Myanmar’s most popular sport, soccer, glues tens of millions of people to their television sets or their computer monitors worldwide with every competition. The second favourite sport in this country, traditional boxing, still has a long way to gaining that level of international worship.
Myanmar traditional boxers are revered at home. The game has also been gaining foreign adherents since 2000, when sportsmen of other nationalities began joining tournaments hosted by the country. Its traditional boxers started joining competitions abroad earlier.
Myanmar traditional boxing is similar to Thailand’s Muay Thai but its roots trace back to the ancient monastery martial arts called Pwe Kyaung.
Thousands of years ago, pagoda festivals and other religious feasts featured Pwe Kyaung, often with monks and their acolytes in competition.
Even in the early years, fighters fought for prize money. There was no rulebook. Triumph came from knocking out an opponent or leaving him too bruised to continue fighting.
Rules came in the modern era, as countries began pitting their star athletes against those of other people. Standards are supposed to give a clearer track to victory. Many Myanmar traditional boxing fans, however, cite disadvantages.
They are concerned that judges hew too closely to Muay Thai boxing rules, diluting the essence of the Myanmar sports.
Most of Myanmar traditional boxers and fans say the rules undermine the traditional emphasis on forbearance and fitness.
Today’s crop of traditional boxers can earn millions of Kyat, depending on their skills and luck. That’s not a lot.
“Boxers fight in the ring at the cost of his life so that he deserves enough prize money,” says Myanmar Traditional Boxing Federation Chairman U Sai Zaw Zaw. “This is the work of professionals and they are
The current top prize money in these boxing tournaments is 3 million kyat [US$3,000]; the minimum is 300,000 kyat.
Even the most famous boxer can have only two fights a month. Some young boxers feel lucky if they can fight once in a month.
They may be professionals but the prize money is not enough to underwrite family and training expenses,” says the famous boxer Tu Tu.
“I have fought in the ring when it could earn only nominal money,” Tu Tu recalls.
“Money is not important for us,” Tu Tu explains.
“We love this sport and are always happy to fight in the ring.”
Many boxers suffer seeing their families struggle to make ends meet.
They are sometimes misunderstood, called irresponsible by fellow citizens who find it hard to understand why people risk being injured for so little compensation.
But the power of the sport is such that even when the family may have no rice in the kitchen, a boxer will rush to the ring – any ring – as the fanfare is played by a traditional music band.
This pull is often framed in mystical terms.
Critics of the sport believe boxers are suffering from bad karma, that their and their families’ hardships are some form of divine retribution for sins in another lifetime.
Sai Saw Saw bristles at the claim.
“I object to this notion of divine retribution, of our boxers being paid back for past sins,” Sai Saw Saw says.
“This sport is their profession and hobby. No boxer is upset and annoyed with this sport,” he points out.
“They feel upset only when there is no fighting competition.”
Sai Saw Saw also insists most boxers are honest, and the sport does not have the game-throwing scandals that fill tabloids abroad.
Myanmar’s traditional boxers invest their full power and skills in a game that pays little dividends. They do not enjoy huge mansions, or limousines and other trappings of the lavish lifestyles of other athletic superstars.
They live modestly and fight like heroes.
Thailand is trying to get traditional Muay Thai recognized as an Olympic event. It is now officially part of the South East Asian Games (SEA Games).
Myanmar traditional boxing fans harbor the dream of being recognized by the International Olympic Committee as an official event.
But Myanmar boxing is a professional sport. Inclusion in the Olympic means downgrading into amateur status.
Sai Zaw Zaw says there are two reasons why the Myanmar traditional boxing leaders will not bid for OIC recognition.
“The first point is the cost, which will be very expensive,” he notes. “We have to spend a lot of money on it.”
“If we want to include this sport in the SEA Games, we must have Myanmar traditional boxing Federations in all ten member countries,” Sai Zaw Zaw explains.
“This must be organized and sponsored by our country. And at the same time, there is Thai Muay Thai boxing and the rules are not much different with us in this regional bloc. So there is a danger of being accused of being second or fake Muay Thai.”
He also points out the problem of transforming traditional boxing into an amateur sport.
“Our boxers can get only salary, not prize money. How can they survive with this salary? Currently we are providing boxers for the Muay Thai Myanmar selection team,” says Sai Zaw Zaw.
Muay Thai became a SEA Games sport event for the first time in the 23rd SEA Games hosted by Myanmar. It will enjoy the same status in the next Singapore SEA Games.
Famous Myanmar traditional boxer Saw Nga Mann says: “If it is for the country, we will represent our country and fight in this Games. But if we cannot earn prize money for it, it will be difficult for our livelihood.”
“So I’d like to fight to represent our country when needed and will fight as a professional boxer in the meantime. It will be good for us,” says Saw Nga Mann.
Official sports event or not, Myanmar’s traditional boxing community wants the sport to become globally famous.
The sports had fans abroad even in the 1990s, when famous Myanmar boxers like Shwe Du Wun, Shwe Wah Tun, and Wan Chai fought in the United States.
These sports “elders” could help Myanmar traditional boxing get accepted abroad. But already, some boxers fight with foreign boxers at home and in other countries.
Ironically, growing interest abroad contrasts with dwindling ticket sales at home.
Decreasing number of spectators at our boxing events are partly due to live telecast by TV stations, explains one fighter.
Traditional boxing purists also think new rules have watered down the sport’s attraction.
“Our people like to see knockouts, athletes getting cut and bruised at these events,” he said. But our sport has been transformed with international standards and rules so that boxing events nowadays are less thrilling and exciting.
Despite the obstacles, the Myanmar traditional boxing federation continues to promote the sport through contracts with TV stations for the telecast of these events.
Myanmar boxers continue to gain fame abroad. Tu Tu and Ye Kyaw Thu visited Slovakia in May this year.
Promoting a sport with an ancient history and sustaining local and international interest doesn’t come for free.
Fans believe the Myanmar Traditional Boxing Federation should provide monetary assistance to the clubs that nurture and produce the next-generation of traditional boxers.
Most clubs operate on the policy of self-reliance. That can exact a high price among athletes.
Supporters say Myanmar’s traditional boxers fight for love and to raise the dignity and image of the country. The least they deserve is support from fans, sports bodies and business enterprises.
Myanmar’s boxers, after all, are no ordinary athletes, claim their fans. They are also keepers of the flame that has enriched the nation’s cultural heritage.
This Article first appeared in the July 2, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com