Next month, Dave Leduc will step inside a ring in Tokyo to do something few combat sports professionals around the world are prepared to do.
“The Nomad,” as he is known to a growing legion of loyal fans, will face Thai-based American fighter Cyrus Washington in the traditional Burmese form of full contact, bare-knuckle fighting called lethwei that attracts purists of the unarmed combat sports world.
Lethwei differentiates itself from other martial arts around the region such as muay Thai from Thailand or kun Khmer from Cambodia, simply by its raw nature – and its lack of gloves, headgear and other protective equipment.
As the bouts begin, opponents, with their fists wrapped in nothing but cloth, go at it until one person is either knocked out cold or unable to continue fighting.
Its brutality, and the fact that headbutts are encouraged, hark back to ancient times, but the sport of lethwei, like Myanmar itself, is experiencing a resurgence.
“This is a new era of striking sports,” the 25-year-old Leduc said ahead of his championship bout, which will be part of the Lethwei in Japan 4: Frontier card at the Tokyo Dome City on June 16. “The sport is already transcending borders and Japan is just the beginning.”
While there are moves to modernize the image of lethwei, with the inclusion of a points system, judges and even ring girls, Leduc remains a traditionalist.
Earlier this year he turned down an opportunity to participate in the first World Lethwei Championship (WLC) event in Yangon simply for this reason.
WLC 1 saw local greats Tun Tun Min and Too Too go up against top international fighters Nicholas Carter and Eddie Farrell, but included a few (just a few) rules to attract a wider audience.
“The whole selling point of lethwei is a no points system and the only way to win is via knockout,” Leduc says. “In my opinion if you use a points system, it becomes like muay Thai or submission wrestling. In lethwei you shoot for the KO. A lot of Burmese people want to keep the traditional style. I want to do my part to keep that alive.”
So just how does a seemingly normal, successful business owner from Canada wind up in Southeast Asia fighting bare-knuckle Burmese boxing?
It’s a radically different life from the one he was living just a few years ago. Leduc has been a long-time student of martial arts, studying sanshou and jeet kune do under sifu Patrick Marcil.
In 2013, he made a trip to Thailand, landing at Tiger Muay Thai, where he took a last-minute fight and won. That led to several more, including a notorious Bangkok prison fight in 2014 where he secured a rare win.
“It was really controversial. I was up against a drug dealer who had a 10-year sentence. We were inside the courtyard of the actual prison, which does not happen anymore,” says Leduc.
Back at home in Quebec, Leduc was the manager of a club and owned his own limousine company, but in 2016 he decided to sell up and make the permanent move to Thailand.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I met the woman of my dreams and it’s the first time in my life I have been able to live and breathe my passion.”
Preparation for fighting lethwei is as unique as the sport itself.
“We have this drill called the warrior cry or scream of the warrior, where we find a corner in the gym, get on our knees and scream as loud as we can. It looks a little crazy, but it works,” says Leduc. “You want to let the demons out, but you want to let them back in. You need to be an on-demand crazy animal in this sport.”
Leduc, like the International Lethwei Federation, has big ambitions for the sport.
Events are planned for New Zealand later this year and fighters from as far afield as France and Canada are being recruited to test their mettle against Asia’s best.
“I have so much vision for this sport. I see lethwei doing for Myanmar what muay Thai has done for Thailand,” says Leduc.
Matt Eaton is managing editor of The Fight Nation