From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tway Ma Shaung fighting Saw Shark in Myanmar.png
Also known asThe Art of 9 Limbs
Burmese boxing
Burmese bareknuckle fighting
Country of originMyanmar
Famous practitionersList of Lethwei fighters
Highest governing bodyMyanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation
ContactFull contact
TypeMartial art
Country or regionWorldwide

Lethwei (Burmese: လက်ဝှေ့; IPA: [lɛʔ.ʍḛ]) or Burmese boxing, is a full contact combat sport from Myanmar that uses stand-up striking including headbutts.[1] Lethwei is considered to be one of the most brutal martial arts in the world,[2] as the sport is practiced bareknuckle with only tape and gauze while fighters are allowed to strike with their fists, elbows, knees, and feet, and the use of headbutts is also permitted.[3] Disallowed in most combat sports, headbutts are important weapons in a Lethwei fighter's arsenal,[4] giving Lethwei its name of The Art of 9 Limbs,[5][6] and deemed one of the bloodiest martial arts.[7] A vast majority of Lethwei fighters originate from the Karen ethnicity.[8][9]


Late 19th century Lethwei match in Myanmar. The fighter on the left bears a Htoe Kwin tattoo.
Watercolour painting by an unknown Burmese artist depicting a 19th century "LEK-PWE-THAT THEE" boxing match. From 1897

The traditional martial arts of Myanmar are regrouped under a term called "thaing", which includes bando, banshay, naban, shan gyi and Lethwei. According to researchers, thaing can be traced in its earliest form to the 12th century of the Pagan Kingdom dynasty.[10]

In ancient times, matches were held for entertainment and were popular with every strata of society. Participation was opened to any male, whether noble or commoner. At that time, matches took place in sand pits instead of rings.[11] Boxers fought without protective equipment, only wrapping their hands in hemp or gauze. There were no draws, the fight went on until one of the participants was knocked out or could no longer continue. Back then, Burmese boxing champions would enter the ring and call for open challenges.[12]

Traditional matches include the Flagship Tournament, which are still fought throughout Myanmar, especially during holidays or celebration festivals like Thingyan.[13][14]

Lethwei went through many years of suppression during the British colonial rule of Burma. The sport was revived under General Ne Win's nationalistic government[15] Compared to Muay Thai, in Lethwei, punches are generally favoured over kicks because of their ability to draw blood easier[failed verification]. [16]

In rural areas, having a skilled child fighter has been a way of escaping poverty. As of 2017, the minimum monthly wage in Myanmar was around $70 USD and children as young as ten years old could compete in Lethwei and can earn from $30 to $100.[17]

The New Era[edit]

In modern times, the sport is kept alive in Lower Burma in Mon State and Karen State where matches are held for events such as New Year's celebrations.[18]

Kyar Ba Nyein, who participated in boxing at the 1952 Summer Olympics, pioneered modern Lethwei by setting in place modern rules and regulations.[19] He travelled around Myanmar, especially the Mon and Karen states, where Lethwei is more actively practiced. After training with some of the fighters, Kyar Ba Nyein brought some to Mandalay and Yangon to compete in matches.[20]

In 1996, the Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation (MTLF), a branch of the Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports, added the modern Lethwei rules for the occasion of the Golden Belt Championship in Yangon.[21][22][23] The bouts, along with the undercard fights, were organized by the Ministry of Sport, Myanmar Traditional Lethwei Federation and KSM group. This marked a big addition to the art of Lethwei and potentially would make Burmese boxing more marketable internationally.[24]

On July 18, 2015, ONE Championship held the first Lethwei fight its history inside a cage at the occasion of ONE Championship: Kingdom of Warriors in Yangon, Myanmar.[25] The fight showcased Burmese fighters Phyan Thway and Soe Htet Oo in a dark match and the result was a draw according to the traditional Lethwei rules.[26]

In 2017, ONE Championship and World Lethwei Championship officially entered into a partnership to share athletes to fight in each other's organization.[27][28] On June 30, 2017, ONE Championship held a Lethwei match at ONE Championship: Light of a Nation between Thway Thit Win Hlaing and Soe Htet Oo. Thway Thit Win Hlaing would end up winning a decision according to WLC point system.[29]

In 2016, Myanmar's first international Lethwei promotion called World Lethwei Championship (WLC) launched its events using the modern Lethwei rules.[30][31]

In 2019, the WLC marked history by broadcasting WLC 7: Mighty Warriors, the first Lethwei event, internationally live on UFC Fight Pass.[32]

A Lethwei match

Opening to the world[edit]

From 7 to 12 July 2001, twelve years after Burma changed its name to Myanmar, the first international event took place in Yangon with professional fighters from the United States facing Burmese fighters under full traditional Lethwei rules. The delegation of three American fighters brought by the IKF were Shannon Ritch, Albert Ramirez and Doug Evans. Ritch faced Ei Htee Kaw, Ramirez faced Saw Thei Myo, and Evans faced openweight Lethwei champion Wan Chai. All three Americans lost to the Burmese. A revenge match with American and European fighters was cancelled the last minute by Lethwei promoters and the military in 2002.

From 10 to 11 July 2004, the second event headlining foreigners took place with four Japanese fighters fighting against Burmese fighters. They were mixed martial arts fighters Akitoshi Tamura, Yoshitaro Niimi, Takeharu Yamamoto and Naruji Wakasugi. Tamura knocked out Aya Bo Sein in the second round and became the first foreigner to beat a Myanmar Lethwei practitioner in an official match. International matches continued with the exciting Cyrus Washington vs. Tun Tun Min trilogy.

In 2016, after having previously fought to an explosive draw, Dave Leduc and Tun Tun Min rematched at the Air KBZ Aung Lan Championship in Yangon, Myanmar. The rematch was sweetened by an added bonus: ownership of the Lethwei Openweight World Championship Belt.[33] Leduc became the first non-Burmese fighter to win the Lethwei Golden Belt and become Lethwei world champion after defeating Tun Tun Min in the second round.[34][35]

Following his title defence, Leduc said in an interview, "I have so much vision for this sport. I see Lethwei doing the same for Myanmar as what Muay Thai has done for Thailand."[36]

On April 18, 2017, for his second title defense under traditional rules,[37] Dave Leduc faced Turkish Australian challenger Adem Yilmaz at Lethwei in Japan 3: Grit in Tokyo, Japan.[38][36] This marked the first Lethwei World title fight headlining two non-Burmese in the sport's history and for the occasion, the Ambassador of Myanmar to Japan was present at the event held in the Korakuen Hall.[39]

Sanctioning worldwide[edit]

Due to the violent ruleset, Lethwei is difficult to sanction and is illegal in most countries outside of Myanmar.[40] Even though headbutts are allowed in Lethwei, they are banned from most other combat sports including mixed martial arts, kickboxing, and Muay Thai.[41] As of 2022, Myanmar Lethwei is only legal in the following countries: Myanmar, Japan, Singapore, Slovakia, Austria, Thailand, Taiwan, England, United States (only the state of Wyoming), New Zealand and Poland.[42][43]

In popular culture[edit]

Lethwei has been featured in media, including films, television, manga, anime. The combat sport gained worldwide attention after Dave Leduc defeated Tun Tun Min in 2016.[44][45][46][47]


Movie Year Description
Born Warriors 2016 Trilogy documentary film about the art of Lethwei. Born Warriors at IMDb
La Fosse aux Tigres 2017 Canal D documentary about the Dave Leduc vs Tun Tun Min II fight in 2016. La Fosse aux Tigres at IMDb
Into Dave's Fist 2018 Canal+ Myanmar documentary following Dave Leduc on his preparation for Dave Leduc vs Tun Tun Min III.
Still/Life 2019 A short Film about Lethwei in Myanmar by MultiVerse Advertising.[1]
Myanmar Lethwei and Me 2019 Canal+ Myanmar documentary following Dave Leduc around Myanmar exploring the Lethwei culture.
Power & Martial Arts : Lethwei 2019 Short film about Lethwei following Dave Leduc around Yangon, Myanmar. Power & Martial Arts at IMDb
Underground 2019 Myanmar movie in Burmese language with Dave Leduc playing a gangster and using Lethwei in fight scenes.


Lethwei has been featured in television and documentaries.

Television Episode Description
FightWorld Myanmar: Crossroads American docu-series on Netflix with Season 1 Episode 3 on Lethwei. FightWorld at IMDb[48]
Spirit of Fight Season 1 & 2 Canal+ Myanmar TV Series about Lethwei fighters on Canal+ Zat Lenn channel.
Le Canal Nouvelles LCN: Denis Lévesque Denis Lévesque and Dave Leduc discuss Lethwei. Denis Lévesque at IMDb[49]
The Joe Rogan Experience MMA Show Episode #81 Joe Rogan and Dave Leduc discuss Lethwei. JRE MMA Show #81 at IMDb[50]
World Lethwei Championship WLC 7: Mighty Warriors The first Lethwei event to be transmitted live on UFC Fight Pass.[51]

Manga and animation[edit]

Lethwei has been featured in the popular Japanese manga series Kengan Ashura. In the series, the Burmese Lethwei master named Saw Paing, is so indestructible that an opponent shatters every bone in their hand trying to punch him.[52]

Manga or Animation Character(s)
Kengan Ashura Saw Paing (Burmese fighter) Kengan Ashura at IMDb

Traditional gesture[edit]

Lekkha moun[edit]

The lekkha moun is the traditional gesture performed by Lethwei fighters to challenge their opponents with courage and respect. The lekkha moun 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. The lekkha moun is done at the beginning of the Lethwei yay and can also be done while fighting.

Illustration of the lekkha moun

This invitation to fight is inspired from the birds of prey, like the eagle, as they flap their wings when flying and hunting.

Lethwei yay[edit]

The Lethwei yay could be described as a fight dance. It is performed before the fight as a way to showcase the fighter's skills and as a victory dance after the fight. The lekkha moun is usually confused with the lethwei yay, but the lekkha moun is done along with the Lethwei yay.[53]

Before modernisation, especially in colonial times, the pre-fight dance was more commonly referred to as han yay (ဟန်ရေး). Performed in accordance with the tempo of the traditional orchestra (ဆိုင်း), it incorporated a much more elaborate dance and show of skills. Boastful poetry was sometimes recited along with the dance.[54]


Bloody Lethwei hand wraps

Permitted techniques

  • Headbutts
  • All punches
  • All elbow strikes
  • All knee strikes
  • All kicks
  • Extensive clinching
  • Sweeps, throws and takedowns

The use of the feet, hands, knees, elbows and head is permitted.


Each bout can be booked as a 3, 4 or 5 round fight with 3 minutes per round and a 2-minute break in between rounds. Championship bouts are 5 round fights with 3 minutes per round and a 2-minute break between rounds.

Fighting attire

The Burmese bareknuckle boxing rules prohibits the use of gloves.

  • The fighters must only wear tape, gauze and electrical tape on their hands and feet.
  • The fighters shall wear only shorts, without a shirt or shoes.
  • The fighters must wear a groin protector.
  • The fighters must wear a gum shield.

The fighters are required to apply the wrapping in front of the fight officials, who will endorse the wraps.


One referee oversees the fight. The referee has the power to:

  • End the fight if he considers one fighter to be significantly outclassed by his opponent.
  • Stop the fight and refer to the doctor if a fighter is heavily wounded.
  • Warn the fighters. He makes sure the fight proceeds fairly and in compliance with the rules.

Traditional rules[edit]

The traditional rules, also known as yoe yar rules, come from the Burmese Myanma yoe yar Latway, which means Myanmar traditional boxing.[55] Traditional matches are still fought throughout Myanmar, especially during festivals or celebrations like Thingyan.[13] Traditional Lethwei is notorious for not having a scoring system and for its controversial rule of knock-out only to win.

At the end of the match, in the eventuality that there is no knockout or stoppage, if the two fighters are still standing, even if one fighter dominated the fight, the match is declared a draw. Fighters can win by incapacitating their rivals in a few different ways.

  • A knock-out (KO) is when a fighter falls to the ground, leans unconscious or if a fighter is unable to stand up or defend themself for 20 seconds (10 counts with 1 count every 2 seconds).
  • When 3 counts are performed in a single round, the fight is terminated and scored as knock-out (count limit)(KO).
  • When 4 counts are performed during the entire duration of the fight, the match is terminated and scored as knock-out (count limit)(KO).
  • A technical knock-out (TKO) is when a fighter forfeits, has an injury or is in a position that can damage or severely harm them if the fight continues. The ring doctor is consulted and makes the decision.[56]

Promotions that use traditional rules

  • Most Lethwei promotions in Myanmar
  • Annual Myanmar Lethwei World Championship
  • Air KBZ Aung Lan Championship
  • International Lethwei Federation Japan
  • Challenge fights
  • Flagship Tournaments
  • Festivals & celebrations

Golden Belt[edit]

For Lethwei fighters, the traditional Lethwei Golden Belt is regarded as the highest and most prestigious award.[57]

There is only one Golden Belt champion for each weight categories, with the Openweight class champion being considered the strongest fighter in Myanmar.[58] The Openweight Champion is the equivalent of being pound-for-pound champion in the world of lethwei.[59]

Win Zin Oo, Lethwei coach and gym owner explains:

If you win the golden belt you are the national champion, there is only one champion in each division, but there is also an openweight champion who is considered to be the best fighter in Myanmar.[60]

Injury time-out[edit]

  • If a knockout or injury occurs, the fighter can take a special 2 minute time-out to recover. After the time-out the fighter can choose whether he wishes to continue the bout or not. Each fighter may only do so once during the fight.[61]
  • The time-out cannot be used in the fifth round.
  • The use of the time-out is considered as 1 count.

Modern rules[edit]

In 1996, for the inaugural Golden Belt Championship, the two-minute injury timeout was removed and judges were added ringside. This modified ruleset helped prevented the outcome of a draw and helped choose a winner to advance in the tournament.[23] Former fighter Win Tun was the most successful fighter in Golden Belt Championship history, having won four Golden Belts. In recent years, the World Lethwei Championship, Myanmar's first international promotion, is the biggest proponent of the modern rules in order to follow the international safety and regulation for combat sports.[55]

Promotions that use tournament rules


The knockout is still highly desired under this ruleset, but in the event that a bout goes the distance, judges will present a decision. The 3 judges score the bout based on aggression, number of significant strikes per round, damage and blood drawn. Fighters have a maximum of 3 knockdowns per round and 4 knockdowns in the entire fight before the fight is ruled a knockout.


Aside from punches, kicks, elbows and knee attacks, Burmese fighters also make use of head-butts, raking knuckle strikes and take downs.

Headbutt (Gowl Tite)[edit]

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Thrusting/Forward Headbutt ထိုးခေါင်းတိုက် Htoe Gowl Tite
Upward Headbutt ခေါင်းပင့်တိုက် Gowl Pint Tite
Side Headbutt ခေါင်းရိုက် Gowl yite
Clinching Headbutt ချုပ်ခေါင်းရိုက် Choke Gowl Yite
Flying/Diving Headbutt ခုန်ခေါင်းတိုက် Khnoe Gowl Tite
Rushing Headbutt ခေါင်းဆောင့်တိုက် Gowl Sount Tite
Downward Headbutt ခေါင်းစိုက်တိုက် Gowl Site Tite

Punching (Let Thee)[edit]

Lethwei fighters landing a punch
English Burmese Romanization IPA
Jab ထောက်လက်သီး Htouk Let Thee
Cross ဖြောင့်လက်သီး Fyount Let Thee
Uppercut ပင့်လက်သီး Pint Let Thee
Hook ဝိုက်လက်သီး Wide Let Thee
Overhand (boxing) စိုက်လက်သီး Site Let Thee
Backfist တွက်လက်သီး Twet Let Thee
Spinning Backfist လက်ပြန်ရိုက် Let Pyan Yite
Hammer fist ပင့်လက်သီး Pint Let Thee
Superman punch လက်သီးပျံ / ခုန်ထိုး လက်သီး Let Thee Pyan / Khone Htoe Let Thee

Elbow (Tel Daung)[edit]

The elbow can be used in several ways as a striking weapon: horizontal, diagonal-upwards, diagonal-downwards, uppercut, downward, backward-spinning and flying. They can be used as either a finishing move or as a way to cut the opponent's eyebrow to draw blood.

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Horizontal Elbow ဝိုက်တံတောင် Wide Tel Daung
Upward Elbow ပင့်တံတောင် Pint Tel Daung
Downward Elbow ထောင်းတံတောင် Htoung Tel Daung
Jumping Downward Elbow တံတောင် ခုန်ထောင်း Tel Daung Khone Htoung
Elbow Thrust ထိုးတံတောင် Htoe Tel Daung
Reverse Horizontal Elbow တွက်တံတောင် Twet Tel Daung
Flying Elbow တံတောင်ပျံ Tel Daung Pyan
Spinning Elbow ပတ်တံတောင် / ခါးလှည့်တံတောင် Pat Tel Daung / Khar Hlet Tel Daung

Elbows can be used to great effect as blocks or defenses against, for example, spring knees, side body knees, body kicks or punches. When well connected, an elbow strike can cause serious damage to the opponent, including cuts or even a knockout.

Kicking (Kan)[edit]

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Roundhouse Kick ခြေဝိုက်ကန် / ဝိုက်ခတ် Chay Wide Kan / Wide Khat
Spinning back Kick နောက်ပေါက်ကန် Nout Pouk Kan
Outside low kick အပြင်ခတ် Al Pyin Khat
Inside low kick အတွင်းခတ် Al Twin Khat
Hook kick ချိတ်ကန် Chate Kan
Side kick ခြေစောင်းကန် Chay zoung Kan
Axe Kick ခုတ်ကန် / ပုဆိန်ပေါက်ကန် Khote Kan / Pal Sain Pouk Kan
Jump round Kick ခုန်ဝိုက်ခတ် Khone Wide Kan
Step-Up Kick ပေါင်နင်းကန် Pound Nin Kan

Knee (Doo)[edit]

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Straight Knee Strike တဲ့ထိုးဒူး Delt Htoe Doo
Spear Knee လှံစိုက်ဒူ Hlan Site Doo
Side Knee Strike ဝိုက်ဒူး Wide Doo
Upward Knee ပင့်ဒူး Pint Doo
Downward Knee ခုတ်ဒူး Khote Doo
Knee Slap ရိုက်ဒူး Yite Doo
Double Flying Knee / Elephant Tusks flying Knee စုံဒူးပျံ / ဆင်စွယ်ဒူးပျံ Sone Doo Pyan / Sin Swal Doo Pyan
Jumping Knee ခုန်ဒူး Khone Doo
Step-Up Knee Strike ပေါင်နင်းဒူး Pound Nin Doo


The foot-thrust is one of the techniques in Lethwei. It is used as a defensive technique to control distance or block attacks and as a way to set up attack. Foot-thrusts should be thrown quickly but with enough force to knock an opponent off balance.

English Burmese Romanization IPA
Push Kick နင်းခြေ / တားခြေ Nin Chay / Tar Chay
Toe Push Kick ခြေဦးထိုးကန် Chay Oo Htoe Kan
Jumping Push Kick ခုန်ဆောင့်ကန် Khone Sount Kan

Note - The Myanglish spelling and phonetics based spelling are two different things. The words used are phonetics based words which are more friendly and easy to pronounce for non-Myanmar speaking people. The phonetics wording is provided by Liger Paing from United Myanmar Bando Nation.

Weight classes[edit]

Weight class name Upper limit Gender
in pounds (lb) in kilograms (kg) in stone (st)
Light flyweight 105 48 7.6 Female
Flyweight 112 51 8 Male / female
Bantamweight 119 54 8.5 Male / female
Featherweight 126 57 9 Male / female
Lightweight 132 60 9.5 Male / female
Light welterweight 140 63.5 10 Male / female
Welterweight 148 67 10.5 Male
Light middleweight 157 71 11.1 Male
Middleweight 165 75 11.8 Male
Super middleweight 174 79 12.4 Male
Cruiserweight 183 83 13 Male

Famous practitioners[edit]

See also[edit]


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  57. ^ Kyaw Zin Hlaing (13 December 2016). "Myanmar's lethwei goliath toppled by Canadian 'Dave'". Myanmar Times.
  58. ^ Hlaing, Kyaw Zin (22 December 2015). "A Tun Tun Minute". Myanmar Times.
  60. ^ Goyder, James (22 July 2015). "Inside a Burmese Lethwei Gym". VICE Fightland.
  61. ^ Looi, Florence (8 September 2015). "Myanmar's Lethwei fighters bare their knuckles". Al Jazeera.

Further reading[edit]

  • Maung Gyi, Burmese bando boxing, Ed. R.Maxwell, Baltimore, 1978
  • Zoran Rebac, Traditional Burmese boxing, Ed. Paladin Press, Boulder, 2003