Martial arts

‘Once you get a taste, there’s no turning back’: brutal, bloody lethwei making Myanmar a martial arts mecca

World Lethwei Championship is hoping to serve up the ancient sport to global audiences hungry for more

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 1:35pm

There are audible gasps from those gathered ringside when Eddie Farrell lifts his head and smiles broadly through the blood.

The Australian fighter has copped more than a few blows and the ringside doctor has been patching up a nasty cut below Farrell’s right eye, laid on either by fist, elbow or headbutt from his opponent tonight, lethwei legend Saw Nga Man.

All three modes of attack are well within the rules of Myanmar’s treasured and ancient art of bare-knuckle boxing and Farrell later quite wonderfully says he felt like he had mostly been fighting against a lawnmower rather than a man, such was the damage he felt being inflicted.

Over the past 12 months, the World Lethwei Championship (WLC) has started a regular series of fight nights that it hopes will launch lethwei as a major player across the combat sport world, giving local exponents of a martial art first formed thousands of years ago a chance to make serious money, and giving international fighters – those who are brave enough – a chance to throw themselves into the ring.

I put my heart on the line: post-fight interview with Michael Badato

It’s been a move not without controversy as traditionalists in Myanmar and elsewhere have balked at what WLC management say are initiatives to make the sport more palatable to an international audience – take that as code for less brutal.

Hence, WLC events have a points system to help decide bouts, and they have ring girls. In the past, lethwei bouts were pretty much only ever decided by knockout, or if one fighter simply couldn’t continue. Otherwise, it was called a draw. And the ring was most definitely a male-only domain.

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At Yangon’s Thuwunna Indoor Stadium, we’re looking on in awe as Farrell and then compatriot Michael Badato take to the ring with little, or in the latter’s case, no previous lethwei fight experience.

On his debut former Muay Thai and kick-boxing world champion Badato is matched in a WLC middleweight world title fight against another local legend in Too Too, whose record in the sport stands at 35 wins, no losses and 13 draws.

Put that up against Badato’s lifetime 0-0 in lethwei and then I dare you to once again try to convince me about how brave Conor McGregor was to face Floyd Mayweather Jnr.

Badato gets battered but he goes the distance, gives as good as he gets (as evidenced by his opponent’s closed left eye) and might even have turned the bout on its head in the dying minutes.

Badato – like Farrell – leaves the ring wanting more, and asking anyone who will listen about how he might be able to move to Yangon and take up the sport full-time. Plenty more of his kind would follow, the Australian predicts.

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Audiences, too, are hungry for lethwei action, as evidenced by the state of frenzied crowds and by the gathering global audience watching in on live streams.

In just its first 12 months of operations, WLC has hosted three events and has plans for three more in 2018. Combat sports might never be the same again, especially when considering the fact that mixed martial arts organisations such as Asia’s One Championship are already tapping into lethwei stables for crossover talent.

I’ve got the taste for blood: a conversation about Lethwei

“Myanmar is opening up and we see lethwei as part of our culture,” says Zay Thiha, the man behind the WLC. “The country is looking for things we can export to the world and we believe lethwei can be one of those things.”

Thiha sees lethwei fight nights going global, and tourists coming to Myanmar just to immerse themselves in the sport, much as many do with Muay Thai in Thailand.

WLC is being packaged along the lines of MMA, with thumping soundtracks, a thundering MC and, yes, those ring girls.

Post-fight we ask the now bandaged but still obviously buzzing Farrell to put into words what everyone still here is feeling.

“Once you get a taste for it,” he says. “There’s no turning back.”