YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A group of strongly built young men gathers early in the morning in the suburbs of Yangon to work on their fighting skills. Some of them jump on cast-off tires to warm up. Others stretch or punch the air.
All of them pause and make way when a rickshaw comes by, because their gym is the street.
The men are members of Yangon's White New Blood lethwei fighters club. Most come from rural areas of Myanmar, get fed by their coach and sleep in a nearby Buddhist monastery during their stay in Yangon preparing for fights.
Lethwei fighter-turned-coach Myint Zaw started the traditional fighter's club 15 years ago, after he retired from the sport.
The club is situated on the road in front of his house in a Yangon neighborhood of improvised tin and wooden structures. Most of the equipment is improvised as well, including weights strapped to a wooden bar. A tree wrapped with old tires serves as a punching bag, though now the gym has a real one as well.
A local businessman helped put a roof above the section of the road they use as a gym so they can practice even during Myanmar's unforgiving monsoon season. Neighbors share the shelter for community events such as alms offering to Buddhist monks.
Myanmar has a rich heritage of martial arts that is believed to go back more than 2,000 years. Today, matches are held at festivals around the country and are popular with every strata of society.
Lethwei is a particularly rough form of kickboxing: There are no gloves, head-butts are allowed and until relatively recently, fights simply continued until one competitor was knocked out. Now there are time limits.
Three of Zaw's fighters competed this summer on a stage a world away from the street gym: a mixed-martial-arts "One Championship" event broadcast globally on cable television networks. It was held in Thuwanna National Indoor Stadium in Yangon, which is the country's pre-eminent indoor sports facility, though it still lacks air conditioning.
According to Zaw, fighters received $1,000 for each fight, with 20 percent going to the coach for providing training and food.
Ordinarily, fighters win much less money, but still make more than Zaw did in the days when Myanmar's junta-led government was isolated from the world and international broadcasts were impossible. Back then, a fight would earn him just 25 U.S. cents.
Dawna Aung, a lightweight-class fighter and 34-year-old father of two, hopes competing will help him change his family's life. The ethnic Karen lives in a rural village in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta region, and his family runs a small dried fish business.
"The reason, I join this MMA tournament is mainly for the money. My family will be OK if I can make a lot of money from that. And secondly, I really would like to show to the world what Leithwei is," Aung said.
He wants to fight another three or four years, become a champion and earn enough money along the way to expand the family business.
Aung lost his One Championship bout, as did Hlit Hlit Lay, fighting in featherweight category. The only White New Blood fighter to get a win was Phoe Thaw, a security guard at the Japanese Embassy in Yangon who was also battered but scored a victory because his opponent suffered a cut so bloody that the judge stopped the fight.
A few days after, Hlit Hlit Lay said he was heading back to his village. He planned to eventually return to Yangon to prepare for another fight, but need to heal his wounds first.