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Lethwei in Japan – A History

Thanks to World Lethwei Championship (WLC) the world is getting a better look at the traditional martial art of Myanmar.

For many people, even the hardcore combat sports crowd, the WLC is their first and only experience in The Art of Nine Limbs.

But like in many things there’s a group of people that were ahead of everyone on the curve and saw the potential in Lethwei as a spectator sport – the Japanese.

This is the story of Lethwei in Japan.

The International Lethwei Federation – Japan

A full year before the official founding of the WLC, the Japanese held their first Lethwei event in Korakuen Hall on 27 October 2016.

This was made possible when Mr. U Wunna, CEO of the Myanmar Media Group (MMG), which organizes the Myanmar World Lethwei Championships granted Yoshiyuki Nakamura a “Grade-A” promoter license to organize traditional Lethwei events in Japan.

The organization that Nakamura would start what became known as the International Lethwei Federation – Japan (ILFJ).

Under the terms of the deal, Japan and Myanmar will be able to share their fighters and the ILFJ will co-organize events with the Myanmar Traditional Boxing Federation (MTBF).

Mr. Nakamura expressed his excitement regarding the deal in a Facebook post back in September 2016:

Myanmar Traditional Boxing Federation agreed that we can work named International Lethwei Federation Japan. #ILF-JapanYour peaceful Myanmar and our Japan are a Family now.Lets gain together.

Yoshi Nakamura, ILFJ promoter

Lethwei Grand Prix Japan

Lethwei in Japan Grand Prix 2016
Lethwei Grand Prix 2016 poster.

The first Lethwei in Japan was billed as a Grand Prix but it played out more like a normal card.

The event featured five fights in four weight classes:

  • Bantamweight (60 kg.)
  • Lightweight (70 kg.)
  • Middleweight (75 kg.)
  • Openweight (80 kg.)

The card featured former WLC Middleweight Champion Too Too, current WLC Welterweight Soe Lin Oo, and Lethwei legend Tun Tun Min.

Each fight was composed of five three-minute rounds under traditional Lethwei rules. This meant three of the fights went to a draw.

In the main event, Tun Tun Min knocked out Australian Adem Yilmaz in the fifth round.

It may have been a blip in the greater combat sports world, but the Lethwei Grand Prix Japan had a profound effect on the visibility of the sport in the island nation.

After the event, the ILFJ signed a multi-event deal with FITE TV, MNTV, and have their fights livestreamed on Abema TV.

The next ILFJ event occurred just four months later and the events were formally re-named Lethwei in Japan, and that’s where things pick up.

The King of Lethwei Arrives — and Leaves

As big as the first card was, the second event of the ILFJ was a step-up in many ways. First there were Japanese fighters in the card.

Japanese fans had the pleasure of seeing WPMF Kickboxing Champion Kouma Shimizu fight in the Main Event against a young Yar Zar. While his compatriot Karate Champion Yuki Yamamoto fought on the undercard against Thae Ta Pwint.

The biggest feature of the night however was the co-main event. Where the-then recently crowned Openweight Golden Belt Champion Dave Leduc faced Lethwei veteran in Phoe Kay.

Leduc knocked Kay down four times in the fight and knocked him out in Round 2. Kay was the only fighter from Myanmar to lose that night.

Leduc would fight two more times at ILFJ.

At Lethwei in Japan 3: Grit, he would draw against Adem Yilmaz in the first title fight that featured two foreigners.

But his crowning achievement with the promotion came at Lethwei in Japan 4: Frontier when he faced Muay Thai Champion Nilmungkorn Sudsakorngym for the inaugural ILFJ Openweight Title.

Leduc won the fight via knockout in the second round and won the second of his five Lethwei titles.

Unfortunately, this was the Canadian’s last appearance on the promotion. Two years after winning the belt, he vacated it as part of his exclusive contract with WLC where he seems set to stay.

No one has yet claimed the vacant title and the relationship between the two parties doesn’t look good.

Back in May, the promotion criticized him for spreading fake news regarding a fight with Buakaw in 2021, and in an interview with JAK Networks Korea on 12 October 2020, IFLJ promoter Nakamura was asked whether he would invite Leduc back.

B. Kendric: Last question, do you have any plans to get Dave Leduc for your tournaments in 2021?

Y. Nakamura: Dave? No way. All my friends are not interested in him. He is not popular in Asia especially. No one knows him in Japan. My team never get him for our tournaments. We want to get Tun Tun Min or Soe Lin Oo, Burmese fighters not Canadian.

JAK Korea, 12 October 2020

Dave Leduc’s Facebook page also deleted the livestreams of his ILFJ events.

ILFJ Becomes Truly International

During the subsequent events that the IFLJ put on, there has been a healthy mix of international talent joining the ranks of Lethwei in Japan.

IFLJ 4 saw the debut of Invicta Bantamweight Champion Julija Stoliarenko, at Lethwei Grand Prix Japan 2017 she became the inaugutal ILFJ Women’s Featherweight Champion.

Pancrase veteran Shunichi Shimizu drew with Tun Lwin Moe at the Main Event of IFLJ 7: Yuki.

Even Will Chope got in on the action in IFLJ 9: Kodo.

The promotion seems to have it a mission to get as many international fighters as possible as part of their strategy to be seen around the world.

Their latest live event – ILFJ 15 – was broadcast last 22 February. ILFJ 16 that was scheduled for 3 June was postponed because of the pandemic.

The promotion has been clear that they will only begin discussing a return once government rules allow.

In a Facebook post back in September, Yoshi Nakamura announced that he’s looking into possibly holding events in Hawaii or Saipan.

ILFJ and the WLC

For the most part, the ILFJ and the WLC stay out of each other’s way when promoting their events.

However, when directly competing for the same audience, the same fighters, and bragging rights for being the premier destination for Lethwei, friction is inevitable.

From the outside looking in, it seems the WLC is gaining the upper hand in all three categories.

They’ve successfully leveraged their partnership with ONE Championship to secure the rights to notable names like Phoe Thaw, Tha Pyay Nyo, and Saw Min Min.

They’ve also gotten hold of a much bigger share of the combat sports audience by partnering with UFC Fight Pass. The inclusion of the sports biggest star in Dave Leduc to their ranks also doesn’t hurt.

But even with all this, the ILFJ seems secure with its audience and are fairly confident that they can hold their own. The first real dustup between the two was when the WLC announced that they’ll be having an event in Tokyo on 6 August 2021.

A tentative schedule to describe it charitably as it lands right in the middle of the Tokyo 2021 Olympic schedule.

When the news first came out, the ILFJ Facebook page quoted Yoshi Nakamura as saying:

I will quit as a Lethwei promoter because I don’t like fake and ego. I love Myanmar and Lethwei, so I was trying my best for Lethwei. Good luck WLC. I hope they will not lie again. I will visit MTBF president and will talk our decision in this month.

Yoshi Nakamura, ILFJ promoter

When asked about the WLC announcement in the same interview with JAK Network Korea, here’s what a more composed Yoshi Nakamura had to say:

B. Kendric: Ok, if the vaccine is allowed what will be your plan in 2021? Because the WLC announced that they will do Lethwei Tokyo Japan by themselves on August 2021.

Y. Nakamura: You know I love [Myanmar Lethwei] not just [Lethwei] fights. I try to do my best to prepare tournaments in Japan and Taiwan.
I don’t have any words about WLC announcement. They want to delete me but Japan is my home country. Who can prepare Burmese performance Visa in Japan? They can’t reserve any legal venue because we have the Olympic Games in Tokyo. But I don’t fight against them, I only obey MTLF head office.

B. Kendric: Wow, you support the WLC?

Y. Nakamura: It all depends on the MTLF’s judgement. If they say help the WLC, I’ll help.

JAK Network Korea, 12 October 2020.

The Future of Lethwei in Japan

The fact that there is a story about Lethwei in Japan is already peculiar by itself. Knowing that it has an audience independent of any assistance from international promotions beggars belief.

The future for the promotion is unfortunately uncertain, as difficulties with the pandemic and rising competition hound the ILFJ.

But Japan has a tradition of being outliers in the combat sports world and thriving in the process.

The story of the ILFJ began as an unlikely partnership of two very different cultures. If history is anything to go by, there is little doubt that if anyone can make the best out of an unlikely future – it’s them.


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