Lethwei is one of the most brutal sports you have never heard of. In fact, with rules that prohibit gloves and allow punches, elbows, kicks, knees and even headbutts, this Burmese combat sport is in a league of its own.
Gerald Ng has been CEO of the Myanmar-based World Lethwei Championship (WLC) for three years. The Singaporean, who previously worked for MMA powerhouse ONE Championship, was not familiar with Lethwei when he took his current job. Today, he’s the trailblazer attempting to elevate the sport – previously trapped behind Myanmar’s borders – internationally.
Ng has already made strides for WLC. He has secured broadcast deals with French broadcaster Canal+ and its sister company and K+, one of Vietnam’s largest sports networks, and UFC Fight Pass, the official streaming service of the UFC.
Ng says WLC’s five-year K+ deal, worth almost $1M, has made the organization so popular in Vietnam he places Vietnamese fighters on every card.
WLC is the only Lethwei company on UFC Fight Pass and the two companies are currently operating on a two-year deal, which began in December of 2018.
The exposure is there on paper, but selling this sport to international fans is not that simple.
Lethwei can be a graphic product. Ng and WLC are developing a few strategies to make Lethwei more palatable for sports fans outside Myanmar, many of whom are too squeamish to stomach the Burmese export.
Under the most common Lethwei ruleset, fights can only be won by knockout. If, after five three-minute rounds there has not been a knockout, the fight is ruled a draw.
Ng felt this ruleset, particularly the prevalence of draws it creates, would frustrate international sports fans who are accustomed to closure. To negate this issue, he and his team dug up a less common Lethwei ruleset that uses a scoring system similar to those used in MMA and boxing. Judges score each round and decide on a winner if no knockout materializes.
“We didn’t really introduce a new rule set,” Ng explains. “When the sport first started trying to modernize itself in the 80s and 90s, the federation introduced two different kinds of rules. It just so happened that most of the promoters at that time used the knockout only rule. Nobody adopted the other ruleset. We decided that for a global audience, especially with social media, with all the content that’s available now, we need to make our fights more conclusive.
“I can’t have fans watching for hours and have it be all draws.”
Ng also hopes to hoist Lethwei to an international standard by improving fighter safety. WLC subjects its fighters to rigorous medical testing and also abolished the sport’s archaic time-out rule, which allowed fighters to take two minutes to recover after being knocked out.
“I appreciate that WLC is taking the effort to go the extra mile to take care of their fighters,” says Soe Lin Oo, a veteran Lethwei fighter. “It is something that no other promoter in the Myanmar has ever done.”
Another strategy Ng has undertaken as he attempts to turn Lethwei into a mainstream sport is signing international fighters to compete for WLC inside Myanmar. He has already signed French-Canadian star Dave Leduc, the world’s best foreign Lethwei fighter, as well as American UFC veteran Seth Baczynski.
“It legitimizes the sport,” Ng says. “If these guys who have been champions in MMA and kickboxing and Muay Thai decide they want to commit their future to Lethwei, it just shows that this is the future.”
Ng also enlists the services of foreign referees and judges to ensure these international fighters are scored fairly in any setting.
While Lethwei is evolving, Ng is protective of certain aspects of Myanmar’s traditions.
“The foreign fighters need to learn the culture of Lethwei,” Ng says. “For example, if I go back to Dave Leduc, when he first came to Myanmar, he was kind of looked at as a villain, but now the [local fans] see that he’s embraced the culture and he’s dedicating his life to promoting this sport.
“Burmese fans are amazing, if you’re a great fighter and you embrace the culture, they love you.”
Ng believes Lethwei has a place on American soil. He has seen similar organizations succeed in the U.S.
“A lot of people like to compare Lethwei to bare-knuckle boxing,” Ng says, referencing the success of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) in the United States. “Lethwei is a completely different sport, but it will attract the same fans.”
In fact, Ng says he’s already been in touch with BKFC brass about potentially co-promoting an event together in the future.
Needless to say, Ng has big goals for WLC and the larger sport of Lethwei. For the moment, however, his priority is continuing to introduce international fans to Myanmar’s incredible combat sport — starting with the next WLC event on the calendar.
“The next event is on August 2 in Mandalay,” he says. “We’re going to have a mega event. We’re going to have at least eight international fighters.
“We just want people to fall in love with Lethwei and in the process fall in love with the country as well. It’s been such a closed-off country for such a long time.”
For the record, that is the city of Mandalay, Myanmar, not the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. But perhaps down the road, Lethwei can become another combat sports stalwart in Sin City.