Lethwei, The Most Brutal Martial Art In The World (Myanmar, 2015 – 2019)
Lethwei, or Burmese bareknuckle boxing is an ancient full contact combat sport from Myanmar (officially known as Republic Of The Union Of Myanmar and formerly known as Burma) that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques and goes deep in to the countries culture. Lethwei is considered to be the most aggressive and brutal martial art in the world because the fighters fight bareknuckle with only the use of tape and gauze on their hands. The use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet, but more surprisingly, the head makes it a very unusual martial art. Although disallowed in many combat sports, in Lethwei, the use of headbutts is encouraged. This is the reason it is also known as “The Art of 9 Limbs”.
Myanmar is a small country located in South East Asia bordering Thailand, Laos, China, Bangladesh and India. Unfortunately, despite being an extremely resource-rich country, its economy is one of the least developed in the world and makes this beautiful country to one of the poorest in the region and only recently opened its doors to the western world.
Visiting Myanmar for the first time in 2014, due to a so called visa run from Thailand, turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life so far and probably will remain one for quite some time. The short boat ride across the Andaman sea back then was a real adventure and I really hoped the small local wooden boat would make it across in one piece and luckily it did. Since then I have been addicted to the country and had the pleasure to go visit Myanmar several times for either clients or personal projects such as for example the famous balancing fishermen of the Inle Lake, but that’s a different story for a different day.
While being based in Bangkok, Thailand, for several years and getting more and more busy with working with clients in the combat sports world, I heard of something called Lethwei in the year of 2015. Not knowing what exactly Lethwei was other then being a fight related sport and similar to the more internationally known combat sport “Muay Thai“ from the neighbouring country Thailand, I quickly contacted the promotion responsible for the event called The World Lethwei Championship. I loved the country and its people and wanted to go visit Myanmar with every opportunity I could get so the plan was to offer my photography services for free to the promotion, as long as they would arrange transportation and accommodation in return for documenting their event. After a few emails back and forth we had a deal and I was about to find out what exactly I was getting myself in to. In the following week I arranged my visa and was ready to board my one hour flight across the border shortly after that.
When I first started to get involved with mixed martial arts I didn’t really know how I would react to the involvement of blood and broken bones, which didn’t mean I was concerned about it. It reminded me a lot of hearing about cannabis for the first time and the bad reputation that was imprinted on the topic. Fighting was suppose to be for meat heads and apparently it was brutal. Well, I learned pretty quick that this wasn’t true at all and the blood wasn’t to bad either. Sure, there was violence involved but it was a much more controlled form of violence, very different from what people normally assume when thinking of two people punching each other in the face while being locked up in a cage. With that being said I wasn’t much impressed when I heard about Lethwei supposingly being the most brutal martial art of them all but boy was I about to be proven wrong. This really was it, no hostages taken!
To be honest, I don’t even know where to start – there are two rule sets in Lethwei, a traditional rule set and a more modern one but still equally brutal with the biggest difference being not exceeding more then three rounds (five rounds for championship fights), meaning the use of a scoring system instead of the traditional “knock out only to win” rule. In the unlikely event of both competitors still standing, even though one fighter being much more dominant then the other, the fight would simply be declared a draw. It’s kind of insane if you think about it and seen as very controversial, due to health reasons, for very good reasons and probably the biggest reason for the World Lethwei Championship to apply a more modern rule set instead. But this was Myanmar, things worked, and still do, differently here. Additionally the people here are so much tougher then what you would expect and Lethwei was the perfect representative for that. Also that very toughness was a gift from heaven for any photographer because it gave you time in a “to fast to shoot” sport.
Missed out on capturing the perfect moment of a knock out or knock down? Don’t worry, there would be another one, guaranteed!
Working ringside for the World Lethwei Championship between the years of 2015 and 2019 was nothing like anything I’ve ever seen and experienced. Thanks to the trust of the promotion and the quality of my work I had total freedom in what I was doing both ahead of the event and during their shows. It’s exactly that kind of freedom that elevates my work to what I would like it to be. Every image should jump of the page when you see it because that is exactly what witnessing an event like this feels like. You can barely keep in your seat and the local audience does its part to give you goosebumps and create a unique, almost scary, atmosphere. They love their Lethwei. Every kick or punch gets a cheer while devastating headbutts are being celebrated like it was the end of the world and the audience only had one last cheer left to give. It’s pure insanity, in a good way! Being so close and even in the ring during the rounds, it was impossible not to get drawn in to the spectacular chaos that was Lethwei. If my cloth or camera didn’t have any drops of blood on it by the time the event was finished, it must have been a bad night, but trust me, that never happened. You could smell the blood in the air and the gauze which was mostly used for fists not to slip off the sweaty skin rather then to protect the fighters, never remained white for very long.
Despite the brutality taking place in the ring the sportsmanship I witnessed both before and after the fights still needs to find its equal. I often witnessed competitors backstage in the medical room after tearing each other apart in front of the audience for several rounds, getting stitched up next to each other while analysing their fights and laughing about the mistakes they’ve made during the battle. Communication problems between local and foreign warriors weren’t much of an issue since the love for the sport was a common translator. I spent a lot of time just watching those moments in aw without triggering my camera sometimes. And when I did it often became something different then just photography. It was more like we shared a passion in different states. For the beaten athlete it was a tough moment of defeat while it was a moment of success for me as a photographer to be allowed in and documenting this very personal moment. Sure you would have these moments in mixed martial arts and other combat sports as well but this was different, more pure, more raw, more brutally honest.
Shooting for the World Lethwei Championship and documenting its growth from a small unknown promotion having its first event on a golf course just outside the small airport of Yangon with barely any audience to becoming one of the most spectacular events in a third world country has been a one of a kind experience. As you probably recognize I am repeating myself, that’s how excited I get just talking about Lethwei.
Today WLC is broadcasted to millions of people via tv and the UFC FIGHT PASS platform with an ever growing number of viewers. It even got an episode on the popular NETFLIX documentary series by Frank Grillo (the guy you probably mostly know from MARVELS Captain America movies playing the role of Crossbones) called Fight World. If you look closely you might catch me in a frame or two, maybe three.
Either you like to watch Lethwei on tv, read about it or look at photos, it will always remain as something you have to experience live and in action while visiting, in my opinion, the most beautiful country in South East Asia. You should go there!