As a kid growing up in Canada, Arjan Bhullar saw few faces like his as he pursued a wrestling career. He changed that, becoming the first Canadian of Punjabi descent to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. After accomplishing one goal, he pursued another. This time it was to find success in the sport of MMA - another field with limited representation from athletes of Indian origin. On Saturday, Bhullar changed that as well. At One: Dangal, the 34-year-old knocked out One heavyweight champion Brandon Vera in the second round of a five round contest to become the first Indian origin fighter to win a title at a high level MMA promotion.
Bhullar, who traces his ancestry to Billi Bhullar village near Jalandhar in Punjab, is proud of his roots. He has fond memories of India, since in 2010 he'd won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 120kg freestyle wrestling in New Delhi. However, he's maintained his connection to the country and his village since then. When he'd competed in the UFC, he took special dispensation to be able to wear a turban to the ring. Even now, he carries to his bouts a gurj (mace) that was handed to him for once winning a dangal (traditional wrestling competition). He held that mace aloft following his win over Vera, a 43-year-old 24-fight veteran with experience in the UFC. Bhullar improved to 11-1 while Vera slipped to 16-9 following their fight.
Although Vera had been unbeaten at heavyweight and had held the One Heavyweight title since 2016, Bhullar had been confident of his prospects going into the fight. "I knew I was going to hurt him. I came into the fight the lightest I weighed in. I was ready to go 5 rounds," Bhullar would say after the fight.
The two were initially scheduled to fight in March last year but that bout was cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. That bout was rescheduled later that year but was cancelled once again. Although Bhullar had been chafing at the lack of competition, he had been making good use of his extended preparation time. The COVID-19 pandemic had meant that he had shifted base from the American Kickboxing Academy in California-where he had trained alongside former UFC champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier - back to Vancouver British Columbia. There he had worked on his striking skills to add to the wrestling pedigree he already possessed.
"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," he had said in the build up to the fight.
That work clearly showed. Bhullar was wary of Vera's knockout power but used head movement and footwork to stay clear of his opponents punches. Although three inches shorter, he repeatedly jabbed to get in close and with Vera expecting him to shoot for a takedown, followed up with overhand rights.
An overhand right folded Vera to the ground in the second round but Bhullar stayed patient and didn't rush for the finish. With Vera now defending that move, Bhullar shot for a takedown, brought his opponent down and eventually finished him with unanswered punches to the side of his head. "I wanted to put the pressure on him till he broke. Box him, pressure him, wrestle him. I did just that," Bhullar would say after the fight.