Lethwei: The Origin, Present, and the Popular Culture

Lethwei, for those in the world of kickboxing, is popular for its less-forgiving rules and almost no-protective gear fashion. It is one of the oldest combat-sport. Over the past decade, this martial art has introduced many outstanding fighters to the world.

Lethwei matches have amassed millions of viewers. Let’s read further to know more about this sport and what makes it unique from other martial arts. 

The Origin of LethweiLethwei

Lethwei, one of the most ancient fighting styles in the world, originated in Myanmar. It’s also known as ‘wild west’ of kickboxing. Myanmar’s folklore has many stories dedicated to it. Most of its history was passed down orally, hence there is plenty of room for varying tales about it spanning across the globe. Needless to say, the stories include a considerable amount of myth.

As there is no clear timeline of its history, it’s often referred to as ‘Indo-Chinese kickboxing.’ Due to its similarities with other fighting styles such as Muay Thai, ordinary folks find it difficult to differentiate between the two styles. However, for seasoned professionals, the two are very much different. 

Let’s know about the differences in these two popular martial arts forms. 

The Difference Between Lethwei and Muay Thai

Both forms are well-respected and are known globally, but their differences are lesser known.

 The primary difference between them is their respective stances and striking techniques. 

Lethwei is much older than Muay Thai. It focuses more on the standing-up aspect of fighting. It involves hand-to-hand combat.

One of the main stances of Lethwei is the square stance, in which the fighter puts most of his weight on the leg placed at the back. This is done to lessen the load on the leg placed on the front for swift mobility. Quick push kicks can be the number one technique when it comes to self-defense.

Muay Thai is also known as the ‘sport of 8 limbs’. Instead of just hand-to-hand combat, it equally focuses on punches, elbows, legs, and knees. While Lethwei has an additional feature that allows the fighter to use the head for attacking, this feature is illegal in Muay Thai. The usage of headbutt makes Lethwei a sport of nine limbs. Muay Thai

The headbutt feature is also what makes Lethwei the most realistic of the two. This feature can be a devastating tool in a one-on-one fight. By shortening the distance between themselves and the opponent, a Lethwei fighter can easily include a headbutt as the end for his punching combination.

Besides all this, another unique feature of Lethwei is the lack of hand protection. Hence, making it a more serious sport. Lethwei fighters only wear a gauze wrap and tape.

When it comes to similarities, both sports allow clinching. When any one fighter hits the ground, the referee resets the fighter’s position. Even while clenching, the contenders can throw elbows, punches, and even knees. While Lethwei also includes headbutts. 

Also Read: Best Muay Thai Equipment

Lethwei Rules

As Lethwei is an ancient sport, many of its rules have evolved with time to suit modern needs. Let’s find out more about these rules. 


There are different bouts; you can book three, four, or a five round fight with over 3 minutes per round. Every round is followed by a 2-minute break. With the championship matches, the fights last for five rounds with a 2-minute interval between each of those rounds.


There is one referee that oversees the fight, and he has the power to end a fight if the fighter clearly outclasses his opponent. He can also refer to the doctor and stop the fight in the wake of any serious injury.

The Traditional Knockout Rule

This rule has survived the test of time. Traditional Lethwei matches are fought all over Myanmar. One of its most controversial rules is to Knockout the other fighter in order to win. If the fight ends and there is no knockout, it is declared a draw. Other than that, there is also a technical knockout where the fighter gives up or is seriously injured.

The Modern Rules

After 1996 some changes were made to the traditional rules of Lethwei. However, these new rules apply to championships such as the World Lethwei Championship. Judges were added on the ringside. With the help of this, it became easier to pick a winner in case of a no-knockout. The two-minute injury timeout was also removed.

What Techniques Are Used in Lethwei?Lethwei Techniques

As discussed before, Lethwei is a very serious sport and can sometimes become quite aggressive. In such cases, it is very important for the contender to mostly rely on a defensive stance. Many people consider Lethwei as a good option to teach self-defense.

The headbutt is the most important part of attacking in Lethwei, you’d be surprised to know that it is also the most preferred tool for self-defense. Indeed, a headbutt is the only thing that can help you free yourself from a clinching situation. This makes it a good defensive and counter-attacking move.

The other technique that many fighters use is that of quick hits. With almost no protective gear, the endurance of the fighter can take a hit with a single blow. Hence, quick light punches and then backing off are quite useful. All in all, the sport involves fast movements and a heavy focus on the defensive attribute.

Top Athletes Who Practice Lethwei

Every sport has its stars, so does Lethwei. If there are hundreds of world-class professional fighters, there are bound to be some that rise to the top to claim the ultimate prize.

1. Dave Leduc

Leduc has dedicated his entire life to the sport. Most of his fights were monumental, including the ones in Myanmar. Once, there were 40 million people tuning in to watch his matches. One of his most famous fights was against Seth Baczynski. This fight is considered to be among the top fights.

2. Too Too

Often hailed as the People’s Champion, Too Too is undoubtedly the biggest star of Myanmar. He has won almost all the tournaments, including the World Lethwei Championship. The fights between him and Dave Leduc are considered to be legendary. At one point, there were over 500 Harley Davidson riders in Myanmar that escorted him for his title defense bout in 2018.

3. Antonio Faria

As one of the crowd favorites, Antonio Faria has been the undisputed World Lethwei Champion in the light welterweight division. His footwork is considered to be world class. And his strikes are considered to be the fastest in the biz. He was scheduled for a title defense bout, but it was postponed due to the global pandemic.

Lethwei in Popular Culture

Since 1996, as the modern rules came into picture, Lethwei has joined its brother Muay Thai as a mainstream fighting sport gathering millions of spectators to its matches. From its humble beginnings in Myanmar, the sport has reached a level of global prosperity.

In 2016, a documentary on Lethwei, ‘Born Warriors’ was aired. It was directed by Vincent Giordano. The documentary throws light on the intricacies of bare-knuckle matches that often served as the passage for manhood for young boys. It showed that for its practitioners, Lethwei is a mixture of both spiritual and physical growth. The documentary was shot over a period of 14-years in two distinct parts of Myanmar.


It is safe to suggest that the world of Lethwei is slowly making its presence felt in the mainstream sports arena, with millions of fans around the globe following the matches and the fighters. 

The introduction of new and modern rules has helped in making the sport more relevant to the current age. It teaches us that in order to survive; we need to adapt. It’s wrapped with a spiritual side too. Lethwei is no longer restricted to Myanmar, and is a part of the world’s combat-sport industry.