Lethwei, Myanmar’s national sport, is one of the most brutal striking styles in the world—allowing bare knuckle punches, elbows, kicks, knees and headbutts. Traditionally, the fights are 5 rounds, and are automatically declared draws if there is no KO. Additionally each corner is allowed one two minute time out per fight to revive a KO’d fighter (the only restriction is that a time out cannot be used in the final round).
Dave Leduc is the first foreigner to have won the Golden Belt in Lethwei and has been defending it since 2016. Bloody Elbow sat down with him ahead of his fight with Seth Baczynski for the World Lethwei Championship cruiserweight belt, which will air on UFC Fight Pass at 7:15am ET/4:15am PT on Friday, August 2nd.
Tell me about your combat sports back ground, how you ended up in Lethwei?
It’s always been my goal to go fight in Lethwei, ever since I started with Kung fu, Sanshou. Even though my coach was telling me I’d be good at striking, at the start I only wanted to grapple. So for a year or two I only did grappling. Then I started striking and eventually I went to Thailand, because it was a lot easier to get fights in Muay Thai than a Lethwei fight. I went to tiger Muay Thai, because I had friends training there already. But I was only going there to have training partners, because Myanmar was still sort of closed to foreigners at the time. So I started to get experience in Thailand, but my style was never really popular with promoters, because they said I didn’t represent the Thai style—and I didn’t want to. My coach always told me to “keep my essence” and not change my style.
Eventually, after I did Prison Fight [an event in which Thai prisoners fought and got reduced sentenced if they won], 2 years afterwards, the Prison Fight promoter told me he didn’t have anybody to fight Too Too in Lethwei and I said “Let’s go.” But he told me I didn’t have enough fights – just ten Muay Thai fights, where Too Too had 40 in Lethwei – so we decided to lie about my record and say I had about 40 fights. That allowed me to go fight in Myanmar and I dominated him, in a style that was made for me I think. I had already started to practice headbutts and bare-knuckle with my coach a couple of years before, with the goal to go fight in Lethwei. So that was already in a corner of my head. So that’s how I got my start.
Then I was challenged by Tun Tun Min [who held the openweight Golden Belt at the time], who was Too Too’s friend. And the rest is history.
So even before you got the opportunity, Lethwei was already something you had in mind?
Yeah, people often think “Oh, he’s a Muay Thai fighter who found success in Lethwei.” But, I didn’t like Muay Thai, because there were gloves. I didn’t like the scoring system, which favors a lot of kicks. Because, the style of Kung Fu I started with was very geared towards the streets, and my coach had his fair share of street fights in his youth. So I always liked that aspect.
And when I went to Thailand there was one of my good friends, Matthew Richardson, who fought in Lethwei with Too Too and Tun Tun Min before I made the jump. He got his arm broken blocking a kick from Too Too and got KO’d by Tun Tun Min with a headbutt, so it’s him who made me want to go fight there. I thought the style was 10 times better than what we did in Thailand, and I also wanted to avenge him. Which I did; dominating the 2 guys that beat him—2 legends of Lethwei.
Tun Tun Min was a fighter I was already watching back in Canada, when I was discovering Lethwei. So brawling with him the first time, in 2016, was like fighting someone that you studied and admired. I don’t idolize anybody, we’re all humans. But fighting someone with so much more experience, a third generation Lethwei fighter who grew up in it, was something special.
What are the differences between training and competing in Myanmar, compared to Thailand or the west?
In Thailand, there’s a lot of focus on kicks and not too much on the hands. Whereas in Myanmar, given that there are no judges under traditional rules, they don’t care as much about the kicks. There’s much more focus on inflicting damage. So over the history of both sports, Thais got excellent kicks and not so great boxing, whereas Burmese fighters developed excellent hands and are extremely tough. There was sort of a branching out, and the sports evolved on different paths.
When it comes to training conditions, things are very raw in Myanmar—which also contributes to make them so tough. I liked training in Thailand, because there were a lot of people to train with. But, I didn’t learn too much that was really beneficial for my style.
What were the biggest challenges in transitioning from Muay Thai to Lethwei?
I didn’t really change my style too much, but there’s a lot less volume in Lethwei because of the bare knuckles. My friend Nieky Holzken was telling me that he would hurt his hands if he fought in Lethwei, because he throws so much volume. So you have to diminish your volume and adapt the way you throw punches a little bit. You throw the jab thumbs up rather than palm down, so there’s less give on the wrist for example.
Fighters get very dependent on gloves and wraps. Most fighters, even pros, would have a lot difficulty fighting bare-knuckles—because they’re so used to having the support of wraps and gloves, on the wrist but also on finger joints. People become very dependent on it.
You became the first foreigner to win a belt in Myanmar when you beat Tun Tun Min for the openweight Golden Belt, how has that been received locally?
It was a bit hostile at first. I didn’t encounter it too much, but there were a few bottles flying when I fought Too Too—and they told me to wait a little bit before getting out of the stadium. Promoters also warned me to watch what I was eating when I was fighting Tun Tun Min, but I didn’t have any problem. Over time – it happened naturally because I loved the country – they accepted me and I gave it back. So it’s been love ever since.
You’ve been critical of World Lethwei Championship (WLC) in the past, notably because they established a scoring system, what changed your mind and made you sign with them?
I’m a sport ambassador for Canal + (TV Network) in Myanmar, so I made documentaries all over Myanmar and met a lot of former champions—like Lone Chaw. So I asked him how he won his Golden Belt, and found out that he won it by decision. So I did some research, and discovered that since 1976 there were tournaments for the Golden Belt where there had to be a winner. And so, some fights were won by decision.
So, since WLC’s didn’t just come up with the idea of having a scoring system for Lethwei, I had no reason left to be opposed to it. Especially since I liked the rest of what they were doing; the grandiose aspect, and the global vision they had for Lethwei. So, I thought, “Why not join forces and do something great?” We got on UFC Fight Pass, and it’s just the beginning.
I was bit territorial at first, having fought my career with other promoters, but that’s behind us. I think we share a vision for the sport, and I signed an exclusive contract. I think I’ll retire with them.
Following up, adding decision wins could potentially remove the incentive to always ‘go for it’ inherent to the ‘KO only’ rule-set. But, it could also be argued that ‘KO only’ tempts the losing fighter to hold out for a draw...
Exactly! Personally, I didn’t want to keep the belt just by running away and surviving for a draw, but it’s possible. If you watch all my fights, I dominated them, and would have won if there were judges. So I’m glad that champions will have to fight and I think it will push fighters to perform.
And what do you think about the removal of the injury timeout in WLC?
Honestly, I was always a bit against the injury timeout. Because I fought Phoe Kay in Japan, and I knocked him out in the first with a spinning elbow. They used the timeout and he got back up. Honestly the toughest guy I’ve seen in my life. The guy was a zombie. It was 4 knockdowns before they called the fight. And after the third, I didn’t really want to hit him anymore.
I think removing it is good for the sport, I don’t think it takes away from the tradition, culture and history of the sport and it will allow fighters to have longer careers.
Your next Lethwei fight will be your first with judges. Does the possibility of a decision mean you’re gonna change your strategy, or are you just approaching it like any other Lethwei fight?
As I told you, I dominated my previous fights. So no, it doesn’t really change anything to my strategy and what I’ll do to knock him out. I’m focused on the KO. But, I know that if I do what I do well, even if it goes the distance, I’ll win anyway.
Your opponent, Seth Baczinski, has no experience in Lethwei or kickboxing, but is an 11 fight UFC veteran. What challenges do you expect him to present that a more “conventional” opponent might not?
He’s said that Lethwei is pretty close to a street fight, and he’s had a lot of those in the States—and he’s got a point. I also think that, aside from the headbutts, a Lethwei fight looks a lot like a stand up fight in the UFC. And he’s had a Fight of the Night in the UFC, against Thiago Alves, so I think he’s ready for a good fight. He’s also heavier than me. He’s cutting weight, so he’s gonna be big. But being big doesn’t give you a better chin. So I’m waiting for him, and I’ll welcome him in Lethwei. He said he was gonna knock me out with an elbow, but I’m the one who is going to do that!
But, I respect him already for signing the contract. Because we were in touch with a lot of guys, including former UFC fighters, that changed their mind once I accepted the fight. And Seth just said “Let’s fight!” So he’s ready, he wants to fight. Let’s go!
At 80kg, and having already faced Burmese greats like Tun Tun Min and Too Too – and foreigners with Lethwei experience, like Cyrus Washington – it must be a bit difficult to find opponents at your weight...
Yeah, after fighting those guys it got a bit tough. That’s why I was glad that Seth took the fight, because people who have the balls to fight in Lethwei are getting rare. But I think the promotion from WLC, and being on Fight Pass, will help attract fighters after this fight.
Are there any Burmese or international fighters you would like to get in the ring with?
We had talks with Yi Long for a fight. It would be with gloves, and a single 9-minute round, so maybe. But I want to focus on Lethwei, so fighting Saiyok [A former Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadium champion who recently fought Tun Tun Min in Lethwei] would be cool. But there’s not a lot of active fighters who are used to fighting in bare-knuckle. So, I like the idea of fighting former UFC fighters, image wise—and to show the effectiveness of Lethwei. But beyond that? I don’t really know. The champ does not challenge anyone, he gets challenged.
Given that it might be difficult to get big names to fight in Lethwei, have you considered fighting them in other rulesets (maybe in Muay Thai with MMA gloves as a compromise)?
No. ONE approached me for their Super Series, but I declined. Because, as I told you, I want to focus on Lethwei. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll fight in ONE. But, I’d like to do it in MMA.
What are your goals for your career and what do you hope for Lethwei in the future?
I’d like us to keep on the roll we’re on; bringing on more international fighters and a next generation of fighters. I’m focusing a lot on the online Lethwei academy I’m gonna launch soon. We already have some affiliated striking schools in the States and in Europe, so people can discover Lethwei and follow our curriculum. And hopefully a next generation of fighters can come out of it. We also want to organize trips to Myanmar, to help people discover the culture, train, and see some fights. So I’m really looking forward to that.
Do you manage to make a living out of your Lethwei purses?
I’m fortunate to have been well received in Myanmar, so I have a lot of sponsors. And I also have very good purses. I think Tun Tun Min said, at one point, the biggest purse he had was $5000, and we’re way beyond that now. I think social media, and having a good web presence, helps a lot in negotiations. Also the fact that we’re now on UFC Fight Pass. I don’t want to evaluate life in terms of numbers, I have everything I need. I’m happy. I’m with my wife travelling the world. We visited 25 countries in the last year, I really can’t complain.
World Lethwei Championship 9: King Of Nine Limbs Full card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:15am ET / 4:15am PT, Friday, August 2nd):
Dave Leduc vs Seth Baczynski - Cruiserweight world title
Arthur Saladiak vs Sasha Moisa - Light middleweight title
Mite Yine vs Otop Sathianmuaythaigym - Featherweight
Souris Manfredi vs Eh Yanut - Bantamweight
Nguyen Tran Duy Nat vs Izat Zaki - Lightweight
Hein tun Aung vs Linn Thet Aung - Lightweight
Htet Naing Aung vs Sai Maung Maung - Lightweight
Paing Thet Aung vs Aung Paing - Bantamweight
Saw El Kaluu vs Saw Lin Lin - Welterweight