They may be 13 years apart, yet it won't be an exaggeration to suggest Hamad Nawad and Faisal Al Ketbi are linked by a shared sense of destiny.
Nawad was taking baby steps in the sport when Al Ketbi became the first Emirati to win a gold medal in the blue belt division for adults at the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in 2009. Nine years later, Nawad became the second Emirati to achieve the feat.
They became national teammates, proudly waving the UAE flag at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta where they won gold medals over back-to-back days. Except this time, it was Nawad who provided the inspiration for Al Ketbi.
Unsurprisingly, the 18-year-old remains in awe of his team captain.
"I always looked up to Faisal as a role model, and he still is," Nawad told The National.
“Faisal is my big brother. He’s helped me develop my jiu-jitsu since I was included in the elite squad in 2013.”
That they are now training partners shows how much respect Al Ketbi has for Nawad's abilities as a fighter. The latter, though, conceded not being entirely comfortable with this arrangement, at least initially.
“At first, I couldn’t believe that I was training alongside Faisal, and later as one of the training partners," Nawad said. "In the beginning, it was bit uneasy for me to fight him – out of respect – [but] Faisal made it easy for me to adapt.
"When he’s fighting with me, he doesn’t care if I am a kid, and treats me like any other opponent. That’s what he wants me to do."
Fortunately for Nawad, Al Ketbi has been nothing but a source of encouragement for the youngster. "Obviously he wants to make me better. He improved my skills in the takedowns, and he keeps sharing all his experience with me,” he said.
Nawad is evidently benefiting from having taken risks in his fledgling jiu-jitsu career. For instance, he chose to fight in the adult division of last year's Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Championship – also known as World Pro – in order to be able to compete at the Asian Games. This despite being given the option of excelling in the World Youths.
Fighting with men, as opposed to boys his age, has certainly helped raise his game.
Nawad will return to full-fledged competition for the first time since Jakarta to defend his blue belt 56-kilogram weight title at this year's World Pro from April 20 to 26. He is raring to go after taking time off to undergo surgery on his broken nose – something he put off for four years.
“I kept postponing the surgery because I didn’t want to miss out on the Asian Games,” he said. “I also took some time off to concentrate on my studies as a final year student in high school.”
Risk-taker that he may be, there is clearly a pragmatic side to Nawad, too, in that he has managed to balance academics with jiu-jitsu. He has even found a way to kill two birds with one stone – in a manner of speaking – by taking up combat training to prepare for the World Pro as well as military college in his bid to join the UAE Armed Forces.
Over the past three weeks, he trained for eight hours every day, and has reserved the final week for mental preparation. Needless to say, he is confident.
“Although I haven’t done combat training for more than six months, I have maintained my fitness," he said. "I’m ready for the competition. If not I wouldn’t be competing.
“The pressure is always there on every fighter and there are no clear favourites in this category,” he added.
Nawad insisted the rest of the world is catching up with the Brazilian fighters, who remain the ones to beat at the World Pro – particularly from the blue belt category upwards.
“It’s hard to compare us with Brazilians because the sport is more famous there than anywhere in the world,” Nawad pointed out. “Having said that, I don’t think they have the support we have.
"Our federation [the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation] have provided us the best and they also look after our welfare as athletes. Of course, when you have this kind of support from the federation, you can just concentrate on the sport.”
This is great for Nawad, for now he can work towards his long-term goal, which, in his own words, is "to be the next Faisal Al Ketbi".