As a Child, She Fled Violence. Now Her Fists Could Bring Her Stardom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s primed for an international breakout.
By Tom Taylor
Naw Phaw Law Eh was only 16 when she left her family and moved to Yangon. She arrived in the hectic metropolis with little more than the nickname “Eh Eh,” given to her by her mother, and some judo gear.
Eh Eh migrated to join the judo program operated by the Myanmar Ministry of Sports. Now 25, she’s dedicating all of her energy to two very different combat sports: Lethwei, an undeniably brutal bare-knuckle sport that allows knees, elbows and even head-butts; and mixed martial arts (MMA), the mainstream sport popularized by the UFC.
She’s determined to conquer both.
Long before Eh Eh became one of Myanmar’s most promising young fighters, she was raised with her seven siblings in the tangled jungles of Myanmar’s eastern Kayin State. Throughout childhood, she was surrounded by a bloody conflict between several bellicose and copiously armed forces — and anybody with the guts and resources to oppose them. This bloodshed forced the future fighter and her family to relocate often. Their efforts to steer clear of the violence were not always successful.
Although Eh Eh admits that the memories of her youth on the run are quite nebulous, she can recall some snapshots. “I remember hearing artillery fire in the distance while at school, around first or second grade,” she says quietly. “Sometimes the school would be closed.”
Outside of school, she recalls having to hide in the ditch that ran under her family’s hut, not just to take shelter from the surrounding violence, but to protect her father and brothers. During the ghastliest moments of these conflicts, men were rounded up and essentially used as human shields to block bullets and set off land mines.
Beyond the obvious physical demands of the job, Eh Eh barely makes enough money to get by.
Forced to live as a veritable nomad, Eh Eh did not have an easy childhood, but life eventually improved. In the fifth grade, her parents sent her away to her grandmother’s house in a village near the Myanmar-Thailand border, where she could enroll in school in a safer environment. It was at her new school that she first began practicing judo — simply because it’s what her new friends were doing.
Eh Eh was hooked immediately. Before long, she was competing in judo at the international level and seeking opportunities to take her skill to new heights. It was this quest that eventually drove her to Yangon.
She came to practice judo with the Myanmar Ministry of Sports but soon began expanding into Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, and Ssireum, a form of Korean wrestling. Before long, she was medaling in these new athletic pursuits too. In the span of a few years, she had captured three gold medals in national wrestling tournaments, and even a bronze medal in the 2015 Ssireum World Championship.
Always looking for new challenges, she soon decided to plunge into Lethwei and MMA. She sought out one of Yangon’s foremost gyms, Team PT, operated by former Lethwei fighter and current ONE Championship MMA fighter Phoe Thaw.
Eh Eh made a strong first impression on Phoe Thaw, but then she disappeared for a few months in early 2018, returning to a job at a smaller Yangon gym. Phoe Thaw admits that he did not expect her to return. When she did, she had regressed. “I wasn’t impressed,” Phoe Thaw recounts. “She had taken a break from her training. She gave her best effort, but she did not have very good conditioning.”
Since returning to Team Phoe Thaw, however, Eh Eh has been grinding away with all the dedication and intensity a coach can hope to see from a young fighter. She rented a tiny room in a house about two minutes’ walk from the gym, as her full-time commitment to Lethwei and MMA means she can no longer enjoy the board provided by the Myanmar Ministry of Sport’s judo program. Early each morning, before it gets too hot, she joins Phoe Thaw for a run. As the sun climbs the sky, Eh Eh moves indoors to work on her technique in the breeze provided by the gym’s lone fan. After a meal and a short break, she returns to the gym for another lung-busting, two-hour training session. She then finishes each day by teaching classes in the gym, her only source of income aside from fight purses that can be as low as $200.
“She really trains hard,” Phoe Thaw says of his pupil, before admitting that Eh Eh occasionally struggles when new skills don’t come easily. “Sometimes she complains about the things she doesn’t understand, but we explain to her why we’re doing it, and she obeys. She’s getting really good.”
It’s not an easy life. Beyond the obvious physical demands of the job, Eh Eh barely makes enough money to get by. She’s fought just twice in the last year, winning a 112-pound contest by knockout in Yangon and losing a 108-pound bout by decision against a more experienced striker in the mountain town of Hpa-An.
Financial struggle is typical for fighters in Myanmar, whether in the perilous world of Lethwei or the more mainstream MMA. “Almost every gym doesn’t have good financial support and they struggle in every aspect; that’s why the fighters do too,” says Os Kar, manager of athlete relations at World Lethwei Championship and author of the Burmese-language Lethwei book They Are Really Not Violent People.
For women, it’s even harder. “As a female professional fighter, the expectations to make a living are not high,” says Os Kar. “I’d like to encourage Eh Eh to try to be successful as a female fighter, thus others will follow her steps more than ever.”
While some might view Eh Eh’s goals as impossible, her confidence is unshakable. She hopes to join her mentor Phoe Thaw in ONE Championship in the near future and to start sending money back to the parents who protected her so diligently during her turbulent childhood. Until then, she’s staying busy on the Lethwei circuit, having recently signed with World Lethwei Championship.
“I know that my hard work will pay off eventually,” she says confidently. “This is what keeps me going when I am exhausted.”
Read more: This boxer’s Olympic dreams began in a forest hut.
- Tom Taylor, OZY Author Contact Tom Taylor