Traditional Myanmar boxing packs a punch, kick and headbutt

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After Hlaing Htet Aung landed another vicious kick to his opponent’s chest, the referee called a stop to traditional Myanmar boxing, the crowd cheered and the ringside band finished their tune with a flourish.

The 22-year-old won from the ring at the end of the traditional five-day Lethwei tournament, now in front of a large crowd again after the pandemic.

He just beat the current champion for his weight and has the bruises and bumps on his face to prove it.

“There’s nothing,” he said about his swollen face. “Being beaten like this is normal in Lethwei.”

“I’m happy because I won.”

Lethwei is considered one of the most aggressive combat sports in the world, with fighters eschewing boxing gloves for thin wrist bands wrapped around hard knuckles.

Feet, knees, elbows and even the head can also be used to strike an opponent.

Giving her son an ice cube to cool his wounds, the fighter’s mother Chit Htwe, 52, was unfazed by his injuries.

“Nothing happened. He’s human, isn’t he? A Lethwei fighter is used to going home hurt.”

Later she calculated his winnings – 900,000 kyat ($430).

The competition also included 10-year-olds swinging out in a flurry of skinny arms and legs.

Many Lethwei fighters start training and competing from a young age.

“I was scared when I entered the ring… I had no experience of fighting then,” said Hlaing Htet Aung.

Lethwei has a long history, with Myanmar temple carvings apparently depicting pairs of men locked in combat, suggesting the sport is over a thousand years old.

In modern times it was kept alive in the eastern border states of Karen and Mon, where pilgrimages are held to celebrate everything from monk funerals to New Year festivals.

More than 1,000 people turned out to watch the final of the competition in the town of Hlaingbwe in Karen state, sitting in plastic chairs under a large wooden canopy.

In the crowd there were a dozen or so monks watching the violence unfold as flutes played, drums and cymbals beat and a reporter encouraged the fighters through a microphone.

Fighters from the local Border Guard Force – formerly ethnic insurgents now closely tied to the army – stood guard outside holding rifles or riding in jeeps with machine guns mounted on them. put up on the back.

– ‘No fear’ –

Karen State has been in conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, with ethnic rebels fighting the military and each other.

The largest of the ethnic rebel groups, the Karen National Union, has fought several times with the army since the junta’s coup two years ago and a bloody crackdown on dissent.

But on Sunday officials and senior officials from rival organizations sat in the same crowd to witness the spectacle.

Near the boxing ring, thousands prayed at a Buddhist pagoda as part of a ceremony to mark the construction of an auspicious golden screen to the top of its spire.

One of the few female fighters on the bill, Dawna Bo Ma, 16, from Myawady on the Thai border.

Like Hlaing Htet Aung, her father was a Lethwei sailor.

In her match she went the full five rounds with her taller and heavier Thai opponent.

After the fight her team took bandages from her hands and applied petroleum jelly to a cut above her eyeball.

She had drawn that match but she had big ambitions for her fighting skills.

“I have to defeat female fighters in Myanmar first and if there is no one to challenge me, I will go to Thailand to fight,” she said.

“I’m a fighter… I’m not afraid to get hurt.”


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