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Lethwei, sans gloves and with legal headbutts, is like a grittier, more intense Muay Thai fight.

Antonio Faria was sanguine a day before the biggest match of his fighting career. 

“I don’t think this fight will go the distance. I will try and go for the finish,” he said, cautiously optimistic as fighters in the zone are, a requisite mindset for all who compete in combat sports. Except this time, he wouldn’t be fighting Muay Thai or modern kickboxing, but rather in lethwei, a ruleset vastly different from what he’d previously been used to.  

Last February 22, Faria’s career reached its peak when he fought in Mandalay City in Myanmar, for the world championship title at the main event of World Lethwei Championship (WLC) 7’s “Mighty Warriors” card. 

“Depictions of lethwei fights abound on ancient Burmese temples showing fighters locked in combat on sand pits as far back as the Pyu City-States in the early to mid-11th century, before even the Bagan Empire became ascendant. That makes lethwei almost 2,000 years old.”

Lethwei is bareknuckle kickboxing fought in the traditional Burmese style. That is, sans gloves and with legal headbutts, like a grittier, more intense Muay Thai fight, and with the addition of the head as the “ninth limb,” as opposed to the Thai style with just eight limbs. 

For decades, lethwei was overshadowed by Muay Thai, made popular through its prolific use in modern MMA. However, lethwei predates even the early forms of the Thai art. Burmese indigenous martial systems like lethwei and bando were historically employed by the armies of the Irrawady River kings to great effect in both tribal wars and against foreign adversaries. 

“A major difference of lethwei from other gloved fighting sports is that it’s fought with just tape and gauze. If gloves are pillows for fists, then fighters are wearing nothing except pillow cases.”

Depictions of lethwei fights abound on ancient Burmese temples showing fighters locked in combat on sand pits as far back as the Pyu City-States in the early to mid-11th century, before even the Bagan Empire became ascendant. That makes lethwei almost 2,000 years old.  

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Throughout the British occupation of Burma, lethwei was kept alive in the eastern states, even as matches became mostly for entertainment and spectacle, included in programs at Buddhist festivals. Now that Myanmar has opened up its borders to tourism and foreigners have started to discover lethwei, it’s common for rural villages to have exhibition bouts even for children as young as 10. 

“I worked in one gym at Madeira, where I taught Muay Thai. At the same time I worked at one bar, because the money from only the gym is not enough for me to survive. All the time I tried to do my best not to give up on my dream.”

As lethwei continues to gain popularity in the fight world, foreign fighters like Faria have flocked to Myanmar to train and brawl for big purses in both a points-based format and brutal traditional KO-only tournaments. Gym owners and proponents are finding that it’s great for tourism and are packaging it as a cultural export, just as Thailand has attracted tourists through Muay Thai.       

These photos chronicle the days leading up to Faria’s main event fight at WLC7, the chaos of fight prep, the intensity of fight night, and the afterglow of a momentous win, when he captured the coveted Golden Belt for the light welterweight division against the against the 19-year-old Burmese prodigy Saw Htoo Aung. 

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