SINGAPORE — He thought he would never get the chance to represent Singapore at the SEA Games, after national service disrupted his burgeoning fencing career.
Yet Nazri Sutari will be fulfilling his long-time ambition when he heads to Manila for the upcoming SEA Games in December, albeit in a completely different sport.
The 29-year-old is among nine athletes selected by the Singapore National Olympic Council to take part in the obscure sport of sambo – a martial art developed by the Soviet Union army in the 1920s to improve hand-to-hand combat abilities of its servicemen.
This is the first time the sport is being competed at the SEA Games, and Nazri is grateful that his unique sporting journey – from fencing to mixed martial arts (MMA) and then to sambo – has finally brought him to biennial regional sports extravaganza.
“I’m still like pinching myself and wondering, ‘Sure or not?’ ” he told Yahoo News Singapore with a laugh during an interview at Impact MMA gym, where he trains and works as a trainer.
“All these years that I’ve kind of given up on my dream of going to the SEA Games, and suddenly I am given this chance. I still feel a little sceptical whether this is happening or not, and I guess I’ll find out when I reach Manila and compete.
“And when I’m there, I want the gold medal, for sure.”
A once-burgeoning fencing career
Making the SEA Games has always been a part of Nazri’s sporting ambition, ever since he picked up sabre fencing when he was 13 years old.
Back then, he was also dabbling in his secondary school’s drama club and choir, but eventually preferred the sense of achievement he got in individual sports such as fencing.
“Whether I win or I lose, I’m accountable for everything, and that’s what drives me to keep improving in my sport,” he said.
“My dream was to make it all the way to the Olympics, but of course I had to take it step by step, and SEA Games was an important target to aim for.”
Such ambition fuelled his passion for fencing and, by the time he turned 17, he was able to make the national fencing team. Eventually in 2010, he represented Singapore at the Southeast Asia Fencing Championships.
However, national service ensued, and Nazri lost all his fencing rankings points during the two years of inactivity. With younger fencers jostling their way into the fencing squad, it was an uphill task for him to regain his place in the national team after NS.
Fencing background gives an edge in MMA fighting
By then, he had already started to pick up various forms of martial arts such as muay thai and MMA with renowned trainer Bruce Loh. And he realised that his fencing background was actually beneficial to his new sport.
“I found out quickly that when I’m on the offensive, my timing and my distance judging is a lot sharper than other fighters, and that is due to my fencing training. I was able to land punches more successfully than others,” he said.
“The major difference is that I had to sustain my offence longer in MMA, whereas in fencing it was more like short bursts of offence.”
With his newfound sporting interest, Nazri threw himself into MMA, and participated actively in fight events in Singapore and Malaysia, such as the Malaysian Invasion MMA fight tournaments for two seasons in 2015 and 2016.
Hopes rise after sambo inclusion
Nonetheless, with MMA not being chosen as part of the SEA Games competition, Nazri’s hopes of representing Singapore seemed to be fading fast – until early this year, when the organisers for this year’s SEA Games included sambo.
“My wrestling coach Sulaiman Yusof was trained in sambo, and so we dabbled in a bit of the sport during our training,” he said.
“Then earlier this year, about four weeks before the sambo qualifiers for the SEA Games, the Wrestling Federation of Singapore invited me and my Impact colleagues to take part in the event. And if we managed to medal in the qualifiers, we would be guaranteed a place in the SEA Games. And I thought, ‘Finally!’
“And, even though I fought in the heavyweight division (82kg) with a height disadvantage at 1.67m, I managed to get a silver medal at the qualifiers and make the squad.”
Now that he has earned a SEA Games spot, he is able to look back at his sporting journey and be grateful of all the guidance and support he received along the way.
“Whether it is fencing or MMA or sambo, the important life lesson I’ve learnt is that your cannot be selfish,” Nazri said.
“You have to give back to your training mates, even spar with less experienced ones, and support everyone so that they will also support you. Fighting is a lonely sport once you enter the ring, so you need to rely on one another outside the ring.”
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