- Lethwei has a reputation among hardcore fight fans as the most violent striking sport
- Attracting investors and sponsors from outside Myanmar has been a challenge
- World Lethwei Championship held its first event in 2017 and has set about modernising the sport
Southeast Asia is home to a close-knit family of unarmed martial arts, all of which are bound by their use of striking with hands, elbows, knees and feet.
The most famous of them is Muay Thai, an art which tens of thousands of people travel to Thailand each year to learn. Due to its fast-paced and aggressive style, hundreds of thousands of tourists engage with Muay Thai each year, either by participating or by watching fights in stadiums and bars.
Its sister forms in Cambodia and Laos – Pradal Serey and Muay Lao – are very similar. But to the north and east of Thailand, in Myanmar, a deviation has occurred that very few people know about.
Lethwei has been the martial arts world’s best-kept secret for the past century. Known as the art of nine limbs, Lethwei permits strikes with hands, elbows, knees and feet, much like its familial arts. It also permits the use of the head and bans the use of gloves.
Its traditional ruleset and scoring system is more rooted in folk culture rather than modern sport. Firstly, any fight that ends with two conscious fighters is ruled a draw, no matter what; secondly, when a fighter is knocked unconscious, his trainers are given two minutes to revive their fighter so that he can continue.
These rules, along with the inclusion of headbutts, has given Lethwei a reputation among hardcore fight fans as the most violent striking sport on the planet. Now, three Burmese businessmen and a former One Championship employee are trying to bring martial arts’ best-kept secret to the world, only with a modernised twist.
Modernising the sport
“I didn’t even know about it before I took the job,” laughs Gerald Ng, chief executive of the World Lethwei Championship. “Once I started learning about it, there’s so much to it. Not just the fights, but the culture. I want to be able to showcase Lethwei to the world.”
The World Lethwei Championship held its first event in 2017 and has set about modernising the sport ever since. Its creation of centralised world championships split into weight classes is new for Lethwei, which has traditionally ignored weight classes and has multiple ‘golden belts’, some more prestigious than others.
The WLC also operates with a modified ruleset, getting rid of the two-minute ‘injury timeouts’ and bringing in judges to decide on fights that don’t result in a knockout.
These moves were key to gain the support of local and international broadcasters, both for reasons of fighter safety and standardising the sport – a key requirement for domestic and international broadcasters to pay rights fees for WLC events.
“Our ruleset was introduced 25 years ago, but it hasn’t been used very much,” Ng says. “It makes more sense from a fighter safety perspective. Concussions are a big deal in the US, so if we have an international product we have to take care of our fighters first and foremost.”
The World Lethwei Championship is able to agree between 17 and 20 media-rights deals for each event. But its main sources of income are from its deal in Myanmar with Canal Plus and a global digital rights deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s OTT service, UFC Fight Pass.
Its Facebook page has almost 350,000 followers, benefitting from the high-quality production of Canal Plus.
Because of this global footprint, more and more non-Burmese fighters are being recruited by the organisation to fight against either local fighters or other non-Burmese. But the WLC has thus far struggled for international sponsors, hampering its ability to do put on events outside the country. Ng wants to change that.
“This is something I’m trying to drive now,” he says. “Our sponsors are strictly from Myanmar, but we need to expand that to international markets. The problem is that Myanmar companies don’t have an international presence and that limits our options when it comes to doing events in other countries.”
Fight nutrition and energy drink partners are top of Ng’s list for international sponsors, and the WLC wants to stage an event in another Asian country during 2020. It also has its eyes on an event in the United States after the US ended sanctions against Myanmar-based companies in 2016.
“I’ve been talking to athletic commissions in the US to see which state regulators make the most sense from an economic standpoint,” Ng says. “We think at least a quarter of them will be able to do it.”
These ambitions may sound out of reach for an organisation that has staged a total of nine events thus far, but the WLC has both commercial and political weight behind it.
“My objective is to make people fall in love with the country as well, and we have the backing of the ministry of tourism already,” Ng asserts.
“We’re also in contact with the Myanmar ambassador to the US. They can’t offer monetary support but having connections with government bodies definitely helps in a lot of things we do overseas.”
After years of isolation, Myanmar is attempting to develop its tourism sector, and the government is interested in copying its Thai neighbours by using its native martial art as a hook.
The relationship between Muay Thai and tourism is now so entrenched that Muay Thai gyms and camps have now developed long-term partnerships with travel agents and hotels, easing the path for tourists wanting to travel and learn. The WLC wants to take this one step further, creating a hybrid between the Thai system and the UFC’s model of branded franchise gyms.
“There are Muay Thai gyms in every single city in the world and that’s where I want Lethwei to get to; we’re going to start a UFC-style franchise gym model, where we can start training new fighters from the ground up”, Ng says.
Ng also plans to produce a WLC reality show – similar to The Ultimate Fighter and The Contender – to boost interest in the sport and bring overseas fighters to Myanmar.
Any such reality show is likely to include the WLC’s biggest attraction and most famous fighter, Dave Leduc. Leduc is a Canadian that moved to Myanmar to practice Lethwei, beating the sport’s best in the process. His level of stardom in Myanmar is unprecedented for a foreign fighter and his fame is now spreading to his home country of Canada, where he recently appeared on The Longest Race, a highly popular reality TV show.
Leduc is an English-speaking evangelist for the sport with almost 130,000 followers on Instagram – an invaluable resource for the WLC. But for the promotion to have long-term, global impact, the success of future funding rounds will be key.
Ng and the WLC’s directors are keen to follow One Championship’s venture capital model by splitting the company and attracting investment, but it could prove difficult to attract investors from outside Myanmar.
“A Burmese company has never done this before. There have been Myanmar companies exporting, but never a company looking for outside funding,” Ng says. “Right now, we’re purely funded by five Burmese businessmen who are very passionate about the business. They’re willing to split the company and we’re looking for the next round of funding soon. We’ve talked to guys who invested in F1, football and marathons. They’re interested in joining us.”
While the WLC faces an uphill battle in a competitive global combat sports scene, it has enough unique selling points to attract hardcore fight fans around the world to its product. Whether that will attract tourists to Myanmar in the same way Muay Thai did for Thailand remains to be seen, but Ng believes the WLC and Myanmar are ready to become global players.
“When I first came here, getting a taxi was tough. It’s changed a lot,” he says. “But Myanmar has grown economically over the past three years. It’s ready to start competing with neighbouring countries to become the region’s economic powerhouse.”