The undercard of any fight promotion usually features the lowest profile contests of the event. Yet early Sunday morning (IST), when Arjan Singh Bhullar steps into the octagon at Roger's Place stadium in Edmonton, Canada there will be far more attention on him than usual. For while Bhullar will be fighting in the bottom of the undercard of UFC 215, he will also be creating history as the first Indian-origin athlete to compete in the world's most prestigious mixed martial arts promotion.
Fourth generation Indian roots
The 31-year old from Richmond, British Colombia is a fourth generation descendant of Indian immigrants to the country. Bhullar's great grandfather was the first to arrive in the country in 1904. While struggling to make a living in a strange land, Bhullar's family never lost touch with their roots in pehelwani (wrestling) in Punjab. The Bhullar family farm in Richmond maintains a wrestling akhara where Bhullar learned his first wrestling skills. Bhullar's father Avtar excelled as a wrestler, competing in both the traditional mud wrestling (kushti) and the Olympic style wrestling. While Avtar competed for a place in the Canadian team for the Commonwealth Games in 1998, he would eventually fail to qualify.
Arjan succeeded where his father failed. In 2010, he wrestled for Canada at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Competing in the 120kg freestyle division, Bhullar beat India's Joginder Kumar 4-0 to claim a gold medal. Bhullar would later return to his family's ancestral village near Jallandhar to open an akhara. Bhullar went on to become the first Canadian of Indian origin to compete at the Olympics at the 2012 London Games, losing to eventual bronze medallist Komeil Ghasemi.
Mixed Martial arts
After his Olympic dreams ended, Bhullar turned to mixed martial arts. "Transferring over to MMA, I did it for a reason. This isn't because I didn't have any other options. This is a conscious choice I made to get under the lights in front of as many eyeballs as possible, so I'm excited for that," Bhullar told the UFC.
Bhullar made his MMA debut in November 2014, knocking out Adam Santos in three rounds. He won his next five fights and currently holds a 6-0 (3KO) record. His opponent in his UFC debut is Brazilian Luis Henrique, who holds a creditable 13-3 (3 KO, 4 submission) record. At six feet and 113 kilos, Bhullar is at a two inch and 2 kilo disadvantage against his opponent. He is likely to try and use his superior grappling skills to take down his opponent and aim for a decision win. However, with Bhullar a relatively short heavyweight fighter, he will likely have better prospects if he drops down to the light heavyweight division (93kg).
The pro wrestling connect
Bhullar is amongst many other Indian origin athletes who have become trailblazers of sorts. At UFC2015, Bhullar's friend Yuvraj Sindh Dhesi, better known as WWE Champion Jinder Mahal will walk him down to the ring. Mahal's rise to the top of the WWE mountain comes even as the pro wrestling giant looks to expand its footprint in India. Bhullar's push in the UFC could be seen from that perspective too. "People will know what Indians can do worldwide. Jinder is doing his thing, I'm doing mine. We're doing much more than beyond sport; we will let people know what we are about," Bhullar said in a recent interview.
Speaking to the UFC, Bhullar admits he could be the spearhead for the sport in India. "Fighting, everybody understands it, and there's a history of wrestling there," he said. "And they know me already. Timing is everything in life and I'm excited to make this a reality for the company and myself and Indians around the world."