Dainty and friendly, Naw Phaw Law Eh has a nickname as fitting as it is ironic.
Her mother began calling her “Eh Eh,” which roughly means “sweetie” in her native Karen language, as a child.
This year, she wants crowds to bellow out that name as she knocks out her first opponent in the cage. An international competitor in lethwei, judo, Muay Thai, and other regional martial arts, the 24-year-old is one of Myanmar’s brightest women’s mixed martial arts prospects.
“It is really hard to survive as a fighter, but I have made up my mind to have this life,” she said.
Her dream is to compete in the world’s largest martial arts organisation, ONE Championship, and she is diligently training under featherweight luminary Phoe Thaw at his Team PT gym in Yangon in order to achieve this.
In the backdrop of her already impressive success is a childhood troubled by conflict between the Myanmar army and an ethnic armed group near her hometown.
“We ran away from the war when I was a child,” recalled Naw Phaw Law Eh, who is the fifth of seven siblings. “My parents stayed in the forest to survive, but there was no opportunity for me to go to school, so I moved to my grandmother’s home.”
She lived in her new home near the Myanmar-Thailand border town Myawaddy, where her fledgling martial art talents became clear.
“Eh Eh" practiced judo at a local school at the age of 14, and then she trained in a government-sponsored three-month program before competing at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games. Among her achievements are three gold medals and a second place finish in national wrestling competitions, as well as a bronze medal in the Korean wrestling 2015 Ssireum World Championship.
Of the Thai, Myanmar, and Indonesian martial arts "Eh Eh" has studied, she loves nothing more than lethwei, an ancient Myanmar striking sport in which she stands undefeated with four wins and four draws.
“I really love this sport and feel proud to compete in it,” she said. “Not many women seem to be fighting lethwei, and I like to take on challenging things.”
In July 2017, she began a five-month scholarship to study martial arts in Korea, and on her return, the decision was made — she would call Phoe Thaw and commit to training and teaching at his gym.
Although the conflict has cooled near her hometown and she returns to visit her parents, Naw Phaw Law Eh’s focus is on improving her skills in Yangon. She hopes to compete between 48 and 51 kilograms in her first mixed martial arts bout, and is largely motivated by the encouragement of her compatriots.
“If I win, everyone cheers and supports me,” she added. “That is what motivates me to compete, so I keep it in mind that I must win.”