SINGAPORE - For 13 years, top national kickboxer Nazri Sutari has considered Bruce Loh his sensei (master). Soon, for the first time he will count Loh as a teammate as well.
Student and mentor will both compete at the Oct 15-24 Wako World Senior and Master Kickboxing Championships in Venice.
They are aiming to reach at least the quarter-finals in each of their respective categories, which would help them earn a top-eight finish at the event run by the World Association of Kickboxing Organisations (Wako).
Nazri, 31, likened his relationship with Loh, 45, to the one Daniel Larusso had with Mr Miyagi in the 80's Karate Kid franchise flicks.
"Bruce doesn't just teach me martial arts and how to fight," said the bubbly Nazri, who picked up martial arts training in 2008 as a polytechnic student.
"He's been with me through this entire journey, not just as a martial arts exponent but as a person too. So he's not just a coach. I respect him as a mentor."
The upcoming World Championships, said Nazri, puts him in a unique situation.
"All the time I've known Bruce, I've looked up to him. How do I tell him if I notice he's (lacking) in a certain area?" asked Nazri with a chuckle.
The pair's familiarity with each other, however, means there is barely any uneasiness between them. When asked how each had changed over the years, Nazri said Loh had mellowed, even though he was "never really a hot head" to begin with. And Nazri?
"He's more mature now," said Loh. "In the past, he would complain a lot about everything, from dieting to jogging."
Loh looked across to Nazri, then added with a smile: "Well, he still complains, but it's much less now."
The World Championships will mark Loh's return to competitive combat sport after almost eight years. His last bout was a late-notice mixed martial arts fight in One Championship in 2013.
Work commitments and caring for his elderly parents, he explained, put his competitive exploits on the backburner but the Masters category appealed to him. Open to those 40 and older, it features three two-minute rounds compared to the usual five three-minute ones, making "training more manageable and less demanding".
Loh also knows what to expect, having had a first-hand view of the level of competition at the last edition of the World Championships, in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 2019, when he coached Nazri on his global debut.
Then, Nazri placed 17th out of 25 competitors, exiting after losing in the first round to Iran's Hossein Karami, and he admitted the experience was eye-opening.
"I went into that competition pretty cocky and with a certain level of self-belief, but the level of competition was just way different," he said with a sheepish grin.
"I hope that now, with the knowledge and experience I have gained, being a bit more grounded and a bit more humble will help."
Nazri rebounded almost immediately, donning a sambo jacket in the Philippines to win Singapore's first gold medal in the sport at the SEA Games just seven weeks later. He spent most of 2020 recuperating from a major knee injury but believes he is now in as good shape as he can be.
Kickboxing Federation of Singapore president Jason Lim said he hoped a good showing by Nazri will see kickboxing receive more recognition and support from the sports authorities.
"And if Nazri makes the top eight, he will qualify for the World Games (in Alabama, the United States) next year," said Lim. "That would help elevate kickboxing in Singapore even further."