Mimi Wu talked with celebrated Myanmar kick boxer Lone Chaw about his career as a professional fighter, and his transition into a much sought after trainer, and discovers that it is not only talent but also his humility that makes Lone Chaw a champion.
The taxi driver pulled up to an unmarked red gate at Thut Ti Lethwei Boxing School, and Lone Chaw, one of Myanmar’s most famous Lethwei boxers, comes up to greet me. He is well built, youthful, and has a toothless, easy smile that belies his 39 years age.
Lethwei is a brutal sport, and it is one that Lone Chaw has mastered over the last 20 years. Crowned three times Myanmar National Champion, you may expect him to exude a menacing energy. Quite the opposite; Lone Chaw is gentle and reserved.
He reasons pragmatically, ‘Outside, it is real life. Inside the ring it is an opponent, it is competition. If I don’t kick or hit, the other person will. It’s my job.’
Win Zin Oo, his trainer since 2004 and translator for our interview adds, ‘He is very honest and straight forward. He is seldom angry and very patient. He is aggressive in the ring but not outside.’
Lone Chaw first watched lethwei at age ten on TV. It piqued his interest, but it didn’t fuel a passion – yet. In 1995, Lone Chaw, then 19, began participating in amateur fights commissioned for pagoda festivals in his native Ayeyarwady Region. His cousin, a lethwei fighter, trained him.
‘My father and mother didn’t like it. For his first fight, I told my parents I was going to the pagoda festival, but I didn’t tell them my intention. They didn’t see this fight. Only later they came to realise I was fighting in the ring because some villagers who went to the festival told them.’
His parents’ concern was justifiable; at a novice level fight, Lone Chaw split his bottom lip, requiring eight stitches. It was certainly his most memorable injury, but scars eventually fade, and no injury could stop him from sneaking out of the house to fight.
‘Injuries are not that painful,’ Lone Chaw laughs. They are par for the course.’
Of Lethwei, Lone Chaw says it’s a martial art form of which Myanmar should be proud. In that vein and because the Ayeyarwady Region did not boast a Myanmar champion, he was determined to be a successful professional fighter. He moved to Yangon in 1999 to pursue that goal.
Lethwei (literally “hand” and “punching”) is a martial arts form similar to other Southeast Asian kickboxing, which all allow fighters to use their limbs, knees and elbows. Though lethwei uses a point scoring system, following that of Muay Thai kickboxing since 1996, the sport does not have an official ranking system. It does not have many rules either. Unlike Muay Thai, lethwei fighters work more deliberately but are stronger, and they utilise more extreme methods to defeat an opponent by knockout or withdrawal. In addition to kicks, strikes, and punches, lethwei fighters are the only Indochinese martial artists that can also use head butts, raking knuckle strikes, and take downs. The only protections that are allowed are hemp or gauze hand wrapping, and mouthguards.
His tough training has led him to compete in 150 fights in Myanmar and Japan, where he has some of his most vivid memories.
‘Once when I fought in Japan, my opponent came into the ring with a samurai sword. I was really scared, but then I realised it was only for show.’
It was also in Japan, at age 29, that he took down a local Nagasaki juijitsu star in less than one minute, awing the audience.
When I asked him how it felt every time he entered the ring before a professional match, I expected him to have felt amped up on adrenaline or possibly even nervous. Instead, he humbly said, ‘I feel lucky that I have a fight partner to help me. If there is no opponent, there is no reason to be famous.’
What about pre-fight rituals? ‘In my early days, I noticed many other fighters wearing amulets, and so I copied it. I don’t remember when I started this, but I remember my father asking, ‘What is that?’ I said that other people tied strings around their arms, and I wanted to put it on my arm, too.’
In every fight, Lone Chaw sizes up the competition by studying how his opponent moves and holds his hands, as well as by listening to instructions from his competition’s trainer. These observations along with his talent have led him to three of his greatest victories: the Interstate Division Title in 1999 and the Golden Belt in 2005 and 2007.
Lone Chaw recalled his fight against the legendary Shwe War Tun whom he had admired before he became a professional fighter. ‘Shwe War Tun is an idol for me because of his fighting capability. I really respect him. I had mixed feelings when fighting – respect, excitement, and a sense of honour. The fact that I won the fight made me even more excited about competing, and I learned a lot of fighting techniques by competing with him, so it was really memorable.’
Over his 20 years in the sport, Lone Chaw has seen many changes. He observes, ‘When I started, I had to fight seven to twelve rounds. I fought until I won or lost. Now, the rule is five rounds. This is good, there are less injuries.’ Despite this, you will not find him advocating for gloves; Lone Chaw believes that this, among many other aspects, makes lethwei unique and should be preserved.
Lone Chaw retired in 2012 after his last formal fight, due to his age.
‘After retirement, Lone Chaw planned to return to his Ayeyarwady Region village as a farmer, but I advised him to be a trainer because he has a lot of experience. So he started teaching one person, two persons,’ said Win Zin Oo.
Lone Chaw is not completely out of the game. As an icon in Myanmar boxing, he participated in a technique demonstration in 2014, the latter against Shwe War Tun who had also long been retired.
However, since joining Win Zin Oo’s Thut Ti Lethwei Boxing School in 2012 as a coach, he spends most of his time training other competitors, celebrities, and individuals looking for a fitness outlet. Retirement does not mean he can take a break from his own training; he still undergoes rigorous sparring, clinching, and pad work exercises with students. Their photos are displayed near the school’s entrance, and banners of promising fighters surround the fighting ring. In particular, Lone Chaw has taken immense pride in training two foreigners who are beyond competition age yet display great skill and have captured audiences’ attentions in their professional fights.
His students’ mutual appreciation drives his desire to continue coaching. He hopes by teaching others about the sport, that he can improve lethwei and make the martial art more reputable.
This article was first published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine InDepth, March 2015.