You’ve outgrown your judo uniform. You’ve mastered every chop karate has to offer. You spend muay thai sessions thinking, ‘I’ve got a head. Why can’t I head-butt you?’
Whatever the reason, your plane is rumbling down the tarmac and you’re thumbing through Lonely Planet’s Myanmar guide.
It’s time for Lethwei—Myanmar’s bareknuckle boxing.
Before you touch down in the Golden Land there are five things every aspiring Lethwei fighter should know:
1. Old skool gym or cushy foam mats?
Lethwei is old, very old. But it’s not got the international brand nor the financial backing of its cousin, Muay Thai. As such, there are currently two kinds of gyms:
A) Concrete floor gym: No frills Lethwei. The focus is on conditioning the body, not creature comforts. You end each session chasing sweat from your skin under a tap that runs lazy into a storm drain.
Good news: You’re guaranteed to train with a fighter. But, as you work on your sweet jab-cross-elbow combo, you’re compelled to time punches that land on the gaggle of mosquitos hovering between you and the bag. And the bag is always one hook away from disintegration.
B) Cushy mat gym: If you’re looking for signs of a changing Myanmar, then Lethwei is a litmus test. Specifically, the new gyms popping up to cater for the country’s emergent middle class.
There probably won’t be aircon. But the fans are whirring, the shower works and the pads have a belly full of stuffing. In short, cushy mat gym is the closest to what you trained in back home.
Good news: Mistime a headkick and it’s glorious foam that embraces your sweaty mass.
What to do: The place you train won’t define you. The people you train with and your determination to keep going will more likely shape you as an artist of nine limbs. Think carefully about who runs the gym: is he a fighter or just a guy with money? Give both kinds of gym a try and see what fits you best. You may find the austerity of concrete floors brings out the hard man in you.
2. Don’t skimp on gear
Until the country gets its own production going, buy Thai to train in Myanmar. Meaning, Lethwei fighters use Muay Thai gear.
Lethwei is a high impact sport and takes a toll on your body. Mitigate the wear and tear by investing early in quality pads, gloves, and wraps. Yes, Lethwei is bareknuckle, but train smart using robust, weighted gloves with flexibility in the hands and support in the wrists. I recommend Twins, Top King, Fairtex or Yokkao.
Compliment your new leather mittens with quality hand wraps. Wraps support your wrists and knuckles, so don’t skimp: look for thick, strong and long. Krung are my wraps of choice. They’re hard to find, but worth every penny.
What to do: Don’t wait until Yangon to buy your goodies. Training gear is hard to track down and when you find it the range is limited. Buy in Thailand and buy quality. An injured fighter isn’t training, she’s recovering.
3. You’re unfit - and that's okay!
You will wheeze, you might gasp for air. You will hurt for days after. You may see God. And that’s all ok.
Whether you’re trying to look good naked or you just want to feel safe walking the mean streets, set yourself goals and commit to a timeline to achieve those goals.
Remember, a Lethwei fighter isn’t born. He certainly doesn’t walk in off the street and start throwing knee-elbow combinations. Training Lethwei gets you strong, gets you fast, and gives you something to talk about with Myanmar locals. But it takes time.
What to do: Train hard, but give your body the rest it deserves. Start thinking about your diet. Eat less Rangoon Teahouse paratha. Drink less beer.
4. Some train for the fight, some for the fitness
Not everyone ends up pummeling an opponent in Yangon’s Thein Phyu Stadium. Most foreigners train Lethwei to get fit or out of some deep-rooted sense of self-loathing driving us to sadomasochistic practice.
If you have it in mind to be the next Dave Leduc then more power to you. Leduc needs a punch bag to take his mind off all his Amazing Racing. You can be that punch bag. But realistically, you train because you want community in Yangon. Or you need to balance out the 9-5 grind.
What to do: Find the motivation that keeps you training. If you want to fight an amateur fight, you can. If you want to collect stories for your unborn, you can probably do that, too. Figure out what drives you and harness it for training.
5. There’s more to life than head-butts
Lethwei has garnered notoriety for its brutality. Especially, a lot of ink is spilt on the head-butt. Some in the Lethwei promotions circuit recognize the value of this attention and ham it up as much as possible. But Lethwei is more than a parade of Glasgow kisses.
Leg kicks, middle kicks, head kicks. Jumping knees, elbow combinations (spinning elbows are fun) and clinching. So...much….clinching. There are many ways to attack and defend and this is the beauty of Myanmar’s ancient martial art. Every part of the body is a weapon. Every part of the body needs defending.
What to do: Come with an open mind. If you don’t get to head-butt someone in the first week, don’t freak out. Just remember, you have elbows and knees, too.