What is Lethwei: The Art of Nine Limbs

What is Lethwei: The Art of Nine Limbs

In the realm of martial arts, Lethwei stands as one of the most brutal and exhilarating combat sports to have emerged from Myanmar (Burma).

Often dubbed as "The Art of Nine Limbs," Lethwei incorporates the use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet, as well as the inclusion of headbutts—making it distinct from other striking martial arts like Muay Thai and Kickboxing.

This blog post aims to shed light on the historical background, significant events, and the core principles that define Lethwei as a martial art.

A Glimpse into History: The Rich Tapestry of Lethwei

The Genesis in Thaing

The traditional martial arts of Myanmar are broadly categorized under a term called "thaing," which encompasses various disciplines like bando, banshay, naban, shan gyi, and, of course, Lethwei.

Thaing has its earliest recorded origins in the 12th-century Pagan Kingdom dynasty. Each of these martial arts has its unique characteristics, but Lethwei has stood out for its intense striking and clinch work, earning it the title of "The Art of Nine Limbs."

Sand Pits to Modern Rings

In ancient times, Lethwei had a unique battleground: sand pits. Unlike modern rings, these were rudimentary and offered a different kind of challenge to the fighters. Matches were open to any male, be it a noble or a commoner, making the sport popular across every strata of society.

Participants would fight without any protective gear, their hands only wrapped in hemp or gauze. Back then, the fights had a simple rule—no draws. Fighters would continue until one could no longer carry on or was knocked out.

The Flagship Tournament

Still alive today, traditional Lethwei matches include the Flagship Tournament, especially during holidays or celebration festivals like Thingyan. These festivals provide a way to engage with this martial art as a spectator or participant and are integral to Myanmar's culture.

Colonial Suppression and Nationalistic Revival

Lethwei faced a significant setback during British colonial rule but was later revived by General Ne Win's nationalistic government. This revival became a turning point in Lethwei's journey towards modernization. It was during this period that punches started to be favored over kicks for their ability to draw blood more easily.

The Socio-Economic Aspect

In rural Myanmar, being skilled in Lethwei can be a pathway out of poverty. With a minimum monthly wage hovering around $70 USD, young fighters, some as young as ten years old, can earn anywhere from $30 to $100 by participating in Lethwei matches.

Kyar Ba Nyein: The Pioneer of Modern Lethwei

Kyar Ba Nyein, who represented Myanmar in boxing at the 1952 Summer Olympics, set the foundation for modern Lethwei by establishing rules and regulations. He scoured Mon and Karen states to train fighters and bring them to the national stage, effectively formalizing the sport we see today.

Lethwei on the Global Stage

From hosting the first Lethwei fight in a ONE Championship event in 2015 to establishing international promotions like World Lethwei Championship (WLC), this sport has gone global. It further expanded its reach when WLC 7: Mighty Warriors became the first Lethwei event to be broadcast internationally on UFC Fight Pass in 2019.

International Competitions

The first international Lethwei event took place in Yangon in 2001, featuring fighters from the United States. Further international competitions have seen fighters from Japan, Europe, and other countries challenge Burmese Lethwei practitioners, adding to its global appeal.

Lethwei's Modern Champions

Dave Leduc became a key figure, being the first non-Burmese to win the Lethwei Golden Belt and World Championship. His victory and subsequent title defenses have significantly contributed to Lethwei's international recognition.

Regulatory Challenges

Despite its rising popularity, Lethwei faces hurdles in worldwide acceptance due to its intense ruleset, which includes the use of headbutts—banned in most other combat sports. As of now, Lethwei is legal only in specific countries like Myanmar, Japan, Singapore, Slovakia, Austria, and a few others.

A Vision for the Future

Modern champions like Dave Leduc see Lethwei doing for Myanmar what Muay Thai has done for Thailand. With this vision and the sport’s rich history, the future of Lethwei appears promising but not without its challenges.

Lethwei vs Muay Thai

While both Lethwei and Muay Thai are striking martial arts that involve the use of fists, elbows, knees, and kicks, there are several key differences that set them apart:

Points of Contact

The most glaring difference is the inclusion of headbutts in Lethwei, hence the name "The Art of Nine Limbs" as opposed to Muay Thai's "Art of Eight Limbs."

Protective Gear

In Muay Thai, fighters wear gloves, whereas in Lethwei, fighters only have their hands wrapped in cloth. This makes Lethwei a much more dangerous sport in terms of potential injury.

The Clinch Game

Both sports involve clinch fighting, but the techniques and objectives can differ. Lethwei incorporates more throws within the clinch and allows for headbutts, making it a more complex and multifaceted aspect of the sport.

Scoring and Victory

Muay Thai has a complex scoring system that takes into account technique and effectiveness. In traditional Lethwei, a win is typically by knockout, although modern adaptations have incorporated point systems.

Core Principles of Lethwei

Strikes and Techniques

As mentioned earlier, Lethwei uses nine points of contact: two fists, two elbows, two knees, two feet, and the head. This gives fighters a wide arsenal of striking options.

Clinch Work

Lethwei incorporates extensive clinch work, where fighters aim to control their opponent's posture to set up strikes or to neutralize incoming attacks.

No Gloves, Just Wraps

One of the most distinctive aspects of Lethwei is that fighters don't use gloves; instead, their hands are wrapped in cloth, which offers minimal protection.

KO to Win

In traditional Lethwei, the only way to win is by knockout. Modern adaptations have incorporated a point system, but the emphasis on knockouts remains a unique feature of the sport.


Lethwei is not just a martial art; it's a testament to the indomitable spirit and tenacity of its practitioners. Whether you're a martial artist looking to diversify your skill set or a fan of combat sports, understanding Lethwei offers a glimpse into a martial art that epitomizes both tradition and brutal effectiveness.

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