November 5, 2020

Muay Thai is known to almost everyone who is into martial arts. It is better known as the art of 8 limbs. But there is another not so common variant of this sport called the Lethwei meaning the “art of 9 limbs.”

This is an even brutal version of Muay Thai and is probably one of the most unforgiving mixed martial arts sports in the world.  Although it is not as common as Muay Thai on an international scale, it has some of the most striking techniques ever used in any MMA sport.

Lethwei allows the use of the head butt while Muay Thai does not. Further, Lethwei tends to be more lenient when grappling and does not have a traditional scoring system. Rather, Lethwei is fought using a “last man standing” system usually with no gloves making it a potentially more brutal martial art compared to Muay Thai.

Dave Leduc has been the Champion of Lethwei and is campaigning to make this into an international sport. If you have been watching Muay Thai and want to know more about Lethwei, then get ready to dive into some of the brutal facts of Lethwei. But first, here is a short history of the sports.

What Is Lethwei And Muay Thai?

Lethwei is a Burmese sport that means “boxing”. But we can assure you that it is more than just simple boxing. Since Myanmar gained independence, this has been their iconic sport. It has roots in other martial arts like Muay Boran which is an ancient type of Muay Thai and Muay Lao from Laos.

Muay Thai is the art of 8 limbs, that is to say, 2 hands, 2 elbows, 2 knees, and 2 feet. Compared to this, Lethwei is the art of 9 limbs which makes it potentially even more brutal and dangerous.

Curious what the 9th weapon is? It is the head.

Very unconventionally, Lethwei allows head butts which opens up a whole new world of striking techniques.

That is why Lethwei is considered a more effective martial art than others. It is savage, brutal, and dangerous in every way imagined. But critics believe that the inclusion of the head increases the self-defense techniques and makes it more effective for defensive fighters, although the head butt is still an offensive move.

Besides if you run into a street fight, there will be no rules. There are also some other major differences in both sports but before I dwell deeper into those, let us have a look where it all started.

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History of Muay Thai

Muay Thai is said to have originated in the early tribal migration from the South of China to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It is said that one of the tribes known as the Siamese fought fiercely for their survival as they moved south and had fights with other tribes on their way.

They reached Thailand and as far as Malaysia. Within this period they had to go through extreme conditions including hand-to-hand combat without any weapons. For survival, they had to employ various techniques and tactics that were sharpened over the years and lead to the development of a very rudimentary form of what we know as Muay Thai.

People who survived taught their young ones the techniques they used and soon it became a tradition among those tribes to know the art of Muay Thai. They trained their children in using proper posture, defensive and offensive techniques.

Each strike was meant to strike an offensive blow and the executor was supposed to gain maximum advantage in one blow.

This fighting style evolved over the years through natural selection. Those who fought well survived. Those who didn’t… fell.

For centuries, the Thai was on constant guard from a probable attack from the neighboring countries and thus, were more focused on developing and sharpening their existing techniques.

They engaged in matches on an almost daily basis and the National Guard started recruiting soldiers from within the villages who showed prowess in the art. This opened doors for teachers to open schools for proper and organized training.

With the need to survive and to protect the Kingdom, Muay Thai was ingrained into the culture and over 500 years slowly started developing into a full-blown sport.

History of Lethwei

Similar to Muay Thai, Lethwei also originated on the battlefield. The ancient Burmese soldiers started developing a hand to hand fighting techniques to defend themselves against the aggressors.

The whole purpose was to use the techniques when they were without weapons. Burma lacked weapons and therefore, they had to rely more on hand to hand combat.

The earliest record of Lethwei traced its way back to the Pyu Empire where the warriors used early versions of the Lethwei. They used it in battles against other countries.

In those days, they organized fighting contests and tournaments to train and pick fighters for the National Guard army.  Although there were no proper stadiums so they used sandpits for the purpose.

As far as the rules are concerned, there were very few of them. The reason behind this is that they didn’t train to win a world cup or a championship trophy. The main reason behind their effort was to train soldiers to defend their lands.

The contests served this purpose well. But I can say that they must have been brutal because the only major rule that was common was “last man standing.”

This art remained in this format for centuries until recently molding itself into a much different form.

Lethwei and Muay Thai: Similarity & Difference 

Both sports are very similar. Muay Thai is considered to be one of the most brutal martial arts but Lethwei takes it one step further with the inclusion of the head as the ninth weapon.

In Muay Thai 8 limbs are used, while in Lethwei, 9 limbs they are used. Lethwei fighters use their fists, hands, feet, elbows, and knees, and the head as well. The use of the head in Lethwei makes it brutal as well as effective because the head plays an important role in a weapon that is used for both offense and defense.

Clinching and deadlocks are common in both sports and most of the other rules are common. But Lethwei allows other grappling moves like the suplex and is very lenient with grappling techniques, unlike in Muay Thai.

You can see how brutal that technique can be for yourself.

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Lethwei vs. Muay Thai Rulesets

The traditional rules of Lethwei and Muay Thai are almost the same. These are known as traditional rules.

In Lethwei a winner is declared when the opponent is unable to continue. This continues for a maximum of five rounds. If both fighters are standing till the fifth round. It is a draw.

There is no point scoring system in Lethwei. The only way you can win is by completely knocking off the opponent. In Lethwei, you can take a 2-minute timeout as well, but these rules were modified because it increases the chances of a match being drawn.

Compared to this, in Muay Thai, a 10 point scoring system is used over five rounds. However, this is merely used as a guide by the judges. Instead of being scored round by round and adding them up to find a winner, judges score the fight as a whole based on effective striking, fight control, and aggression.

Further, scoring is heavily weighted towards the later rounds as the first round is seen as a “feeling out” round where spectators can place their bets.

In both martial arts, a round lasts for about 3 minutes.

Lethwei vs. Muay Thai Techniques

Muay Thai Techniques

Both the games focus on the standup aspect of martial arts with hand to hand combat and clinches. They use a rhythmic stance and keep most of their weight on the back leg and keep their front leg light. This allows them to react quickly.

Both arts allow clinching however it is seen that the referee will separate both fighters in Lethwei much more quickly than in Muay Thai. In Muay Thai you cannot use your head while in Lethwei you can use your head in addition to your elbows and knees.

Unlike Muay Thai, the fighters only have gauze and tape on their hands instead of protective gloves.

Which Is More Effective?

Generally, Lethwei is said to be more effective because of the addition of the head butt. Still, it won’t be fair to compare both the martial arts. They may have similarities but the minute differences change the whole game. They also use different equipment so there is little comparison of the experience a fighter has while he is inside the ring.

A Burmese and Thai boxer will perform just the same given that they are judged based on the art they are trained for. We will only see which art is the best when there is an exchange of fighters within the two sports which is yet to happen.

Should You Learn Lethwei or Muay Thai?

Both Lethwei and Muay Thai have similar influences but Muay Thai has been recognized on an international level.

Lethwei is rather archaic as compared to Muay Thai due to its scoring system. The only way to win is to knock your opponent out. Muay Thai is more popular considering that it has international recognition.

However, if you want to try something different and challenging then Lethwei is an easy choice. However, finding legit Lethwei schools can be very difficult as many schools may be teaching a watered down version due to Lethwei being so localized to Myanmar.

With that being said, stick to one sport and excel in it as both sports have different rule sets which are likely to be incompatible if you try out both. For pure self-defense, Lethwei offers you more options to defend yourself. For pure competitive fighting, Muay Thai offers you the most opportunities.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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