The sport of lethwei is riddled with resilient, driven athletes focused on winning fights and securing legacies, taking each day as it comes. As the years draw on, more and more Westerners flock to Myanmar as a means to prove they have what it takes to be a Burmese bare-knuckle boxing icon. They bring a new-age mindset while adopting numerous old school philosophies.
Despite the popularity of the sport soaring in recent years, the majority of fighters remain from Myanmar. Not only are they the most admired, but toughest, well-versed practitioners to engage in “The Art of 9 limbs”, therefore it’s only right to pay homage to those sitting atop of the ranks today.
The 60kg division has long been home to some of the sports more prestigious stars, including the legendary Thway Ma Shaung, who captured many notable titles throughout his action-packed career. Following in his footsteps as a golden belt champion in this weight category is Soe Lin Oo, Lethwei’s very own Iron Man.
Speaking exclusively to The Scrap, Soe Lin Oo discussed his career accomplishments, competing for the World Lethwei Championship and what lies in store for him next.
Forging the tools
Hailing from Thaton District in Mon State, Myanmar, Soe Lin Oo (67W, 2L, 47D) stands tall among the greats in modern lethwei. A veteran of 117 professional fights, the 28-year-old has seen and competed in every major tournament, claiming the 60kg golden belt title almost a decade ago. To add to this, he’s a 2011 Dagon Shwe Aung Lan winner.
Before being known as the formidable force he is today, Soe Lin Oo was just a kid with a dream. Coming from an impoverished family meant that he would have to help provide early on, thus his education was cut short.
“My childhood was full of struggles. I only attended [school] until the 3rd grade. My parents’ business was not ok so I had to drop out of school and help my parents in their business, wood charcoal making and selling.”
Growing up in Myanmar often proves to be a strenuous lifestyle for its citizens, with a 2018 report stating that the average annual income per capita is a low US $1,140. As well as this saddening statistic, it is estimated that 37% of its people live near, or below the poverty line, with Soe Lin Oo’s upbringing falling within this parameter.
Money had always been tight in his household and was the initial motivation for him to take a lethwei fight as a young child.
“I fought my very first fight at our village pagoda festival and I was only a child then. The reason I fought was I didn’t have any money to spend during the festival,” he explained.
“It [wasn’t until] 2007 where I started training in lethwei at Taunggalay Lethwei Gym.”
It’s difficult for foreigners to grasp just how popular the sport is in its native land; think of American Football in the U.S or Ice Hockey for Canadians, lethwei too is a national sport. Because of its wide-scale popularity, Soe Lin Oo was familiar with it long before his routine involvement in 2007.
Following three hard years of training and competing, he would go on to win both the Challenge Fight Belt and coveted Golden Belt in the 60kg weight class, keeping his undefeated record intact through the process. If this wasn’t impressive enough, he was only 18 years of age when he accomplished this feat, battering seasoned pros as if they were disadvantaged victims.
Winning the Golden Belt in any division is life-changing for a lethwei fighter, and Lin Oo recognised the change from that moment onwards.
“I was very happy and still am. It was the biggest life-changing moment for me as a lethwei fighter.”
“It was [around this] time that I started gaining popularity among my friends and training partners as a fighter.”
(L) A young Soe Lin Oo following a fight. Age is unknown.
As his career progressed, a few things became clear: Lin Oo was shaping into one of the sports more prominent figures, and his fan-friendly style accompanied by a confounding threshold to pain had him heading in only one direction – up.
Draws against future champion Tun Tun Min and the heavier Too Too only amplified his status, and in 2017, new age fans would be introduced to “Iron Man” for all his might. Those three years ago, we witnessed the birth of the World Lethwei Championship (WLC), arguably the sports most salient promotion in current time; featuring on UFC Fight Pass and Prime Sport (U.K), these streaming deals have enabled lethwei to reach its widest audience to date.
Due to his stature and impressive resume, Soe Lin Oo would main event the WLC’s second event, titled WLC 2: Ancient Warriors. Fighting at 71kg – although usually performing at around 67kg – Lin Oo met future light middleweight champion Artur Saladiak, a dangerous Pol with an overall height, reach and size advantage. Saladiak was well informed of his adversary’s strengths and ability to recover from beatings, keeping him behind his straight shots and using the odd feint to draw a reaction. When push came to shove, Saladiak stepped up to plate, showing some success in the clinch physically while remaining busy with strikes.
As WLC athletes compete under a modified ruleset there are no draws, therefore a victor had to be crowned after five high paced rounds. Artur Saladiak would ultimately walk away with the unanimous decision win, in a fight that Soe Lin Oo dubbed his toughest to date.
“Artur Saladiak at WLC 2 was the toughest fight of my career. He was like running around in the ring.”
Despite falling short to Saladiak in his promotional debut, the pair would rematch less than two months later under traditional lethwei rules, battling to a draw. Lin Oo would later return to WLC and pick up two knockout victories, one of which coming at welterweight (64-67kg). This performance instantly positioned him at #1 in the division’s rankings – a weight class in which he plans on remaining active in.
“I am very happy to fight for WLC because they are on UFC Fight Pass and whenever I fight at WLC, I know more fans around the world will see my performance.” He explained, “[But] I will only compete at 67kg.”
Presently, the welterweight division has no official champion. This is a void he is more than happy to fill.
“I want that chance. I eagerly want to be a World Lethwei Champion.”
A fan of lethwei or not, you may recognize striking sensation Soe Lin Oo from a ONE Championship YouTube video, where he starred in a five minute ‘Warrior Series’ breakdown. The video, released in 2018, has over 150,000 views at the time of writing, focusing on Lin Oo’s inspiration behind competing and planned transition to mixed martial arts.
“When I gather my family together I always tell them that I do this for their health, their kids, and their kids’ education. I tell them to make sure the kids don’t drop out of school because education is very important.”
“And even if they can’t afford for educational expenses, I will support them with the money I earn from my matches in order for them to live comfortably.”
He revealed that multiple-time world champion Aung La N Sang, one of Myanmar’s most popular athletes, was the motivation behind his switch to MMA.
“Everybody has their eyes on him. He has inspired me to take up mixed martial arts.”
One could only expect that once the stars aligned, Soe Lin Oo would make his professional MMA debut under the ONE Championship banner. Just the thought of this was enough to stir excitement within Myanmar, who were more than eager to see their native son strap on a pair of gloves for the first time.
However, he revealed to The Scrap that the goal he had set of becoming a mixed martial artist was ultimately scrapped. The reason behind this? He couldn’t bare to live away from his family.
“I planned to become an MMA fighter, but after I talked about it with Aung La N Sang, I knew that I had to stay at an MMA gym to train. That is not OK for me because of my family. That’s why I gave up on becoming an MMA fighter.”
Lethwei purists will be more than delighted at the news as Lin Oo will continue to solely focus on the sport, where he, as he pointed out, has unfinished business.
(R) Twelve fights into his career, Soe Lin Oo is crowned the 60kg Golden Belt champion, 2010.
As a former Golden Belt champion with wins over Win Tun, Shwe Yar Man and revered Muay Thai champion Pakorn P.K. Saenchai Muaythaigym, you’d think the fire inside would begin to die out, being replaced by healthy satisfaction and lasting comfort. Albeit despite this imposing resume, Lin Oo remains hungry for more glory.
Before retiring to a quiet and (continued) humble lifestyle, there is one more thing he’d like to check off the list.
“There a lot of great moments [in] my career” spoke Lin Oo, reflecting on his achievements, “but I will not stop trying to be the best fighter in my weight division.”
“I am trying to become a World Lethwei Champion. After I fulfil that burning desire, I will retire from a fighting career.”
Will he attain his goal of becoming a WLC champion? Only time will tell. Yet regardless of results hereafter, Soe Lin Oo will go down as a lethwei legend; no mortal man could dethrone this king.
Special thanks to Twitter user @inxxane, lethwei’s walking, talking encyclopedia for all the knowledge, conversations and support.