Singh Crowned King: How Arjan Bhullar’s Big Win Changes the Face of MMA
This is a high-level chess game of fists, elbows, knees, and shins, each fighter trying to guess what the other will do, and each launching blows where they think the other will be. He’s winning and his confidence is high. With 2 minutes and change left in the round, he nails a right handed straight punch to his foe’s body that causes his opponent to stumble backwards in pain. He ducks an incoming right hand blow that narrowly misses and grabs his enemy’s waist, forcing him down to his knees.
He never lets go of his opponent, channeling Hanuman, the God of Wrestling himself. His foe squirms and tries to get up but has nothing up his sleeves. His “headache makers” to the side of his opponent’s head all go unanswered over the next minute. The referee yells in his opponent’s face: “Defend yourself!” but he’s seen enough. It’s over. The referee stops the domination. The brutalization.
The commentary team go wild on the broadcast, proclaiming that “India has a heavyweight world champion!”
Arjan Bhullar, the new World Champion, walks around the cage and eventually over to his team. They all embrace, basking in the moment of victory together. He steps away and takes a moment.
“The age of India is upon us!”
“The big, bald, and powerful, Arjan Bhullar!”
A First from South Asia
On May 15th, 2021, Canadian-born Arjan “Singh” Bhullar, 34, made history by becoming the first fighter of South Asian-descent to win a major Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) world title through ONE Championship, a Singapore-based MMA, Muay Thai and kickboxing promotion.
A relatively new (under three decades old) sport, MMA requires high-level competencies across a mixture of different martial arts. Practitioners dedicate lifetimes to specializing in a specific grappling (e.g. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) and a specific striking (e.g. Muay Thai Kickboxing) discipline, to the point of competency or mastery, combining them both together in combat.
The new Champ, Arjan Bhullar, for instance, was born into a wrestling family, practicing Kushti or Pehlwani, a form of wrestling practiced within the Indian subcontinent, from a very, very, young age, which became the basis of his fighting style. He found a lot of success as a wrestler prior to breaking into MMA professionally, as a member of Simon Fraser University’s storied wrestling program. He competed in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the 2007 Pan American Games (where he clinched Bronze), and the 2010 Commonwealth Games (where he won gold), representing his birth country of Canada.
On top of this life-long relationship with traditional Indian wrestling, he’s trained at the world-famous American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), which in recent years has spun out world champions including Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. At AKA, Bhullar works to further his wrestling but also hones his striking in Kickboxing.
Challenging the Diasporic Narrative
“Every step of the way I’ve been representing my culture and my roots,” Bhullar told CBC News shortly after his championship win last month.
Representing his roots has been at the forefront of his intentionally curated image. At ONE Championship, he’s made a name for himself: when making his walk-out entrances for his fights, Bhullar holds a “Ghadda” - a weapon of war that the God of wrestling, Hanuman himself would carry into battle. The Ghadda represents strength, courage, and righteousness, and is often given as a trophy in wrestling in India. Bhullar received his from an iconic, internationally-renowned, mid-century, Indian wrestler named Dara Singh, who gave the Ghadda to Bhullar just before he passed away in 2012.
While the Ghadda certainly adds a flair to his entrances, there is a deeper story to his outward appearance. Bhullar is avenging his parents, who emigrated to Canada and had to deal with racism and forced assimilation. They shared with him stories of being told to not look different or speak differently, and not being allowed to express themselves for who they were culturally and where they came from. Bhular’s philosophy in life and fighting has been directly influenced by his parent’s experience: “It’s good to stand out, good to be different [and] represent your culture,” he says during an interview with MMA journalist, Ariel Helwani.
Earlier in his career when he was signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s #1 MMA promotion, Bhullar fought as valiantly outside of the cage as he did in it for his right to stand out and represent himself: he aggressively lobbied the owners of the promotion who had previously stopped him from wearing his turban while making his entrance walk. The organization cited their exclusive apparel sponsorship deal as the reason why Bhullar wasn’t allowed to wear his religious headwear.
“She said you can't wear anything that conflicts with what Reebok offers ... like the headbands or hats, and I'm like, but look, this is a turban. Reebok doesn't offer a turban!" he told the CBC News in 2018.
As comedian Hasan Minhaj said in his 2017 special, “Homecoming King”, while the previous generation feel that part of immigration and assimilation is to endure racism as part of the “American Dream Tax”, the next generation -- those that would see Bhullar as their contemporary - grow up with the audacity to dare of equality. Following this burgeoning trend of 1.5 and 2nd generation bicultural immigrants challenging the racist norms that Western societies uphold, Bhullar ultimately had his way and became the first fighter in UFC history to wear a turban to the cage.
Bhullar’s win should remind South Asians both at home and abroad, that there is a long lineage of combat sports in our history: whether it’s Malla-yuddha, an ancient form of combat originating in India, or Pehlwani, which was introduced to the subcontinent by Mughal emperor Babur who was a wrestler himself (both arts that were ultimately combined to give rise to the modern form of kushti), fighting is in our blood.
Moreover, this rich combat history in the South Asian region has led to many other pioneering firsts when it comes to MMA in the past decade, including Pakistan’s first international MMA fighter, Pakistan’s first international female MMA fighter, the first Indian-born UFC fighter, and Bangladesh’s first international MMA fighter.
With this particular historical moment, Bhullar’s win ushers in a new era of hope and possibility for South Asian fighters and aspiring fighters alike. They now have someone who looks like them dominating at the upper echelons of combat sports. And given South Asia’s contention in combat sports on the world stage thus far, the crowning of the “big, bald,” and brown Champion spells the coming of many highly competitive South Asian fighters in the coming decades.
Bringing MMA to India
With organized, regulated, mixed martial arts being very new, and with the sport only recently being proven to be a massively profitable industry, India as a country has been understandably underexposed to the sport. India’s primary introduction to MMA has been via popular Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt’s promotion, “Super Fight League” which has been panned as having low quality talent and being mired in controversy involving its owners, including Sanjay Dutt’s prison sentence and accusations of his connections to the 1993 Mumbai terrorist attack that killed 257.
Bhullar, being the fresher, more legitimate, and more exciting face of Asia’s largest sports media promotion (ONE Championship), is better poised to tap into the country’s 1.36B+ population, and he believes he can do it by leveraging an existing fan base for professional wrestling. As soon as he won his MMA championship, Bhullar challenged professional wrestling champions in AEW and WWE, the two largest pro wrestling companies in the world. It is clear that as much as he is an Olympic-level athlete, as much as he is a vicious fighter, Bhullar is also a visionary businessman.
The Champion had foresight in 2019 when signing with ONE, to ensure there was language in his contract to keep all of his doors open so that he could perform in the theatrical world of professional wrestling and fight in mixed martial arts simultaneously. It helps that he already trains with the first WWE Champion of Indian-descent, Jinder Mahal whom he considers a friend. But these next steps that he’s paving for himself are part-dream, part-business plan: India is WWE’s biggest market with over 20 million people from the country tuning in to watch the big pay-per-view events. And with WWE reportedly generating $1B in revenue in 2020, Bhullar knows that India is an untapped market when it comes to MMA.
In addition to crossing over to the world of sports entertainment (which is what professional wrestling is often called), Bhullar will also have to defend his title, likely against South Korea’s “Mighty Warrior” Kang Ji Won sometime in the next 12-16 months as he begins building his championship legacy.
A Lightening Rod of Hope
Bhullar’s brand is built on relatability and authenticity. He wants those who come from the same ethnic background as him to know that he eats the same food, speaks the same language, and that his family comes from the same villages back home, and that the possibilities for the next generation are endless.
Sport can be a tool that brings people together, and especially during a time like now - as the world continues to dig itself out of the hole that the pandemic has left - having a figure to look up to as a lightning rod of positivity can bring hope during a difficult time.
They say that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” But Bhullar seems to be off to a good start, using his newfound platform and power to advocate for his community to go and get vaccinated.