Arjan Bhullar had to keep one of his life's greatest achievements a secret for over two weeks. On April 28, he fulfilled a longstanding ambition of becoming a world champion in MMA when he knocked out Brandon Vera in a bout recorded at the same card as One on TNT 4. But he had to wait until May 15, when the bout was broadcast as part of ONE:Dangal, to officially celebrate his win.
"It's one of the weirdest things in my life. It was as if I had a secret that I couldn't tell anyone," he told ESPN on Tuesday. He isn't complaining though. "It was as if I got to celebrate it twice. Once in private and the second time on May 14 with the rest of the world," he says.
The 35-year-old Punjabi Canadian from Vancouver, British Columbia, has been busy ever since. "Your life changes instantly. I've been so busy. I'm getting calls from the media, from family and just people who want to celebrate your moment with you," he says.
Bhullar isn't content just arriving. Rather than soak in his victory, he's already rushing full steam ahead, and not just with plans to defend his title. "I remind myself why I'm doing this and what the vision was. Yes, it was to be a world champion but that wasn't it. It wasn't to stop just there. We have to keep this going. I want to defend, I want to cement myself as one of the greatest who has done it. I'm a world champion and that can't be taken away, but I want to build on it," he says.
Bhullar says he wants to take on South Korea's Kang Ji Won -- a fighter on a 5-0 streak who knocked out the highly-vaunted former Greco-Roman world champion Amir Aliakbari of Iran in his previous bout. Bhullar hopes to make the fight within the next six months.
That's of course depending on how his pro wrestling career takes off. In his post-fight interview, Bhullar had said he was looking to step into the wrestling ring. He insists it wasn't a spur of the moment statement. "It's (pro wrestling) something we talked about before signing. I had it written into my contract. It was something One agreed with. They wanted to create superheroes. That's what I want to do too. I've always loved pro wrestling. As a kid you see a full stadium, you see these superheroes doing incredible things. I've always loved that. Whether it's the Olympics, MMA, or pro wrestling. It's the same visual so I connect with it," he says.
Should he take up that career path, he will probably get a few tips from his good friend Yuvraj Dhesi, better known to pro wrestling fans as the former WWE champion Jinder Mahal. "I've already trained with Jinder in the past. I feel like if I put my mind to it, I can do it. I will do both absolutely. No one has done both sports at the same time. I want to be the first," he says.
"When my parents first came to Canada, there was open racism. They were told it wasn't ok to be different. Or live differently and uniquely. The bigger my platform becomes the more I want to use it to say, 'yes, it's okay to be that'." Arjan Bhullar
If Bhullar feels comfortable stepping into as many shoes as he plans on doing, it's because he has some experience already slipping into multiple roles. One of which was balancing his twin identities as a Canadian and a Punjabi. The latter was played up by One, who promoted Bhullar as the first Indian to win a world MMA title. While this seemed a forced fit to some, considering Bhullar was born and raised in Canada, had won medals for that country and even represented it in the Olympics, the fighter himself has learned to be comfortable with both identities.
"It's something I've struggled and done my entire life. I'm born and raised Canadian and I love that. I've represented the Maple Leaf for many years but my blood is Indian. It comes from Punjab. When my parents first came to Canada, there was open racism. They were told it wasn't ok to be different. Or live differently and uniquely. The bigger my platform becomes, the more I want to use it to say, 'yes, it's okay to be that'. It's something I'm proud of. I want to bring awareness of my culture and people. I had the opportunity to do it," he says.
There's another aspect to this as well. Canada has had no shortage of MMA icons. "Canada has a (former UFC champion) George Saint Pierre, there's been a (former UFC welterweight champion) Carlos Newton. There are gyms all over the country. In India, there's not so much of that. Representing those people gives them hope. If Arjan can do it, so can we. Any time you give that to people, it's a good thing. I've tried to balance both identities for many years. I've done my Canadian identity proud. I've given them a lot for giving my family a future. If I could do something for India which gave my family life, then I'd like to do that too," he says.
The idea that he has a role to play in MMA's growth in India is the reason why Bhullar also keeps an eye out on what the other Indian fighters on the One roster are doing. He was particularly disappointed with atomweight prospect Ritu Phogat's split-decision loss to Bee Nguyen. "I don't think Ritu lost. I think she did enough to win. I think it was a close fight. I was disappointed to see that," he says.
But just as he recovered from a loss of his own in the UFC (by submission to Adam Wieczorec in 2018), Bhullar feels Ritu too can bounce back stronger. "I was dominating that fight before I lost concentration for a second and got submitted. I think it was the same for Ritu too. She just needs to understand not to leave it in the judges' hands. Maybe she thought she was already winning and she didn't put her foot on the gas as much as she should have. She needs a little more efficiency in wrestling and that will come with time. But it's not the end of the world. I think she will come back strong. If Indian MMA has to get strong she will have a big role to play in that," he says.