Burma Boxing

“There have been five deaths since I’ve been a coach”
“How long have you been a coach?”
“Three years”.
U Kyaw Win is a coach at the Myanma Traditional Boxing Club, a shed converted to a gym on the outskirts of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, formally known as Burma. If we calculate that matches are held once a month, that no matches take place during the rainy season (May to October), and that many fighters give up boxing due to the injuries incurred during their first fight, you will get an idea of the violence of myanma let-hwei, Burmese boxing.
Very similar to the better known muay thai, Thai boxing, both sports date back to around 2300 years ago, to the time when people from southern China were migrating south. Forced to face hostile ethnic groups along the way, they developed a form of combat that used any part of the body to attack and defend: feet, teeth, fists, knees, elbows, even the head. As the generations passed, muay thai lost many of its more extreme components, now focusing on the athletic side of the sport. Burmese boxing, on the other hand, has retained many of its tribal, ferocious elements. Boxers fight bare-handed and almost any kind of strike is allowed, on almost any target, with the exception of the eyes and the testicles. The head may be used and flying kicks can be hurled at the neck. The most violent and most dangerous strikes involve the knee hitting the face, gripping the adversary by the back of the neck, and the elbow hitting the throat, the face or the upper spinal column. Punches are considered the least effective, while kicks to the legs are used mainly to weaken the adversary’s resistance. As they say, “A fighter who cannot stand cannot fight”.
Most matches are held during paya pwe, the pagodas festival, in a makeshift ring with earth on the ground. There is no time limit, no allowance for differences in weight or age, and adversaries often fight to solve personal disputes. There is no medical assistance, only a priest of the Nat, the Spirits that oversee all human activity and nature. National fights do have regulations, however, especially those held in the park around Kan Daw Gyi, the Yangon lake, in the shadow of the Shwedagon pagoda. Adversaries fight in a ring measuring 19 feet by 18. Matches are divided into 5 rounds each lasting 3 minutes and fighters can request a break in the first 4. Boxers have to belong more or less to the same category and first aid is on hand.
Fights almost always end in a draw or a knockout. Even those that, according to western or muay thai rules, would be a points victory for one or the other fighter.
“It doesn’t matter if you get beaten up. What counts is courage, strength and the ability to withstand pain”, explains U Kyaw Win. On the contrary, “those who are afraid and avoid fighting, are declared the losers after three being given warnings”.
Courage and pain provide the only possibility of earning anything. There is no prize money up for grabs; boxers have to earn donations from the spectators, who reward the best and encourage the man they have bet on. To demonstrate their indifference to pain, many face their adversary with their arms open, ready to be hit to show their courage. To ask for the strength to withstand the pain and take the hits, many tattoo their legs and chest with propitiatory statements and pay homage to Khun Tho and Khun Co, the Nat spirits of myanma let-hwei, before the match.


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