Arjan Bhullar: “I didn’t get into this sport to be the first Indian in the UFC. I will be the heavyweight champion.”

It was in September 2012 when the UFC revealed that they would be producing an Indian edition of their reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” and a press conference was held in Mumbai with their Indian broadcast partner, former UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta announced that they would be holding auditions for fighters and that show would air in 2013. The show fell through for a number of reasons, one being that the executives running Sony Six felt that the show would not be a success if it featured fighters who were not born in India or lived abroad. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for those involved, fans and media knew that the development of the sport in India would suffer if the discussions had been successful, there were no Indian fighters you could consider UFC standard, instead the sport has been growing at a natural pace over the last five years.

Five years on and Canadian-born Arjan Bhullar (6-0) is ready to step into cage this weekend as the first MMA fighter of Indian descent to appear in the UFC Octagon, and believes he has the talent and personality to help MMA grow in India, he is certain that Indians will be supporting him despite being a NRI (non-resident Indian).

“I’m a prideful Indian through and through. The UFC needs the right person to breakthrough in India. I think you need a humble and respectful approach, a Conor McGregor persona wouldn’t work in India. If you look at my story, a family with a wrestling background, having to settle in a new country and overcoming the challenges that immigrants face, I feel I am right person and I can get Indians around the world behind me.”

He was the first wrestler of Indian heritage to make the Canadian national team and won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The Richmond-born fighter also represented Canada at the 2012 Olympics in London, but he was eliminated in the second round of the 120kg freestyle wrestling category. That experience, and his competitive nature, is driving Bhullar to be more than just the first MMA fighter of Indian descent to fight under the UFC banner.

“I will be a champion, I didn’t get into this sport to be the first Indian in the UFC, it was never that, I may as well quit now if it was.”

“I will be the heavyweight champion!”

The Las Vegas-based promotion announced in June that his promotional debut would be against Brazilian Luis Henrique (10-3) at UFC 216 in Edmonton,B.C., Canada. Henrique, 23, is 2-2 in the UFC, with his last loss coming against Marcin Tybura at UFC 209 in March. Bhullar has been focusing on his own game rather than attempting to stifle his opponent’s offence. “I haven’t watched too much tape on him, I leave that to my coaches. I know he is a brown belt in BJJ, that will be his base, but I’ve already faced black belts from Brazil.”

“We’re very confident, it is less about him, more about me. I just need to prepare like I’m supposed to, and I’ll be getting my hand raised.”

The 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist enters the UFC at an age where athletes in other sports would be considering retirement, the 31-year-old is one of the youngest heavyweights signed to the UFC. He’ll enter the cage weighing close to 240lbs, but the six foot tall heavyweight will be one of the shortest in the division. His grappling ability will be unmatched by almost every opponent he will face in the heavyweight division, and although he isn’t going to shy away from using bread and butter to emerge victorious, he wants to finish his fights in style.

“Getting the win is first, but it does matter how you win as well,” he said.

“I’ll do what I have to, but I’m always looking for the stoppage. I grew up watching Fedor, a small heavyweight who used his skills to beat bigger guys, and I’ve been moulding my game along the lines of Cormier and Cain as well. I’ll grind you if I need to, I’ll take whatever way is there to win, but I’ll always look for a finish first.”

The Bhullar residence, like many Sikh households, is occupied by multiple generations of the family, with over 20 relatives living on their farm in British Columbia, Canada. His family built an Akhara (training facility) on their farm in the seventies because Arjan’s father was a talented wrestler, he travelled to wherever there were Sikh communities, and faced national calibre wrestlers when he competed in India.

His family have opened their training facility to locals, and his cousin runs classes that are usually attended by up to 30 young people. And having seen the impact wrestling had on the people of Vancouver, his family celebrated his success at the 2010 Commonwealth Games by opening an Akhara in their village in India. “Hopefully that is a legacy piece that gives back to the people of our village and surrounding villages.”

Bhullar’s great grandfather moved from India to Canada in 1904, and then sponsored his daughter and son-in-law to come to the country in 1959, and despite his family’s long history in Canada, he has not forgotten about his Sikh heritage. “We’ve been here for some time,” he explained. “But the blood in our veins is rooted in India. I go back every year and I want to help the people of Punjab and the rest of India.”

Bhullar, alongside his friend Raj Virdi, helped create a wrestling program at the University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC, Canada in 2013. The UFV wrestling team had their first national champion this year, and the Richmond native has been heavily involved as one of the head coaches, ensuring that he doesn’t forget his wrestling roots. The university has a campus in Chandigarh, India, and the UFC heavyweight is hoping to take his team to Punjab so that they can have a positive impact on young people.

He decided to take a break from competition for six months after the 2012 games in London, which gave him the chance to live a normal life after years of preparing for the Olympics, although he had decided before making the trip to England that he would transition into MMA after seeing friends and former foes have successful careers in the sport.

“It was an ‘Olympic hangover’, that is what athletes call it. You spend your entire life shooting for the Olympics and then it’s a completely different feeling afterwards as you have to think what is next. I had decided beforehand that the Olympics would be my last competition, but that competitive edge was still there, and then it kept growing during that break.”

The WWE offered the 31-year-old an opportunity to spend time at their development facility. A discussion with Jinder Mahal, a close friend and WWE Superstar, confirmed that MMA was the best option for Bhullar after ending his wrestling career. “I would prefer to compete rather than having scripted outcomes. I knew after that conversation that I would pursue the UFC angle.”

“Jinder was living with Great Khali at the time, and he told me how they were on the road so much. I’m a family person and decided that wasn’t for me. I want to give a shout-out to Jinder because he gave me some good direction; he is a really good guy and I respect how he has inserted Punjabi culture into his character.”

The unbeaten heavyweight began his preparation for his UFC debut at the training facility on the family farm, but travelled to American Kickboxing Academy to help Daniel Cormier prepare for his fight against Jon Jones at UFC 214. He finished off his camp in Canada, where he trained out of his home gym, but also spent time with BJJ black belt Adam Ryan, and worked on his kickboxing with Jay Jauncey (brother and trainer of Glory kickboxer Josh Jauncey).

It was Mo Lawal who originally invited the Indo-Canadian down to San Jose, California, and coach Javier Mendez instantly welcomed him into the team and encouraged him to return regularly. His UFC debut will be the first time he openly represents the gym, having been reluctant to promote himself as an AKA fighter on the regional scene due to difficulties in securing suitable opponents.

“I reached out to King Mo,” he said. “He invited me down because we knew each other from the wrestling scene, and I knew DC from the wresting scene. I told him I wanted to hook up with the team as they had DC, Cain, and Mo.”

“These are world class wrestlers who have been successful in MMA, these coaches know how to develop wrestlers into world class fighters. “

The time spent in California has been encouraging for Bhullar, he has been using these training stints as a measuring stick, comparing his skill level to some of the best talent in MMA, and he has been happy with the progress made since his first trip.

Bhullar has been focused on wrestling since he was a young kid following his dad around their Akhara. He wrestled during high school and university, eventually securing a spot on the national team. He turned to MMA when he was 28 and had a limited striking skillset, and the Canadian has nothing but admiration for the coaches who have helped him improve his stand-up over the last three years.

By JeevanMMA

Owner/Editor of Writer, Podcaster, Producer of 'Notorious: Conor McGregor' film, 'Conor McGregor: Notorious' TV series, 'Ten Thousand Hours', 'The Fighting Irish' and more documentary films.

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