Lethwei is a Burmese bare-knuckle combat sport that originated in Myanmar, Southeast Asia. It is known as ‘The Art of Nine Limbs’ because headbutts can play a key role in the action alongside the more commonly used punches, kicks, knees and elbows. The sport is often viewed as niche, but that is a perception World Lethwei Championship’s CEO, Gerald Ng, is trying to change.
Ng previously held roles in sports broadcast with Eleven Sports Network and One Championship before making the move over to the World Lethwai Championship. He has over a decade of sports management experience and has been a huge fan of martial arts for his whole life. Ng was brought into the organization by a group of Burmese businessmen, who wanted to raise the international awareness of lethwai, to spearhead their project. Since joining the WLC, he hasn’t looked back and believes there is no reason why the sport can’t be as popular as the more established disciplines.
“I can personally attest as to why we needed to make audiences aware of the product. Because I have always been a huge fan of martial arts all my life, yet before joining, I barely knew what lethwei was,” explained Ng. “I’d heard about it, but access to great lethwei fights and content was difficult. Events were not very welcoming to new fans, and the fanbase was getting older—even in Myanmar. We wanted to change that and make the presentation of lethwei world-class to go along with the incredible, elite action by the practitioners. Over the past few years, we’ve produced top-quality events that showcase the amazing sport, along with great content about the culture, tradition and attractions of the country.”
“The sky is really the limit for lethwei,” continued Ng. “World Lethwei Championship produces a wholesome and entertaining media experience that will appeal to both fight fans looking for combat sports alternatives and casual sports fans looking for new viewing experiences. In just over the span of two years, we have secured major broadcast rights partnerships with Canal+ and UFC Fight Pass among others—which will help showcase lethwei and the country of Myanmar to the world.”
The company was founded in 2015 and has held ten events to date, all of which took place in Myanmar. Although WLC acknowledge that it is important to remember the sport’s heritage and roots, they know they have to travel to new territories in order to gain more traction and popularity. Ng thinks that this year will be the organisation’s biggest so far and international shows have already been planned.
“For the first time, we will be bringing shows overseas in 2020,” revealed Ng. “Phnom Penh in Cambodia will play host to our inaugural international show. The fans over there have been so passionate and fervent in their support, and it is heartening to see the growth of World Lethwei Championship in other countries. We will also be bringing our event to the United States for the first time later this year. The demand for lethwei in the US is really strong, but our timings have not been ideal for fans in Europe and North America to watch live. We would love to start doing shows that are more suitable for the audience in those areas to consume. Japan is another market that we expect to be hosting a show in soon. Japanese fans are familiar with lethwei and the storied history of martial arts there makes it one of our target markets, especially as an ardent fight fan myself.”
One of the main reasons the WLC, and lethwai itself, is so popular in Myanmar is because all of the sport’s biggest stars have connections to the local market. However, that won’t translate to other territories. The promotion will have to look at different strategies to garner interest when they hit different countries. Relatively new combat sport organisations such as Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship have found financial success by signing names familiar to MMA fans such as Hector Lombard, Artem Lobov, and Jason Knight. This has brought a whole new audience to bare-knuckle boxing and is an approach that WLC is definitely trying to replicate.
“It is the next phase of growth for the sport, to bring in names which fans of different combat sports recognize. And you can expect an announcement about signings very soon,” revealed Ng. “We are finishing paperwork with some of the more familiar names in MMA. This also demonstrates the growth of lethwei because we are able to attract ex-UFC and Bellator athletes into the sport. We will aggressively approach every free agent in the martial arts world. That could be a karate champion or an MMA veteran. If you are a true martial artist, then lethwei has to be part of your martial arts journey.”
The promotion’s next event, WLC: Battlebones, takes place on Friday night from Myanmar and kicks off their schedule for the year. The card features a plethora of talent from all over the world and is headlined by a rematch between current champion, Too Too, against Naimjon Tuhtabpyev of Uzbekistan—in a middleweight clash. The fight has a compelling backstory, one that Ng believes combat sports fans shouldn’t miss out on.
“The main event could very well be the fight of the year in all of martial arts,” claimed Ng. “World Lethwei Middleweight Champion, Too Too, is a household name in Myanmar and arguably the greatest lethwei fighter in the history of the sport. He has but a few blemishes in his career, and one of them was going to Thailand in his earlier days six years ago, losing to his upcoming opponent on Friday night. That fight was one for the ages, with both guys having to stand back up after getting knocked down. It was an incredible back-and-forth battle. And this rematch has increased stakes; with the most prestigious title in lethwei on the line, we can expect an even better match! In addition, WLC: BATTLEBONES will feature 7 other epic lethwei bouts so if you have not watched lethwei before and this is your first event, you will be in for a treat!”
WLC: BATTLEBONES will be streamed live on UFC Fight Pass at 7pm/4pm ET/PT on Friday night while fans in the UK and Ireland can tune in from midnight.