When Aung La N Sang first won the One Championship (OFC) mixed martial arts (MMA) middleweight championship on Myanmar soil back in March 2016, he didn’t just capture the hearts and minds of Myanmar citizens and put the country on the radars of MMA fans across the globe.
The Burmese Python also caught the eye of U Zay Thiha, vice chair of local property conglomerate Zay Kabar Group and founder of Lekkha Moun Co, which partnered OFC to bring MMA events to Myanmar.
“He saw the potential to develop local sports super stars who would showcase Myanmar’s athletic capabilities to an international audience,” said Gerald Ng, CEO of World Lethwei Championship (WLC), speaking on behalf of U Zay Thiha.
Acting on the idea, U Zay Thiha started WLC as a subsidiary of Lekkha Moun Co in 2017.
“Internationally, everyone knows Muay Thai. But few know about Lethwei, not even those who are in the martial arts industry. We want to change that by exporting Lethwei to the world and showcasing Myanmar as a sporting nation at a time when the country is expanding,” Mr Ng said Lethwei is a Myanmar traditional full contact combat sport involving bare-knuckle boxing, stand-up striking and various clinching techniques. Unlike other combat sports, head-butting is allowed.
WLC has since held three events in Yangon and one in Nay Pyi Taw. The first WLC event, which took place in March last year, was the biggest Lethwei event in history. A fifth event is scheduled for June 2 in Nay Pyi Taw.
In the next 1-3 years, the company aims to turn a profit by beefing up broadcast revenue. Ultimately, the plan is to be broadcast live in 100 countries worldwide. Currently, WLC events are broadcast live in Myanmar on Skynet and on delayed telecast in over 40 countries worldwide. In April, fights were aired on Eleven Sports Network in Singapore for the first time.
Meanwhile, WLC events already enjoy sponsorships by prominent Myanmar companies including Skynet, AGD Bank, Max Myanmar Group and Consumer Goods Myanmar Co, which makes the popular Speed Energy Drink.
The sponsors help WLC cover its costs. On average, the cost to run a single WLC event in Myanmar is more than $100,000, according to Mr Ng’s estimates. This involves production costs, such as stage setup and leasing venues.
The first WLC match, for example, involved constructing and preparing space to accommodate up to 6,000 viewers at Mingalardon Event Zone. Subsequent matches in Yangon have taken place at the 10,000-seater Thuwana Stadium.
Now, WLC is working towards an official endorsement from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and hopes to hold international events in Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia and Hong Kong.
The other major cost involves paying the fighters. WLC has recruited around 200 exclusive fighters so far, the most renowned of whom is Kachin-born Ko Too Too. The current Middleweight Lethwei world champion is paid a “five figure US dollar sum” for each WLC fight. Less experienced fighters who sign on to become WLC fighters are paid between $3,000 and $4,000 per fight.
“When we first signed an exclusive contract with Too Too he was already making $5,000 per fight as one of the top fighters in Myanmar. We gave him a 20 percent raise. We also rewarded him and each of our fighters with bonus payments each time they win a fight,” said Mr Ng. There is also a “knockout” bonus of K100,000.
WLC also has contracts with around 30-40 foreign fighters, including kick boxers, Muay Thai and MMA fighters from Asia as well as Poland, Uganda, Australia and Romania. These fighters are paid to learn Lethwei and participate in WLC fights.
Why foreign fighters? The way Mr Ng tells it, “Lethwei fans want to see the locals fight a variety of opponents. If you keep fighting the same pool of fighters you don’t know how good you are in relation to the rest of the world. We sign on the best fighters from across the globe for this purpose.”
Having foreign blood in the ranks of WLC will also help it achieve its goal of exporting Lethwei to the world. “We have more Lethwei fans in Cambodia and Poland now because our Polish and Cambodian fighters have won matches against the local fighters in Myanmar,” Mr Ng said.
Modernising a tradition
WLC also pays a panel of judges from the Myanmar Lethwei Federation to judge each fight that takes place. Under a modified set of rules, fights are conducted via rounds of three, with two minute intervals between each round. Unlike traditional Lethwei events, the judges determine a winner if the fight ends without a knockout. There are also no injury time-outs. Doctors are also present at the scene and are allowed to stop a fight if they see the need to do so.
The next part of WLC’s revenue strategy will be to improve its ticket offerings to draw maximum viewership. But the introduction of judges could deter traditional fans from attending WLC events though. “The traditionalists say we are destroying the essence of the sport by changing the rules and bringing in judges,” Mr Ng said.
“But if we have an all-draw fight, new fans to Lethwei will question the point of spending hours watching a match with no closure. We have to change some rules to make the sport attractive to a new global audience,” he added.
“We also want to take care of our fighters and ensure they stay fit to continue fighting and improving their game for WLC. We also want to change the perception of Lethwei being a brutal sport so that we can draw as many new fans as possible.”
While the company will price tickets at affordable levels to attract “everyone in Myanmar,” it will also develop tiered tickets to generate more revenue. It is planning to introduce a VIP category under which ticket holders can enjoy additional benefits such as better views, backstage access and food and beverage during future events.