Arjan Bhullar became the first Indian MMA fighter to capture a world championship title last month.
Bhullar (11-1) finished Brandon Vera at ONE: Dangal, which broadcasted on May 15, to wrest the crown from the long-reigning heavyweight champion.
The 35-year-old martial artist that fights out of Richmond, B.C. has long been making history for India in a host of firsts, representing in wrestling, being the first Indian fighter in the UFC, and now with this ONE belt being in his possession.
“It’s been a long road and a lifetime of work, just the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, the decisions, the forks in the road, you know. All of that type of stuff. It just worked out,” said Bhullar in an interview with MMA Empire.
“It’s not by luck, or chance, or any of those things. It takes a lot, a lot of work. And we had a lot of challenges heading into this fight as well that we had overcome because of that. I’m used to dealing with adversity, dealing with more challenging situations, and that’s why I draw confidence going into my fights. Nothing’s going to shake me.”
This moment is a culmination of a lifelong path in wrestling and the magnitude of the moment is something Bhullar said he’s able to commensurately feel.
“I knew it was going to be life-changing and I had some ideas and plans for what we can look to do afterward, but you never fully know until you get there. And it’s been great so far,” said Bhullar.
“In terms of the fight, it went according to plan, so not surprised or thrown off about that. But just been really busy on the back end of this. But it’s a good busy, so I’m happy.”
The timing of this title-winning moment came during a devastating COVID-19 surge in India.
Bhullar appreciates being able to give some degree of reprieve to India during what has been an immensely difficult time.
“Sports is supposed to bring people together, get them excited, distract maybe from some of the carnage on the ground. It’s a terrible, terrible state right now and we’ve been trying to help out as a family as much as we can,” said Bhullar.
“I’m going to get involved more now that I have this platform, do a little more in that space. I feel this was the right thing to do at the right time. I hope it was there to bring some joy, even for a brief moment, to the folks on the ground.”
The level of cultural thoughtfulness on ONE: Dangal was something that created an almost transcendent feeling when competing.
Dangal has been deeply-entrenched in Bhullar his entire life and he felt he saw the door opening and simply had to walk through it.
“It’s amazing, and they want superheroes. They got a different model than some other companies, right. And, you know, some things in life just line up and it was one of those things,” said Bhullar.
“Dangal, I’ve been wrestling. Dangal is my entire life. I saw it with my father before me. I was not about to lose with that card shaped up the way it was. With me main eventing, there’s no way, so it’s one of those things. The door’s open, it’s just a matter of me walking through. And I’m happy I did.”
The lineage of wrestling in India is similar to the lineage of jiu-jitsu in Brazil, which is a discipline Bhullar became involved in at a young age.
Bhullar’s father not only passed down wrestling techniques to him, but his parents imparted everlasting life lessons amid a hateful landscape when the family came to Canada.
“I was raised right with the right values and I tried to stick to them. And it’s just been amazing. I got my own kids now, I got my wife and I try to instil the same stuff into them. You got to represent who you are, always, proudly because when my folks came over that wasn’t allowed,” said Bhullar.
“There was a lot of racism, open racism, and you were told the complete opposite and made to feel the complete opposite. I have a platform, and I will speak as loud as I can from the platform.”
The actual athletic performance against Vera, from the opening bell to the second round ground and pound finish, saw Bhullar’s preconceived perceptions play out completely.
Heading into the championship bout, Bhullar was set on showing his well-roundedness, which he feels he was successful in doing.
“We knew what he was going to do and what he does well, but I knew what I could do and bring to the table and we executed that game plan accordingly,” said Bhullar.
I want to show a complete (game). First, it was he’s a wrestler, then it was oh, he’s got some hands. And I wanted this to be ‘he’s got everything, he can mix it up.’ That’s what a world champion does and I feel we were able to show that. I’m very confident moving forward that we are going to build and build and build.”
Bhullar retains certain stylistic hallmarks from his past American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) training including working the neck to work in close quarters punches.
But he weaves in those AKA lessons within his own skills and personalizes the techniques to optimize his game.
“AKA has been a huge influence. We had Cain (Velasquez), DC (Daniel Cormier), all-time great big guys. Training alongside them and just watching their game,” said Bhullar.
“You know what, they come from the same background I do in terms of wrestling, so why reinvent the wheel? We have a blueprint for success and I wanted to copy that best I could and then add in my own personal touches. So, that is what we tried to do and what we have done.”
Bhullar has yet to taste defeat inside the One Championship cage and now that he’s the champion, the challengers will be coming in from all angles.
It’s generally anomalous to see a champion call out a challenger, but Bhullar did just that inside the ONE circle during his post-fight interview.
Kang Ji Won was in the newly-minted champ’s crosshairs and the rising heavyweight is coming off of back-to-back highlight-reel stoppages including a first-round finish of Amir Aliakbari.
“There were talks of me and Amir (Aliakbari) behind the scenes. He was being real loud on social media and that type of thing, so it just made sense to me that hey, this guy (Ji Won) punched him out within a round. He’s young, he’s undefeated. He actually did the same to Amir’s teammate a few weeks earlier within the same month, so that’s why I called him the Iranian killer,” said Bhullar.
“He’s the one that makes sense for that reason. Beyond that, it would be nice to keep some of the other guys busy in the division and see how things shake out, but I think he’s the front runner at this point.”
“No, you know, I appreciate everyone for the support. We said we were gonna do this and we did it. And now we’re gonna take over the pro wrestling industry and pick a fight there. So stay tuned. I am the king of the Dangal. And we are 1 billion strong.” Follow Bhullar on social media: FACEBOOK, TWITTER, INSTAGRAM