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Arjan Bhullar hoping to be role model for young Indian athletes that he never had growing up

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It was a spectacle like few you’ve ever seen on an early UFC prelim fight.

Rogers Place in Edmonton rocked and rolled during unbeaten Arjan Bhullar’s debut Sept. 9 at UFC 215. The heavyweight from the Vancouver suburb of Richmond is the first Indian-Canadian competitor in UFC history, and he was cheered on by an arena filled with waving Indian flags and fans wearing turbans as Bhullar earned a convincing unanimous decision victory over Luis Henrique.

“I don’t think anyone debuted like that before on the second fight out, out of the card,” Bhullar said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “You saw the Indian flags, you felt the energy. There was a chartered jet, 737, coming out of Vancouver filled with our people. We had people from the UK, California, Toronto, India fly out. We sold out Union Hall for the after-party.”

But this is far from an overnight success story. Bhullar’s grandfather emigrated to Canada from in 1959, bringing his wife and son over 11 years later. Their hard work helped give Bhullar a chance to succeed in wrestling and now MMA. In doing so, Bhullar hopes to be the role model for aspiring Indian athletes that he never had as a kid.

“Growing up, there were no Indian athletes I could look up to,” Bhullar said. ... “When people used to come into school and talk to us about growing up and struggling, I could never relate to it. They didn’t look like me, they didn’t come from the family I came from or had the culture and upbringing I had. So that had a huge impact for me.”

Bhullar’s amateur wrestling talents took him all the way to the 2012 Olympics, where he represented Canada. After his wrestling career ended, he considered going into professional wrestling where his friend, Jinder Mahal — who was supposed to walk out with him Saturday, but couldn’t get out to the show due to Hurricane Irma -- is the first-ever WWE champion of Indian origin.

But while Bhullar respects what pro wrestlers do, he ultimately decided it wasn’t for him.

“After the Olympics, that conversation was had,” Bhullar said about pro wrestling. “I gave Jinder a call at that time, because he was on his first [promotion]. I’m like what’s that about, man? I reached out, they had me down to Florida at the [WWE] developmental center, and I just looked at the lifestyle of the thing. He told me how long they’re on the road, and how grueling it is, and I’m a family guy, man, I can’t be on the road as much as they are.”

Instead, he went for a career in MMA, and found himself at American Kickboxing Academy, a newbie suddenly in the room with the likes of Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier.

“To be honest it was intimidating, it was nerve-wracking, it was exciting, it was exhilarating, it was all those things, man,” Bhullar said. “It was still competition. I knew I could wrestle but I didn’t know what all this punching and kicking business was about. But I liked it. I’ve been a fan of boxing forever, so I take it, I studied that sport and I enjoyed watching it for many, many years, I wonder what it’s like to go in there and see what these guys do for training. That’s when you know whether you can do it or not. I get down there, the big boss Cain, he’s the man, he’s the champ at the time, he came up, introduced himself, Javier Mendez, Bob Cook, Daniel [Cormier], Shawn Bunch. ... They showed me so much love, I know that was where I wanted to be. You have these assumptions, these guys are champions, they’re on pay per view, but it’s those guys at the top who showed me what the team was about.“

From there it was a fairly quick hop to the UFC, getting in after six pro fights. But there was one snag, as Bhullar was not allowed to wear his turban into the cage. From the sound of things, if Bhullar had cleared things sooner with official UFC apparel supplier Reebok, it probably wouldn’t have been an issue. Bhullar is a follower of the Sikh religion and that is their customary headwear.

“I’ve seen before, Khabib [Nurmagomedov] walked out with his [headpiece] so I know they’re not that stringent on this kind of stuff, so that’s why I didn’t come out sooner because I didn’t think it was going to be an issue,” Bhullar said. “This isn’t some other company you’re representing. This is you, you’re representing yourself. So there was a Rebook issue there, and there was some ignorance. The feedback was, ‘you can’t wear it on your head, can you wear it somewhere else?’ You don’t wear a turban somewhere else. I don’t think you know what this is.”

Ultimately things were cleared up, and Bhullar expects to be able to wear the turban out to his fights going forward. The way he sees it, it’s a way to honor his past and his future.

“I thought, I have to make something of myself,” Bhullar said. “So that sacrifice when my grandfather came over, my parents came over, it wasn’t for nothing. I remember who I am, and the next generation, they’ll know that one of our own did something. So that was my motivation.”