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Ex-Olympian Arjan Bhullar carries warrior lineage, hopes of India with him in UFC

For Arjan Bhullar, combat sports are not so much of a decision as they are life itself, breathed into him through the winds of the past. There’s no alternative when your family has its own akhara, a wrestling dojo. When your first steps are on its mats, when you grow up in a household packed with more than 20 people, when your dad is a decorated wrestler, when your warrior roots go back thousands of miles and hundreds of years, it becomes a part of you—an indispensable piece of your being, same as an organ.

It all began 7,000 miles across the world from his Richmond, British Columbia cranberry farm to his family’s origin town, the eponymously named Bhullar, in the Punjab state in India. Men in that region are indoctrinated into wrestling at an early age, a tradition born of a time where such a thing was necessity in defense of the nation. When the invading armies of Alexander the Great and the British attacked India from the north, the Punjabis were the first line of defense. At all times, it was their duty to be strong, healthy and ready for battle.

“That warrior lineage is something to be prideful of,” Bhullar told MMA Fighting. “It’s something I wanted to learn about, as far as what makes me tick and why. It goes back thousands of years and it’s how my story started.”

The connection from past to present is a profound one for Bhullar, who is now a UFC heavyweight preparing to compete against Adam Wieczorek at this Saturday’s UFC on FOX 29 event. As much as his own dreams, he carries the weight of his lineage and the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. The first Indian-descent UFC fighter, Bhullar has many heady goals in front of him. He wants to help the UFC move into India. He wants to uphold the family’s history and pride. He wants to win a UFC championship.

Last September, he got off to a good start in the organization by defeating Luis Henrique in a unanimous decision. The fight itself didn’t get a lot of eyeballs in the west. Taking place at UFC 215, it aired on UFC Fight Pass, the organization’s digital platform. But back in India, there was plenty of interest. Bhullar may have been born in Canada, but he has deep ties to his ancestral region. His family still owns property there, and he’s visited nearly every year since he was a child. Soon after his victory, he visited again and felt first-hand the buzz of the region to see one of their own succeeding.

“It was cool to see how excited people were,” he said. “I had people telling me, ‘When are you coming here? We can’t wait. We need an event here!’ Out here, if you want to be successful, you have to work with Bollywood. When those celebrities attach to something, it’s successful. And they’re all excited about the fight game, so I’m excited about it. The next 12 months are going to be really interesting.”

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole, Bhullar brings together several of the most favorable elements of stars like Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier. Like the former, he has the potential to stir a passionate fanbase that can prop up and ultimately explode his stardom. India, at a population of over 1.3 billion people—Bhullar cleverly uses the hashtag #OneBillionStrong—also has the world’s fastest-growing economy, according to Financial Times. With success, it’s easy to imagine him as a national hero.

His similarities (and connections) to Cormier are more numerous. Like the current UFC light-heavyweight champion, Bhullar excelled in wrestling all through his youth, eventually winning a collegiate scholarship (to Simon Fraser University), and continuing his career on the international scene. Like Cormier, he eventually qualified for the Olympics, only to fall short of his golden goal. Wrestling for Canada in the 2012 games as a 120-kilogram freestyler, Bhullar finished 13th. Like Cormier, the result came as a stinging disappointment.

By then, Bhullar had already been thinking about mixed martial arts. Years before, in his early 20s, he had met Cormier on the wrestling circuit, and spent time with him in the training room. Cormier was someone he had looked up to, along with “King Mo” Muhammed Lawal. Both of them had already transitioned to MMA and found success.

“These were the older guys, and I was like a sponge,” he said. “DC was the captain of the the U.S. team. He was one of the guys who I looked up to and studied. All of those things, it was like a dry run for MMA. Who would’ve thought that’d be my opening for MMA down the road?”

But first, he had to process his failure and disappointment. From the time he was a kid, all he wanted to do was wrestle. College was a means of developing and sharpening that skill, and when he fell short, he did something he had never done before: he withdrew from the combat sports world, at least temporarily.

“It was a hard process,” he said. “I had to really reflect. I wanted the experience to burn, I wanted it to hurt. It was almost like a mourning. I had to go through the grieving process and be by myself for a while to deal with the emotions. You train your whole life for that moment, and it’s over in the snap of a finger. That’s hard to deal with, and you have a bunch of thoughts, you have bitterness and anger, and I had to go through the whole process.”

When he came out the other side, the future was clear to him. He was still young, just 26, and wanted to compete. Yet he didn’t want to wait four more years for another bite at the apple. The obvious answer was the sport he was seeing his old friends doing so well in.

He began his new journey with a few months of boxing, later visiting California to train alongside his old friends Cormier and Lawal at American Kickboxing Academy. He started his pro career and the wins started coming. By the time he got to the UFC, he was 6-0.

After beating Henrique, he moved to 7-0. It was a joyous occasion for him and the family that came along to support him, except for the UFC’s decision to disallow him to wear his turban to the cage.

Since then, the promotion has reversed course, and on Saturday, Bhullar will wear the traditional headdress. The night’s meaning will be additionally magnified for Bhullar because May 14 is Vaisakhi, a holiday for Sikhs worldwide, commemorating the birth of the religion.

“It’s cool how things work out sometimes in life,” he said. “Those things that sometimes seem not meant to be, sometimes work out even better than you imagined.”

Now 31, Bhullar has every intention of expediting his timeframe for contention. Even though his friend Cormier could soon be the heavyweight champion, he insists that they’ll never fight, that Cormier’s 2019 retirement forecast means everything will fall into place. By the time that rolls around, he expects to be nearing the division’s top five. Then, everything is in play. The title, the India event, everything.

“Every sport needs their athlete, and India is very familiar with me,” he said. “The history of wrestling that comes from our country, the excitement that surrounds this, this sport is ready to blow up there, and I want to be on that ride.”

If it’s true that every family is a story, Arjan might be the Bhullar’s logical conclusion: steeped in a warrior lineage, eager with ambition, modern and sharp. Forged by forebears, yet self-driven by his own experiences.

“That fire burns,” he said. “I’m still on the same mission. There’s a hurt and a goal that I’m still wanting and needing to satisfy.”

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