Part 1: The art of 9 limbs, the gloves are off with Livingstone Saw
South East Asia has been home to many martial arts, Bokator in Cambodia, Muay Lao in Laos and Muay Thai in Thailand to name a few. As with many of the South East Asian martial arts, it ingrains elements of a sporting entertainment, mixed with a history of tradition and culture. Myanmar (Burma) is no different with their own unique martial art called Lethwei. First impressions of Lethwei could be perceived as a bare-knuckle kickboxing fight which allows head-butts with very limited rules. The reality is true; there is no denying there is violence and danger involved in this sport. However, we will find out why preserving a culture and a sport that is still practiced today is so important to the people and the culture of Myanmar, and why New Zealand fighters have a chance to experience a part of this too.
We were lucky to interview Livingstone Saw, a lethwei trainer from Myanmar who has made himself at home in our Capital. He has been involved with training some of the top talents who have come out of Wellington and even helped the first kiwi, Rua Druce to fight over in Myanmar in lethwei. We asked Livingstone about the sport, the culture, and his plans of having New Zealand’s very first lethwei competition right here in Wellington.
Livingstone Saw grew up in Myanmar and got involved with lethwei when he was just a teen. For Livingstone Saw, lethwei was a part of life; some say it is a rite of passage for manhood, learning from family, friends and the legend Saya Ta Mun Kyar. We ask Livingstone what his plans are with his organization ‘Namtu Championship’ in collaboration with Myanmar Media group bringing lethwei fighters to compete here in New Zealand and his own goals with lethwei.
Livingstone Saw said; “The fight promotion I've established is primarily set up to help grow and internationalise lethwei. I believe lethwei will be big like MMA and other sports.”
This seems more than just a business venture; it is also a work of passion and a sense of responsibility to him.
“Lethwei is everything to me. It's a part of the Myanmar culture and I want to help grow and internationalise the sport. The martial art is ancient and I want to keep it and pass its traditions to many generations”, said Livingstone.
Lethwei also shares similarities to its cousin Muay Thai. It is well known that the two martial arts have been battle tested against each other in combat during the wars between the Burmese and the Siam dynasty in the 16th Century.
Livingstone suggests that “Lethwei is actually an ancient martial art and much older than Muay Thai and other forms of Martials arts founded in Southeast Asia. It's at least 800 years older than Muay Thai. Its rituals and traditions like its cousins are very similar.”
There are similar cultural comparisons such as fights being held during festivals, celebrations and Buddhist monks are present. In Myanmar, they even hold events during Monk’s funerals. However, there are many other differences between the two.
Livingstone said; “The pre-fight dances are different. With Muay Thai the wai kru is much slower, but with lethwei it's called the lekkha moun and they slap the left elbow and the movements are quicker. At the end of a lethwei fight the winner performs the lekkha moun. The loser is not allowed to.
When it comes to the striking, it may look like muay thai, but there is some major differences that makes lethwei stand out more than any other competitive combat martial art.
In terms of striking, it's very similar, apart from the fact you can head butt with judo and wrestling throws being permitted too. Other differences are no points system, avoiding your opponent too often and not engaging them are not permitted, and hand wraps and bandage material only.” said Livingstone Saw
The event is still in its early stages but already there is interest from New Zealand and Australian fighters willing to try out the sport against Myanmar fighters. The Myanmar media group’s shows are the highest level in Myanmar. Other countries that have already held these successful events include Japan; who are having six shows this year. Russia will also be holding the amateur Lethwei Championship with over 300 participants competing. Lethwei events are being held internationally which include Germany, Canada, Sweden, and our neighbours Australia.
When we asked about how this championship will be regulating this event, or if there will be any modifications to the rules,
Livingstone replied. “Traditional lethwei rules will apply for our show: - striking with all 9 limbs will be permitted - winner is by TKO / KO only. If none, it will be declared a draw. But if it's a championship fight, the fight will continue with no time limit or water after the last round until there is a KO or TKO. - You must fight; you can't avoid your opponent. There will be 3 avoidance warnings, if you continue to disengage then you will get disqualified. Our championship will dictate and regulate lethwei rules and fights.”
Some more questions we asked were; given that there will be Myanmar fighters participating against our local fighters, how will the matchmaking work? Does their experience play as an advantage? Also, will there be any trophies? Livingstone answered:
“The experience levels will vary but we will match NZ / AUS fighters with similar fight experiences. Having lethwei fight experience will be an advantage because of the cut factor and understanding the fight rules. We are covering all weight categories and there will be both belts and trophies. We are really looking forward to having the first heavyweight and super heavyweight lethwei fights.”
Now if this did not get you excited I’m not sure what will. The rule’s rawness captures the spirit of the martial art’s authenticity, and preserves its traditional value. This martial art may have similarities to others, a blend of Muay Thai, grappling, almost like MMA/ pankration, but it should not be mistaken. Lethwei is its own martial art and it’s been around a lot longer. Although professional competition rules are more extreme than most combat sports out there, at its core it offers the same benefits as any other martial art. The art of 9 limbs offers fitness, discipline, respect, community, self-defence and confidence. Not to mention embodying traditional values and culture having been war tested, and is an identity of Myanmar.
We thank Livingstone Saw for this interview, we wish him well on his promotion, and we will be paying close attention to any news about his upcoming events.
Make sure to check out part 2 coming soon, as we talk to two Kiwi fighters, Rua Druce from Wellington, and Daniel Kerr, currently in living in Bangkok. Both of these warriors have faced some of the best Lethwei Champions from Myanmar.
This is not an unsanctioned street fight, there are rules, regulations and fighter’s safety is first. The fighters stepping in the ring should fully familiarise themselves with the rules. Here are the rules below.
FULL LETHWEI RULES:
The attire of the fight:
1. The fighter shall wear shorts without shirt or shoes
2. The fighters can wrap their hands or ankle with surgeon bandage. No hard things can be put in the wrappings.
3. The fighters must wear the groin protector
4. The fighters must put the gum shield to protect their teeth.
Rounds: 3 minute fight x 2 minutes rest, 5 rounds
Each fighter is entitled to have 2 corner men in the ring and 1 corner man outside the ring.
There will be one referee to oversee the fight. The referee has the power to:
1. Stop the fight if he considers one fighter significantly outclasses the other.
2. Stop the fight and refer to the doctor if any of the fighters are wounded and should not allow the fight to continue.
3. Order the fighters to stop the fight so as to caution him in case he breaks the rules or in other words to enable the competition to proceed fairly and in compliance with the rules.
1. The knock-out (KO) is when the opponent falls onto the floor or lean unconscious on the ropes, unable to fight or to defend himself within 20 seconds. (10 counts with 1 count/ 2 seconds).
2. The technical knockout is when the fighter is in a position that can result damage or harm if the fight continues. The ring doctor should be consulted before that kind of decision is made.
3. If a fighter is KO’d, the referee shall count to 10. If the fighter can’t stand up till count 10 it is a KO.
4. If there is a count, it is to be counted at least up to 8. If there are 3 counts in a round, it is a KO.
5. If there are 4 counts, during the whole span of fight, it is a KO.
6. The fighter or the corner men can retire if they think the fighter is “outclassed.”
7. If there is no KO till the end of the round 5, it is a draw.
8. For the tournaments, if there is no KO, it will be decided by points.
9. For challenge fights, a boxer can take a special two minute rest (just once), during round one to round four. In round five no special rest will be given.
The permitted techniques:
1. All kinds of punches.
2. All kinds of elbow strikes
4. All kind of knee strikes
5. All kinds of kicks
The Prohibited ones:
2. Eye-gouging, poking into eyes with fingers
6. Intentional attack to the groin
7. Scratching with finger nails
8. Continues attack after a fighter falls onto the floor.