Back in 2019, Arjan Bhullar had to make a hard decision on the path he would take in his career as a mixed martial artist. The first option the then 32-year-old had was to renegotiate his contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC is considered the premier MMA outfit in the world and Bhullar had already made a strong start there, with a 3-1 record. But he (10-1-0) wanted more. "During the discussions that I had with them, I got the impression that they weren't very serious about India," he says. That wasn't what he wanted to hear.
He made the choice instead to head to the Singapore based One Championship -- a fight promotion with a strong focus on Asia. It's a call that's he feels is the right one. On Saturday evening in Singapore, when Bhullar steps into the ring at One: Dangal to take on veteran Brandon Vera (16-8-0), he will have the chance to become the first Indian origin fighter to win a world title in a top level MMA promotion.
It wouldn't be the first time Bhullar will have a first against his name. He is proud of his roots from the village of Billi Bhullar, near Jallandhar, Punjab from where his grandfather had immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. He came from a family of wrestlers and it was little surprise that he took to the sport too. He would win the Commonwealth games gold medal in New Delhi back in 2010 and in 2012 in London he would become the first Indian-origin freestyle wrestler to represent Canada at the Olympics.
After accomplishing his goals on the wrestling mat, Bhullar turned his attention to mixed martial arts -- another field with little representation of fighters of Indian descent. And he would make an impact there too. When he won his UFC debut against Luis Enrigue Barbosa de Oliveira in UFC 215 - he became the first Indian origin fighter to win a UFC fight.
Bhullar is amongst many other Indian origin athletes who have become trailblazers of sorts. At UFC215, he was walked to the ring by his friend Yuvraj Sindh Dhesi, better known as former WWE Champion Jinder Mahal. While Dhesi's subsequently lost his title, Bhullar is raring to go all the way to the top. Should he win, it would be, he says - a huge boost for fighters of Indian descent. "My family left Punjab for a better future. I achieved some of those goals but I've been dreaming of being a world champion for a long time. It would be the reward for all of the sacrifices that my family has made to get me to where I am. It would be a beautiful legacy for my kids too. It would be massive in the big scheme of things. It would show other Indian kids that it is possible to be world champion," he says.
That's, of course, if he wins. Bhullar's opponent Brandon Vera is a 24-fight MMA veteran who has held the One Championship heavyweight title since 2015. The two were scheduled to fight in March last year but that contest was postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the disease spread across the world, Bhullar was forced to halt his training camp in California and return to Vancouver, Canada. The fight was then scheduled for November last year before getting cancelled once again. Although Bhullar continued to train at his family's wrestling academy, his fight against Vera on Saturday will be his first since October 10, 2019.
The long layoff is something that hasn't been ideal. "It's been challenging. We were supposed to fight last March and I was in training camp but then borders started closing everywhere. I come from a wrestling background where you have competitions regularly. Since I was a little boy, I've always been competing. This is the longest I've been without competiton. But it's helped me in a way. It's rejuvenated my competitiveness," says Bhullar.
Bhullar says he's put his time to good use. Although his wrestling is the foundation for his fighting style, he's worked on his striking game in the year he's had to hone his skill. Vera comes into the matchup with a strong kickboxing background and Bhullar knows he'll have to find a way to get in close the distance in order to let his wrestling do it's thing. "I've had another year to get better and sharper. It isn't as if I've been doing nothing. He [Vera] has been bouncing in my head all this while," he says.
Bhullar's confident he can pull off the win. "I'm looking forward to showing what I'm working for a year. But it's more than that. It's about showing a lifetime of hard work. It's about realising a dream not just for myself but my community. When I win I want it to blow up mixed martial arts across India," he says.