Arjan Bhullar: MMA champion with fighting passion honed in Indian wrestling tradition
His great grandfather landed in Canada over a century ago, and the passion for wrestling in the family of Punjab origin has produced a world champ.
It’s a story that will find resonance in many Punjabi households. A youngster leaves home in search of better opportunities and lands in Canada. He takes his family there in the next few years, and reminiscing about their roots becomes a constant theme. The Bhullar family in Richmond in that sense is like any other from Punjab that emigrates to the destination familiar to people from the northern Indian state.
Unlike most who seek a livelihood in Canada, this migration has produced a world champion. Arjan Bhullar last week became the first Indian origin MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter to win a world title. He knocked out American-Filipino Brandon Vera, champion in the division since 2015, claiming the ONE Championship heavyweight title in Singapore this week.
“My whole family has been into wrestling, even before my birth. I also tried team sport but it was the one-on-one sport that attracted me. I liked to take responsibility for my actions. If you train hard, you get your arm raised, you improve and you go on to the higher level,” Bhullar says.
“I have known wrestling since I was in diapers. We had a wrestling arena at home. We were 10 boys. Everyone wrestled. Lot of memories, and I was able to reach a higher level,” he says in a video call.
Bhullar’s victory is culmination of a cherished dream of his family that made Canada its 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 his son-in-law (Bhullar’s grandfather). It The desperation was such that he had to leave his wife behind and missed the birth of his son (Bhullar’s dad Avtar).
Only in early 1970s would Avtar move to Canada from his village near Jalandhar, to meet his father for the first time. He completed his high school in Canada and initially worked in a saw mill. All through those years, the family’s love for wrestling remained intact. At least once a year, Bhullar’s father would travel to India to test himself against the best in dangals (mud-pit wrestling), which has a huge fan following.
Avtar even formed 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 in wrestling. He was national champion from 2008 to 2012 in the 120kg category. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, in the land of his family, Bhullar won gold, notching up victory over India’s Joginder Kumar in the final. At London in 2012, he became the first Canadian of South Asian descent to compete at the Olympics.
“Anytime you are first at something, it’s always special. I have had many firsts in my life. It’s a life I chose. I don’t think apart from combat sport I could have anything else,” Bhullar says.
“When you are a kid you look for inspiration, hope. Sometimes you search that in other people. I found my inspiration in my dad. I guess my achievement will be an inspiration for more kids in my community here.”
After the 2012 Olympics, Bhullar quit wrestling. “I thought I had played the sport all my life. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to learn other techniques and fight in different ways. It led me to MMA. I took my time to learn the nuances and then got going.”
Bhullar took a three-year break 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 striking power. In 2017, he became the first fighter of Indian origin at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). He has 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). The hard work is the same everywhere. It’s the technique that is different. I am 35 and still strong enough to move ahead.”