Lethwei is the toughest combat sport on Earth
Lethwei is the toughest combat sport on Earth. Headbutts are allowed and even celebrated. Gloves are prohibited; only gauze and tape is allowed. Traditionally, fights could only end via KO, injury, or the inability to continue; otherwise, it was a draw. There is a 10 count KO, but each count lasts two seconds. And you could take up to two minutes after the first knockout to decide if you want to continue.
Leithwei has received little global attention because Myanmar has been far less accessible to the outside world than have neighboring countries like Thailand. However, Gerald Ng is changing all that. The CEO of World Lethwei Championship (WLC) is bringing international athletes in, and broadcasting the content out.
Kirik Jenness: Why do knowledgeable people say Lethwei is a tougher sport than MMA?
Gerald Ng: Lethwei is the toughest martial art in the world, but also the truest and purest form of striking. The fighters are some of the toughest in the world. Lethwei is fought bareknuckle and its rules includes the use of headbutts.
KJ: What are the basic rules of Lethwei?
GN: Traditionally, fights are only won by knockouts and if you get knocked out once, you get a 2-minute rest period for fighters to recover. So to win a fight, you have to knock the person out twice.
World Lethwei Championship have adopted the World Lethwei ruleset so those rules have since been modified. Fights can end with a judges decision now so that creates more excitement and provides a definitive winner.
We have also removed the injury timeout rule for the safety of our sportsmen. However, the essence of Lethwei is retained with the use of just handwraps and the use of headbutts.
KJ: What are your goals with World Lethwei Championship and how does it work?
GN: World Lethwei Championship is trying to showcase the sport of Lethwei and by extension, be a showcase for Myanmar on the global stage. We combine the traditional skills of Lethwei, and some of the traditional elements like the Burmese orchestra that plays during the fight and the prayer ceremony to start the event, with modern live entertainment such as a live DJ, music performances, exciting fighter walkouts, that will appeal to a global audience.
KJ: What do you do in your role as CEO, during a typical day;
GN: We are getting more and more awareness from the global martial arts community as we continue to showcase the art of Lethwei to the world. My job includes media interviews with some of the biggest media outlets in the world, signing kickboxing and Muay Thai world champions to come participate, expanding our broadcast reach which is already at 50 countries, as well as marketing, event operations, and other key functions to make run a successful sports media event.
KJ: What’s your background?
GN: I’ve been in sports management my whole career, starting with working in the public relations department in ONE Championship. I’ve also been in sports television and OTT* streaming.
KJ: Can you at least very briefly describe the history of the art/sport?
GN: Its origins can be traced back 800 years or so. Thailand and Myanmar used to have wars where the art of Muay Thai and Lethwei would be used in the battlefield. Other than the use of headbutts, both sports had very similar roots in history. While Thailand became a hub for international tourism and trade, the sport of Muay Thai evolved into what it is today, while Lethwei still retains most of its historical roots.
KJ: If someone wanted to learn Lethwei, how would they go about it? Is instruction in Lethwei available outside of Myanmar? What are the leading gyms inside Myanmar? Are there any DVDs on the techniques?
GN: There has been an increasing number of gyms in the world that have started teaching Lethwei. The easiest way to learn Lethwei is still to come to Myanmar and seek out the trainers here. One of the leading Lethwei gyms is Nagar Mann, where our current Middleweight World Lethwei Champion Too Too trains at.
KJ: If a foreigner wanted to enter a Lethwei bout, how would they go about it?
GN: We want to get the best standup martial artists from around the world to be a part of WLC. We have signed world champions like two-time WBC Kickboxing world champion Michael Badato and Kunlun Fight Champion Umar Semata. We have gotten so many champions from every major striking promotion that have expressed interest in Lethwei and want to participate that we have to turn away because we simply don’t have enough spots for them.
KJ: What is your favorite thing about Lethwei? Least favorite?
GN: The sheer determination demonstration by these Lethwei fighters is something to be impressed by. In MMA, you see people putting a hand on the canvas to prevent getting kneed, and in kickboxing, you see people clinching just to buy time and recover or run out the clock. Techniques like that do not work in Lethwei. You have to 100% ready all the time and that is why I consider Lethwei fighters to be toughest test for any fighter.
I think more can be done for fighter safety, and that is why we have been pioneers in revolutionizing the sport by removing the injury timeout rule, having a strict pre-medical check, and having world-class doctors on standby with the absolute authority to call off the fight for the safety of the fighters.
KJ: If you were going to show someone a Lethwei bout that is available on the web, so they understood a little more about it, which one might it be?
GN: Last year’s Middleweight World Lethwei Championship bout between Michael Badato and Too Too is an instant classic. Michael Badato brings a world-class pedigree and you can see the crisp technique he showed in rounds 1 and 2. He almost ended the fight but Too Too showed the heart of a champion to rally back and become the inaugural Middleweight champion.
*OTT, or Over The Top, refers to the distribution of streaming media directly to consumers, bypassing traditional broadcast television platforms. Examples include Netflix, HBO Go, Roku, Amazon Video, and UFC Fight Pass.