How a 'lifetime of work' led to this B.C. fighter being crowned MMA world champion

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Arjan Bhullar of Richmond, B.C., has just been crowned ONE MMA heavyweight world champion. (Jon Hernandez/CBC - image credit)
Arjan Bhullar of Richmond, B.C., has just been crowned ONE MMA heavyweight world champion. (Jon Hernandez/CBC - image credit)

This weekend, Arjan Bhullar of Richmond, B.C., was declared the mixed martial arts (MMA) heavyweight champion of the world, becoming the first person of South Asian descent to win the title.

His second-round technical knockout win against five-year champion Brandon Vera is the result of "a lifetime of work," Bhullar said.

"I feel amazing," the 34-year-old told CBC's Gloria Macarenko.

"I feel very fortunate, very blessed and excited for what comes next."

Sportsnet radio host Randip Janda, who has been following Bhullar's career for 15 years, called Bhullar a local legend and a stand-up fighter.

"Knowing his history ... it was a special moment," Janda said.

"When he sets out to do something, there's no half measures."

Wrestling roots

Bhullar has wrestled for Canada in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Pan American Games. He said he was "born into" wrestling, after his father took up the sport upon immigrating to Canada from India.

"Wrestling is a big deal back home," Bhullar said.

"My dad picked it up pretty quick when he got here, didn't know the language, family didn't have much in our pocket, but they knew wrestling."

He's been wrestling, he said, "since I was in diapers."

Bhullar's MMA coach, Adam Ryan, said he knew Bhullar had the skills needed to be successful in MMA from his history of wrestling, including how to train, follow diet and nutrition plans, and how to work hard.

"I knew he was coming in with a tremendous foundation," Ryan said.

He's been coaching Bhullar for about seven years, the entirety of his professional MMA career, and they've travelled all over the world together for training and matches. Unfortunately, due to quarantine rules, Ryan was unable to accompany Bhullar to Singapore for the championship match.

"It was a hard decision," he said.

The night of the big fight, Ryan was driving home after practice with some of Bhullar's teammates, and felt emotion rush over him. He pulled over and wrote a poem expressing his desire to be at the fight with Bhullar, and he sent it to him that night.

"Anyone that's ever done anything dangerous and intense can understand," he said. "It's a special feeling."

"I wish I could've been there."

Indian heritage

Bhullar takes pride in his Indian background, particularly in the context of his athletic achievements.

"Every step of the way I've been representing my culture and my roots," he said.

"My parents weren't able to do that when they came over, they stood out. It was racist times back then, and they were told that it wasn't okay to be different. I'm born and bred Canadian and I'm proud of that, and part of that is I can honour my culture, so I speak to that whenever I can."

Bhullar hopes to get to India to share his win with the people of his family's hometown.

"[I] want to take the belt back to our village where the family originally came from," he said.

That trip, however, will have to wait as that country deals with a nationwide outbreak of the B1617 coronavirus variant. More than 25 million people have been infected with the virus in India.

"There's someone in each family that's dealing with this," Bhullar said.

"In certain parts of India, it's so bad that they're not even able to give proper funerals, like there's no place to cremate the bodies, even."

He said he plans to use his platform, as MMA heavyweight champion, to help with the situation there.

"This is the first time a fighter of Punjabi background, of South Asian background, has won a title in MMA," Sportsnet's Janda said.

"There's always discussions about a pioneer and what a pioneer means — Arjan Bhullar has lived that life."

Janda described Bhullar as an international role model, and said one of the things he loves most about Bhullar is his authenticity.

"The guy you see in the ring making those post-match comments, the guy you listen to on the radio, or maybe you've seen him in the community, he's that guy."

LISTEN | Arjan Bhullar's interview with CBC's On the Coast: