Arjan Bhullar: MMA champion with a fighting passion honed in Indian wrestling tradition

It is a story that will find resonance in many Punjabi homes. A young person leaves home in search of better opportunities and better land in Canada. He will take his family there for the next several years and remembering their roots becomes a constant theme. The Bhullar family in Richmond in this sense is like any other family in the Punjab that emigrate to the destination familiar to the inhabitants of the northern Indian state.

Unlike most of those seeking a livelihood in Canada, this migration has produced a world champion. Arjan Bhullar last week became the first Indian-born MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter to win a world title. He knocked out Filipino-American Brandon Vera, the division champion since 2015, winning the ONE Championship heavyweight title in Singapore this week.

“My whole family has been in the fight, even before I was born. I also tried team sport, but it was the individual sport that attracted me. I liked to take responsibility for my actions. If you train hard, you get your arm raised, you get better and you level up, ”says Bhullar.

“I’ve known about wrestling since wearing diapers. We had a wrestling arena at home. We were 10 boys. Everyone struggled. Lots of memories and I was able to take it to the next level, ”he said on a video call.

Bhullar’s victory was the culmination of a cherished dream of his family who made Canada home in the early 1900s. Bhullar’s great-grandfather was the first to leave the Indian shores and worked in a railway company. In the 1950s he took on his son-in-law (Bhullar’s grandfather). The desperation was such that he had to abandon his wife and missed the birth of his son (Bhullar’s father, Avtar).

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Avtar moved to Canada from his village near Jalandhar, to meet his father for the first time. He graduated from high school in Canada and first worked in a sawmill. Throughout these years, the family’s love for wrestling has remained intact. At least once a year, Bhullar’s dad would travel to India to test himself against the best of dangals (mud wrestling), which has a huge fan to follow.

Arjan Bhullar (L) in action.

Avtar even created the Bhullar Wrestling Club to encourage children in the community to take up the demanding sport. Bhullar, who was born in Canada, was a natural wrestler. He was national champion from 2008 to 2012 in the 120 kg category. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, home, Bhullar won the gold medal, defeating India’s Joginder Kumar in the final. In London in 2012, he became the first Canadian of South Asian descent to compete in the Olympics.

“Whenever you’re the first to do something, it’s always special. I have had many firsts in my life. It is a life that I have chosen. I don’t think that outside of combat sport I could have anything else, ”says Bhullar.

“When you are a child, you seek inspiration, hope. Sometimes you look for it in other people. I found my inspiration in my father. I guess my success will be an inspiration to more kids in my community here. “

After the 2012 Olympics, Bhullar quit wrestling. “I thought I played this sport my whole life. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to learn other techniques and fight in different ways. This led me to MMA. I took my time learning the nuances, and then I started.

Bhullar took a three-year hiatus from competition until his first MMA fight at the Battlefield Fight League in 2014. He spent time at the American Kickboxing Academy in California to improve his punching power. In 2017, he became the first Indian-born fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). He’s got a 3-1 win-loss record there. He joined the ONE Championship in 2019.

“I want to defend the heavyweight title now for sure. I am also looking for opportunities in professional wrestling (WWE). Hard work is the same everywhere. It’s the technique that’s different. I’m 35 and still strong enough to move on.

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