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What Is Lethwei? Burmese Bare Knuckle Boxing Explained

Photo by Lethwei Master

There are various types of striking arts out there that look similar to one another. This is notably true for kickboxing where most styles share the same techniques and rules. But the one striking art that clearly stands out is Lethwei, or “Burmese Boxing”, and the reason is very simple.

Lethwei is one of the most versatile striking arts ever created as it trains you to use your entire body as a weapon. At the same time, it is very a brutal fighting system since fighters compete bare-knuckle, and it includes dirty moves like headbutts.

Stay with us as we are going to take a closer look at Lethwei and what makes it special. We will explore its history, techniques, rules, and how it stands against other striking arts.

History of Lethwei

Lethwei is one of the oldest striking arts. Its origins go all the way back to the Pyu Empire in Myanmar which ruled from the 2nd century BCE to the 11th century. At the time, people from this region used Lethwei as a hand-to-hand weapon to fight in many wars. But even in ancient times, they also used it as a form of entertainment, and the matches were very popular. And of course, very brutal and dangerous.

The interesting fact is that, back in those days, Lethwei matches looked a lot like the ones in modern times. People fought in the sandpits without gloves, and there were no judges or decisions. The events were open to any male who wanted to test their skills and courage against other males. There were no decisions, judges, or draws as matches could end only via knockout. Though this may sound brutal, that is how Lethwei matches look in modern times as well.

Lethwei would change a lot when Kyar Ba Nyein made a decision to pioneer modern Lethwei. He was a former boxer who fought in the 1952 Olympics and was a man who put together first rules and regulations. Despite becoming legal, the sport very much remained closed within the Myanmar borders all the way up until the 2000s.

This is why the people in the western world, even the ones who follow combat sports, have never heard of Lethwei. The sport is simply too brutal, which is why it is illegal in most countries.

The biggest change came in 2016 with the birth of the “World Lethwei Championship(WLC)”, the first global promotion. WLC started to hold events under modern rules, and it also allows fighters from other countries to come and test their skills in Lethwei competition.

Lethwei Fighting Techniques Explained

Lethwei is not a complex art and techniques are quite simple and easy to pick up. Yes, fighters compete bare-knuckle and use headbutts, but apart from these brutal moves, Lethwei is the same as most other striking arts. In fact, it shares the same kicks, punches and clinch work with Muay Thai. 

The focus is on mixing kicks with the punches from the distance, and fighting at close range and in the cling using elbows and knees. The emphasis is on dirty boxing in the clinch, and doing as much damage with a single strike, always chasing a knockout. Here is a list of most popular Lethwei techniques:

PunchesKicksHeadbutt strikesElbow strikesKnee strikes
JabRoundhouseHead Butt in the clinchHorizontal ElbowJumping knee
CrossSpinning back kickFlying head buttDownward ElbowStraight knee
HookInside/outside low kickShooting head buttUpward ElbowUpward/downward knee
BackfistHook kickUpward/downward head buttFlying ElbowDouble flying knee
Superman punchSidekickSide head ButtSpinning ElbowSpear Knee
OverhandAxe kickThrusting Head ButtReverse Horizontal elbowSide Knee strike

Lethwei Fighting Rules

There are two different types of Lethwei rules: Modern and Traditional. These two sets of rules share much in common when it comes to techniques and what is legal and illegal. However, the biggest difference is the fact that traditional rules do not include a scoring system and judges. There are no decisions and fights end only via knockout. This makes this set of rules much more brutal from the modern ones that have judges and decisions. Here is a detailed comparison:

Traditional RulesModern Rules
Scoring systemTraditional rules do not have a scoring system. Fighters can win only if they knock the opponent out. 
If the match goes to distance, it would be declared a draw no matter how dominant one fighter was. 
When a fighter gets knocked down, there is a 20-second count. 3 counts in a single round is considered a knockout, and 4 during the entire duration of the fight. 
Modern rules include three judges sitting beside the ring and scoring the fight.
Judges pick the winner based on aggression, number of significant strikes per round, damage, and blood drawn.
Three knockdowns in a round is considered a KO, or 4 per the entire duration of the fight.

Length of the matchesLethwei matches include from 3 to 5 rounds of action. Championship fights are always booked for 5 rounds. 
Each round is 3 minutes long and there is a 2 minute break between each round. 
Lethwei matches include from 3 to 5 rounds of action. Championship fights are always booked for 5 rounds. 
Each round is 3 minutes long and there is a 2 minute break between each round.
Injury Time OutLethwei fighters who got knocked out or injured in a fight, can take a 2 minute time out to recover. Once the time expires, they decide whether they want to continue fighting or not. According to modern rules, there are no injury timeouts. They got rid of this rule in 1996, and this was also the time when they introduced the scoring system and judges.
Protective gearLethwei fighters compete without the gloves. 
Fighters can wrap their hands with a tape, gauze or electrical tape. 
They compete bare-chested wearing just a shorts, groin cup and gum shield. 
Lethwei fighters compete without the gloves. 
Fighters can wrap their hands with a tape, gauze or electrical tape. 
They compete bare-chested wearing just a shorts, groin cup and gum shield.
Promotions Annual Myanmar Lethwei World Championship, Air KBZ Aung Lan Championship ,
International Lethwei Federation Japan Challenge Fights
World Lethwei Championship
Annual Golden Belt Championship
TechniquesKicks, Punches ,Knees, Elbows ,Headbutts, TakedownsKicks, Punches, Knees, Elbows, Headbutts,  Takedowns

Is Lethwei A Good For Self-Defense?

Yes, Lethwei is a great option if you want to learn self-defense. Lethwei techniques are real life practical. Each technique you learn works in real life because Lethwei fights are the closest thing to real fights, and unlike most other arts, it will teach you how to use dirty moves as well.

First of all, Lethwei is good for self-defense because it teaches you how to strike with all limbs, including your head. Students learn advanced kicks, punching combos from western boxing, and how to fight in the clinch with elbows and knees. They also learn basics of grappling like trips, throws and takedowns, which are valuable skills. 

The emphasis is on throwing each strike with a lot of power as the traditional rules don’t include decision wins. You must find a way to knock the opponent out, and this approach transfers well into street fighting.

On top of that, Lethwei fighters compete without gloves, and use dirty moves like headbutts. Fighting bare-knuckle may sound brutal at first, but on the flip side, this has many benefits. Most people tend to break their wrists or fingers when punching bare knuckles as they don’t know how much power to use. The same stands for pro boxers or Muay Thai fighters who are not used to strike without gloves. The glove protects your hands, even when you land at a bad angle.

But Lethwei trains you how to strike and do the most damage without hurting your hand. And even better than that, it trains your body and mind to absorb these strikes, which is crucial for street fighting where there are no gloves or rules.

Lethwei is still illegal in most countries outside of Myanmar. This is the reason why all Lethwei events and matches take place in Myanmar. Despite its long history, the sport is still a new thing, and above all, it is too brutal, bloody, and violent for most people.

The first Lethwei promotion called the WLC emerged in 2019 and it is yet to spread all around the world. For now, people can watch the events on popular streaming platforms like UFC Fight Pass. The UFC interest in the sport shows you that Lethwei is garnering a lot of attention.

Still, it’s fair to say that the sport is still too brutal for the mainstream audience, notably the one in the west. Not many people like to see bare-knuckle matches, and fighters using headbutts. The matches are violent, bloody, and visually look far away from anything that’s safe. But things might change in the future. 

If you look at the U.S and European markets, there is a rise of interest in bare-knuckle boxing. These events look nothing less brutal than Lethwei, and are legal in many countries. That’s why it won’t be a surprise if many countries start to legalize Lethwei matches too.

Which Martial Art Has The Most Injuries? FAQs

Key Differences Between Lethwei and Muay Thai

Muay Thai and Lethwei are so similar that people often mix them with one another. From rules to techniques, these two arts share much in common. But at the same time, these are two separate martial arts that differ from one another in various aspects. Here is a detailed comparison.

LethweiMuay Thai
Place of originsThe first Lethwei event took place during the Pyu Empire, present day Myanmar, in the 2nd century BCE. Muay Thai comes from Thailand and the first event took place in the 18th century. 
TechniquesKicks, Punches, Knees, Elbows, Trips and throws, HeadbuttsKicks, Punches, Knees, Elbows, Trips and Throws
Protective GearLethwei fighters compete bare-knuckle, without the gloves. They must wrap their hands in gaze or tape.  All fighters must wear groin cups and gum shields.Muay Thai fighters compete wearing full padded boxing gloves.
They also wear groin cups and gum shields. 
Length of the MatchesLethwei matches last from 3 to 5 rounds. 
Each round lasts 3 minutes and fighters have 2 minutes of rest between the rounds. 
Muay Thai matches, in most cases, last 5 rounds.
The length of the rounds is 3 minutes, and like in Lethwei, fighters have 2 minutes of rest between the rounds. 
Muay Thai vs. Boxing – Who Would Win and Differences Explained

Is Lethwei Better Than Muay Thai For Self-Defense?

On paper, Lethwei might be better than Muay Thai when it comes to self-defense because it is more versatile and brutal. This doesn’t make Muay Thai bad by any means and you won’t make a mistake if you join the Muay Thai classes. But if I have to say which of the two arts has an edge in street fighting, that has to be Lethwei, and here is why.

First of all, Lethwei includes the infamous head butts and trains you to fight bare knuckle and focus on a knockout. This makes it as real and as close to street fighting as it gets. Once the fight breaks out, there are no gloves, forbidden strikes, or referees. The faster you put the opponent out, the better chances are for you to get back home safe.

But the aspect that stands out is the lack of full padded gloves. Lethwei trains you to fight bare-knuckle, and this is perfect for self-defense. Once in a fight, people tend to swing punches with full power and break their hands or fingers upon landing. Lethwei teaches you how to strike and how much force to use to do a lot of damage without hurting your hands.

And the same stands when it comes to defense. Boxers or Muay Thai fighters block strikes with full padded gloves, which you can’t do in a street fight. In Lethwei, you learn how to defend bare-knuckle, and it conditions your body to absorb these strikes.

Muay Thai vs Boxing: Which One is Better?

Is Lethwei Good For MMA?

On paper, Lethwei is good for cage fighting as it teaches you how to fight at all ranges using all 8 limbs as weapons. Fighters learn very much the same techniques as in Muay Thai, which are very practical. But on the other side, there are more than a few cons and reasons why Lethwei is still not a part of MMA.

For instance, you can’t use vicious head butts in MMA, in fact, you would get disqualified for pulling such a move. Yet, let’s assume that fighters can easily adapt to MMA and stop using this strike. If we exclude head butts, we get a striking art very similar to Muay Thai.

In fact, it is even better than Muay Thai in some aspects. For instance, Lethwei fighters compete without gloves and this would transfer really well into MMA where fighters use smaller 4 OZ open-fingered gloves.

But the biggest problem is the fact that Lethwei is still not legal and popular outside Myanmar. There are no gyms in which you can train, compete, or train under experienced coaches. It is still isolated from the rest of the world and that’s why most people end up in the Muay Thai gym instead.