and Karen states (near Thailand) to the major cities of Mandalay and Yangon (then Rangoon). Training them using modern methods, he then promoted Lethwei matches around Burma with the fighters.
1962 Military Coup
Myanmar gained independence from British rule in 1948. Following a 1962 military coup, the country went from being the second richest Southeast Asian country to one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
Among its many negative effects, the country’s economic bankruptcy impacted the growth and worldwide exposure of Lethwei. There was little financial incentive as a Lethwei fighter. This compared to Muay Thai which was a way out of poverty for many in Thailand’s rural population.
Muay Thai’s popularity grew exponentially especially during the 1980s and 90s golden era as Thailand’s economic boom attracted a wealth of talents. Lethwei on the other hand remained an obscure combat sport for much of the 20th century.
It was only at the turn of the millennium when Lethwei made a major leap into international recognition. That was when several kickboxers from the US challenged Lethwei practitioners. It didn’t end well for the Americans as each of them were wiped out by knockout in the very first round.
A second international exchange was held in 2004. This time, 4 Japanese fighters turned up to challenge the Burmese Lethwei fighters in their game, on their soil. Mixed martial artist Akitoshi Tamura made history as the first foreigner to beat a Myanmar boxer in Lethwei. He knocked out Aye Bo Sein with a knee to the face of the Burmese fighter.
American Muay Thai fighter, Cyrus Washington made his Lethwei debut in 2010. He is notable for his trilogy fights with Lethwei hero, Tun Tun Min between 2014 and 2015. Washington won the first with a convincing KO before losing the subsequent two.
Of all the foreigner forays into Lethwei, Dave Leduc left and continues to leave the most impactful impression on the sport.
Today, Lethwei is at its most popular internationally. Interest is growing among fans and practitioners alike especially since the past decade.
The flag-bearer for promoting the art is -without a doubt- the current WLC Lethwei world champion Dave Leduc. Leduc, a Canadian, is arguably the most recognizable Lethwei fighter on the planet.
He was the first foreigner to ever win a Lethwei title in Myanmar, and he’s considered a big deal in the sport. That history-making achievement has also served to open doors for others who have an interest in pursuing Lethwei.
Dave Leduc began training in martial arts at the age of 17 under his kung fu “sifu” (a Chinese term for master), Patrick Marcil. The Canadian built his foundation learning Sanshou (Chinese: 散手), a Chinese kickboxing martial arts that later developed into Sanda for use in the military.
After a brief amateur stint and a lackluster professional career in mma, Leduc embarked on a 3-year Muay Thai pursuit. He was based out of Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket for most of this period, picking 15 wins for his 16-fight record.
Leduc’s Muay Thai run is nothing to shout about as he contested in the stadiums of Phuket against low tier fighters and amateur vacationers. The only notable opponent Leduc has faced in his Muay Thai career is Jake Lund, a WBC world champion (2019). Leduc took the L in that bout.
Dave Leduc in Lethwei
However, in Lethwei, Dave Leduc has managed to shine in a sport like he was made for it. He made his Lethwei debut on August 21 2016.
Leduc captured his first Lethwei title against Myanmar’s Lethwei hero, Tun Tun Min the same year. The pair had met earlier at Yangon’s Thein Pyu Stadium which ended in a draw.
Their second meet would change the course of Leduc’s career and the future of the sport. Despite getting floored and incurring an 8-count in the second round, the Canadian came back in the third round to beat the hot-favorite.
Tun Tun Min’s nagging knee problem was exacerbated when his leg was caught and he was thrown to the ground by Leduc. All was lost at this point as the injured knee forced him to forfeit the fight.
The pair crossed paths once more in 2018 for chapter three of the trilogy. After five intense rounds, neither side was able to finish and the fight was declared a draw as per Lethwei rules. Leduc managed to retain his world title in what was regarded by fans as the “fight of the decade”.
Leduc signed an exclusive contract with the World Lethwei Championship (WLC) in 2019. WLC is currently the biggest promotion in Lethwei in the world. Through Leduc’s endorsement and involvement, Lethwei continues to grow through WLC which is broadcasted on UFC Fight Pass.
Leduc also appeared on the immensely popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast in late 2019. This was a massive exposure for Leduc and Lethwei, garnering a new legion of Western fans. Many of these new fans gradually picked up training in the sport.
Lethwei and Muay Thai: Similarity & Difference
When compared head-to-head (pun intended), Muay Thai and Lethwei are similar and different at the same time.
Muay Thai is widely believed to be the most brutal stand up fighting sport in the world but Lethwei actually takes the brutality up a notch.
One is the art of 8 limbs and the other is the art of 9 limbs. They are often compared and it simply can’t be escaped.
Lethwei practitioners strike with their fists, elbows, knees, and shins/feet just like Muay Thai. Clinching plays a key role in both sports. This allows the fighters to have a vast array of weapons at their disposal.
The most glaring difference between Lethwei and Muay Thai is the use of headbutts in the former. It’s a devastating weapon to have for a fight and also for self-defense.
Lethwei also features less restrictive grappling rules and allows takedown techniques like the suplex. These wrestling/grappling moves can quickly neutralize the deadlock and inaction in Muay Thai clinching.
Lethwei Yay & Lekkha Moun
Lethwei Yay is the pre-fight dance ritual of Lethwei as Wai Kru is to Muay Thai. Burmese boxers sometimes perform it as a victory dance.
The Lethwei Yay is less elaborate than the Wai Kru. It usually consists of a series of quick Lethwei movements.
The Lekkha Moun is a gesture done by slapping one’s own arm towards the opponent. Boxers perform the gesture to challenge their opponent with courage and respect before a fight. It mimics the wing-flapping action of a fighting cock.
This gesture is done by clapping 3 times with right palm to the triangle shaped hole formed while bending the left arm. The clapping hand must be in form of a cup, while the left hand must be placed under the right armpit.
How Dangerous is Lethwei
Lethwei is a dangerous sport. Many consider Muay Thai to be the deadliest martial art but Lethwei is even more savage.
Muay Thai and Lethwei share similar historical roots. While Muay Thai restricted headbutts as it evolved into a modern sport, Lethwei retained it. Headbutt is a vicious weapon best used in mid- and close-range combat.
It is easy to set up and fast to execute, making it an ideal move particularly in close-range or as a counter.
There are some concerns however, on the effect of headbutts on both the attacking fighter and the one on the receiving end. There’s CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), which is a progresseive and degenerative brain disease that’s most common in people who suffer from repetitive brain trauma.
The rules of Lethwei further add to the brutality of the sport.
The fight’s still not over even when a fighter gets knocked out cold by his opponent. The downed fighter gets a single two-minute chance to recover and be revived by his corner. He’s then sent out to fight again until a winner emerges by the end of five rounds.
Another key feature is the absence of gloves in Lethwei. Instead, the fighters only wear gauze wrap and tape. This accounts for more action-packed fights and also increases the likelihood of knockouts other than those achieved by headbutts.
A fighter can only win by knockout under traditional rules. The majority of Lethwei promotions continue to adopt this rule. If there is no knockout by the end, then the bout will be declared a draw.
Lethwei essentially forgoes any form of scoring, and favors techniques designed to knock out the opponent. In this aspect, it retains much of the martial art’s original purpose for use in actual battles which makes it more dangerous than most other sportive martial arts.
Traditional Rules vs Modern Rules
The majority of Lethwei promotions adopt what is known as traditional rules (Burmese: ရိုးရာလက်ဝှေ့ meaning: traditional boxing). A winner is declared only when the opponent is knocked out or unable to continue within the time period (usually 3 to 5 rounds).
Founded in 2015, WLC introduced scoring to Lethwei in a bid to further modernize it. This marks the key difference between traditional and modern rules. Modern rules ensure that a winner is declared in the event that a bout goes the distance.
Three judges will score the bout and decide on the winner much like in other combat sports.
WLC removed the two-minute injury timeout to eliminate or minimize the possibility of a draw.
These modified rules went against the traditions of Lethwei and were met with resistance in the early days by hardcore fans. A number of highly-regarded Lethwei Burmese champions were crowned in this fashion. Leduc has also accepted the judging criteria as this is part of the initiative for Lethwei to move forward as a modern sport.
Lethwei vs Muay Thai
We now have an idea about the respective similarities and differences between Lethwei and Muay Thai. It’s time to answer the question:
Is Lethwei better than Muay Thai?
The truth is that it really would be unfair to try and compare the two arts and declare which one is better. They have different rule sets, after all. Then there are also the differences when it comes to their primary equipment, which is gloves for Muay Thai and just gauze and tape for Lethwei.
Given the same amount of experience, the Burmese boxer and Thai fighter will perform better in their respective sport. Every athlete will perform best under the rules that they train and compete in.
There have been a few notable exchanges between the two artforms. Former Lethwei champion, Soe Lin Oo has fought and knocked out Muay Thai champions like Iquezang Kor Rungthanakeat and most recently, Pakorn PKSaenchaiGym.
Pakorn is way past his prime both skills- and physique-wise at this point. The multi-time champion is a long way from his days as top-tiered elite. Iquezang evened the record when he KO-ed Ye Ta Gon (Burmese) under Thai Fight Kard Chuek rules.
Tun Tun Min took part in several Kard Chuek fights on Thai Fight under Muay Thai rules. He won two against bottom-tier foreigners before losing by decision to a top-tier Youssef Boughanem. Tun Tun Min drew with veteran Thai fighter, Saiyok Punpammuang under full Lethwei rules.
Tough Lethwei fighter, Kyal Lin Aung also lost to Saiyok on Thai Fight Kard Chuek.
Burmese fighters clock less fights -and hence experience- over their career compared to Muay Thai fighters who easily retire with 100-200 fights. If you take away the headbutt, Muay Thai is more technically advanced due to the competitiveness of the sport.
That said, these mixed results are not conclusive and there has never been a true exchange between the top fighters in each respective martial art. The size of the talent pool in Lethwei is also far smaller than Muay Thai for an accurate comparison.
However, as a self-defense art, Lethwei may outperform Muay Thai due to the way practitioners train for the individual sports. Lethwei places emphasis on knocking out the opponent while Muay Thai has adopted a more sophisticated scoring system that favors better technique.
Lethwei fighters likely have a high(er) level of pain tolerance due to the hard impact of fighting with just wraps. This is a big advantage in any kind of fighting.
If each fighter is free to use every weapon in his arsenal, the headbutt can catch the Muay Thai fighter off-guard. In my opinion, Lethwei’s headbutt and takedown techniques make it more versatile and effective in street fights.
While both Lethwei and Muay Thai share very similar roots, Muay Thai has come a long way as a modernized sport. Just as the sport of boxing is an update of bare knuckle boxing, Muay Thai is the modern form of the collective Southeast Asian martial arts sphere.
Muay Thai has modernized as a prize-fighting sport as the relatively archaic Lethwei tries to play catch-up.
In terms of popularity, it’s easy to see that Muay Thai is much more popular internationally right now. There are more practitioners all over the globe and more major tournaments as well. It remains the striking base of choice for mixed martial artists in general.
Dave Leduc has been campaigning for more worldwide recognition for Lethwei since he came on board.
Lethwei is making major strides in the last few years and gaining some ground even if it’s only a small one at the moment. Its future seems tied to and limited by its Thai counterpart which continues to see global growth.
Part of Muay Thai’s growth in the past decade is its acceptance by the mass and its adoption as a recreational fitness exercise around the world.
It will take a lot to convince regular folks to accept headbutts in padwork or sparring. (Concussions anyone?) It will be immensely challenging for regular folks to accept Lethwei as a recreational or fitness workout. Lethwei is a martial art reserved for competitions and the fearless competitors.
Lethwei has been living in the shadow of Muay Thai’s success. There is some catching up to do before it becomes as widely known as Muay Thai. Lethwei proponents like Dave Leduc need to stop comparing the sport to Muay Thai and find its own unique path and identity.
Lethwei is indeed one of the most, if not the most, brutal fighting art in the world. The sheer variety of weapons that its fighters can wield make it deadly as a combat sport and as a means of self-defense.
With its growing prominence, it’s probably only a matter of time before it receives a wider international recognition that it truly deserves.
In my own observation, Dave Leduc, the King of Lethwei, has taken the sport down the UFC path by playing up the brutality and violence aspects. This instead of Asian martial arts values like respect and humility.
My humble opinion is that Leduc might be able to appeal to a wider audience by portraying Lethwei and himself in a more positive light.
Additionally, Leduc has chosen to bind and limit himself to competing Lethwei exclusively on WLC. He has rejected offers to fight on the massive ONE Championship. Some Lethwei fighters have already made the switch to fight on the giant promotion which has a much bigger fanbase.
If Lethwei fighters can ultimately compete and consistently win under unified stand-up striking rules, they would do far more to advance the sport. This was what Buakaw did for Muay Thai when he fought in K-1.
The savagery of the sport is a double-edged sword where on one hand, makes it a highly effective striking art but on the other, limits its growth . It will take a big shift in the paradigm for Lethwei overtake Muay Thai and be accepted as the number one striking art in the world.