K.B. (The Bengal) Bhullar stepped away from mixed martial arts six years ago after watching his younger brother suffer severe facial injuries in a bout.
Bhullar went back to school and earned a second degree in commerce, majoring in accounting and finance. That led to a job with Ernst and Young.
"It was a rude wakening," he said. "It was basically me confronting the fact that I hate, hate, hate this lifestyle and I missed fighting so much. I missed martial arts so much. It made kind of realize that that is what I'm meant to do."
Bhullar quit his day job and returned to fighting two years ago, with brother Kenny's blessing. And on Saturday, the unbeaten Edmonton middleweight makes his UFC debut on a televised card in Abu Dhabi. Replacing Russian Roman Kopylov, who tested positive for COVID-19, Bhullar (8-0-0) faces England's Tom Breese (11-2-0).
Brazil's (Magic) Marlin Moraes, ranked No. 1 among bantamweight contenders, takes on No. 4 Cory Sandhagen in the main event at the Flash Forum.
There have been other twists and turns on Bhullar's journey to the UFC.
The 28-year-old was initially slated to fight on Dana White's Contender Series in June. Then the pandemic pushed it back first to September and then November before he was given a UFC contract directly without having to appear on the feeder circuit.
After months of delay, things happened quickly. The Breese fight was originally scheduled for Oct. 3, which gave Bhullar just five days notice. Then it was delayed a week, to allow for the proper quarantines -- first in Las Vegas and then in Abu Dhabi.
Bhullar, who stands six foot four and cuts down to 185 pounds for bouts, is no stranger to Fight Island. He cornered training partner Tanner (The Bulldozer) Boser, ranked 15th among heavyweight contenders, for an Abu Dhabi fight in July.
Breese, 4-2-0 in the UFC, is coming off a TKO loss in February to Brendan (All In) Allen. Breese, who used to train at Montreal's Tristar Gym, is not your ordinary fighter having openly discussed his battle with anxiety over the years.
Breese has fought just twice since June 2016, spending a total of eight minutes 20 seconds in the Octagon. He suffered torn knee ligaments in 2017, the same year he was declared medically unfit on the eve of a fight with Oluwale Bamgbose.
"He's a very decorated, experienced opponent," Bhullar said. "He's good, but I look forward to the test ... I quite frankly don't care who I'm up against. I just like fighting and I want to fight."
Bhullar is coming off a decision win over former UFC fighter Matt Dwyer in September 2019 for the 185-pound title in the Alberta-based Unified MMA promotion.
Bhullar got into martial arts after being bullied in elementary school. Combat sports run in the family with his father, grandfather and great-uncle all boxing. His mother earned a black belt in judo.
He was 14 when he started taekwondo. A video of a Pride fight between Mirko (Cro Cop) Filipovic and Wanderlei (The Axe Murderer) Silva turned him on to MMA and he started expanding his training.
At university, where he majored in biology, he found it hard juggling his studies and training. So he opted to put the books aside to see where MMA might lead him. He had his first amateur fight in November 2011, following it up with his pro debut in February 2012.
Bhullar won his first four pro fights. Then brother Kenny, who is four years younger, was hurt badly in his amateur debut in January 2014.
Kenny Bhullar sustained broken facial bones in the opening minute of the bout, but kept going. The fight was eventually stopped by the doctor after a traumatizing three minutes.
"I was riding with my brother in the ambulance and I was covered in his blood," K.B. Bhullar said. "And I'm just trying to tell him 'You're going to be OK, you're going to be OK' without even knowing whether he was going to be OK."
The surgeon told them his brother might lose all sensation in his face, as well as his sense of taste.
"That killed me inside," said Bhullar, who felt guilt for getting his brother involved in MMA.
"It forces you to confront that this sport gives you the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows," he added. "And that low was very very hard, seeing your brother go through that pain. And the consequences were extreme."
Hs brother recovered, retaining his love for martial arts although no longer fighting.
"But I didn't handle it so well ... It made me hate the sport for a while and made me not like myself for a while," said Bhullar. "But it kind of forced me to uncover the fact that this sport is who I am, no matter what. I can't change myself. It's embedded in who I am. It's literally made me into the man who I am today."
Bhullar credits his brother for helping him recognize that. One night after a few drinks, Kenny let him have it
"He got really upset at me. He said 'You turned your back on what you love because of me. You were so good. You could have been something with this' ... He said 'I'm OK. What happened to you?'"
Bhullar returned to action in December 2018, some 65 months after his last fight. He has won all four bouts since.
His brother is with him in Abu Dhabi.
"He's been my biggest supporter ... He's taught me you face loss with enthusiasm and you grow from it. That's what he did."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press