WHEN ARJAN SINGH BHULLAR announced his move to ONE Championship, it took a lot of people by surprise.
The Indian-Canadian wrestler, who won a Bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, had built up quite a resume in his pro MMA career. When he joined ONE, he was on a 2 fight winning streak in the UFC, with a 9-1 overall record.
Landing a talent of his stature was a significant win for ONE Championship, who are looking to increase their reach in the Indian market following a broadcast deal with Star Sports and their plans to host their first event in India.
Immediately after joining the promotion, Arjan sought to put himself on a track to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship, accepting a bout with former Cage Warriors Heavyweight Champion Mauro Cerilli (13-3), who challenged for the ONE Heavyweight title against Brandon Vera last year.
The fight was supposed to take place at the "ONE Championship: Dawns of Heroes" event on August 2nd in the Phillippines. But unfortunately on the fight week, Cerilli fell sick and the bout had to be cancelled.
It was a disappointing trip for Arjan, who travelled all the way from Canada but had to return without a fight. But the ONE management made up for that by immediately booking them again, this time at the biggest fight card in the history of the organization; "ONE Championship: Century" in Tokyo.
Arjan now had a prime spot at one of the landmark events in the history of Asian - and perhaps global - MMA, opening the main card on the Part 2 of a fight card, to be followed by no less than 3 title fights; including a superfight where Heavyweight champion Brandon Vera will challenge for Aung La Nsang's Light Heavyweight belt.
When TFG caught up with Arjan, he seemed fully aware of the significance of being placed on the same card with the champion,
"It has always been my dream to become the champion. I've been thinking about it ever since I started my journey in Mixed Martial Arts... Brandon Vera is a great fighter, a true champion. He has done done some great things for the Filipino people. I want to do the same for India."
While Arjan Singh Bhullar has never been shy about laying out his long term goals, he isn't looking past his opponent either. Mauro Cerilli will be a tough opponent, and Arjan said he was giving the Italian his full attention,
"Cage Warriors are a great promotion and he was a champion there. He has a judo background and likes to grapple. But I'm going to be better than him at every department. If he wants to stand up I'll stand. If it goes to the ground I'll do that, too. I'm going to put the AKA grind on him, and get the finish."
AKA, i.e. the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, is where Arjan trains along with other world class Mixed Martial Artists like Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Luke Rockhold etc.
It's out of this institution that Arjan has been orchestrating his ride up the professional MMA ladder, winning the BFL Heavyweight Championship, making it into the UFC and now starting a new chapter in his career.
But why did he, at a time when he could have had a considerable momentum going in the UFC, did he decide to leave? Arjan said,
"The UFC have no plan for India. The way it works is if they think you are important to their company, they make things happen for you. But that wasn't happening with me. ONE made the best sense going forward. My contract with ONE guarantees me more fights per year than UFC. That lets me do my own thing and build up to challenge for the title."
And there's also been a considerable change in the way Arjan has been promoted; in the past few weeks ONE have released multiple feature videos showcasing him and is journey in MMA.
Fighting outside North America for the first time, Arjan got a taste of his new promotional home during ONE: Dawn of Heroes,
"I loved the experience. ONE are the best in terms of production and the fight week process. Everything went smooth, we were made very comfortable during the lead up. Even the Vice President came up to me to ask if everything is going well, if I needed anything. That never happens, a VP coming up to you and making sure of you're okay. I was very impressed by their hospitality and professionalism."
Finally making his ONE debut, Arjan said he felt the last couple of years had been a particularly great to help him mature as a fighter, not just through wins but also through the only loss of his pro career to Adam Wieczorek,
"I was doing well in that fight until I fell for that omoplata. I have to take responsibility for the loss. It's good to go through something like that early, instead of having it happen at a title fight. It also gave me insights on how to better focus for a fight. It was going too smooth for me back then, I was thinking too far ahead."
With ONE, however, it's clear that bringing Arjan on board is the result of a considerable amount of looking ahead. ONE have an extensive plan to reach out to the Indian market, and Arjan is fully aware of how it aligns with his personal aim to popularise MMA in India,
"Right now there's nothing other than cricket that's really popular across the whole country. But MMA has a huge potential there because some of the base sports like boxing and wrestling have a long history in India, they're very popular in certain parts. And people who understand boxing and wrestling get MMA easily, it's intuitive. It's an attractive combat sport with a lot of action so it captures your attention and keeps you watching. That's a great asset for a new sport, you don't have to explain MMA to people to get them to notice it."
With ONE set to have their first event in India next year, Arjan said he was eager to be a part of it,
"It would be a big step forward for Indian MMA. I don't know where they will do it but when you're having an event that big Delhi and Mumbai make for the best venues. It's been a long time since I have competed in India and I'm looking forward to it."
But while the event is set to be a blockbuster featuring established athletes like Arjan, Gurdarshan Mangat and possibly the likes of Ritu Phogat, Puja Tomar and Asha Roka, a lack of grassroots infrastructure and guidance continues to make it hard for new talent to develop in India. Arjan said he was aware of the situation, and said fighters should take their chances abroad,
"Given the current situation, you should build yourself in one of the base sports like boxing or wrestling and then look for the best MMA gym you can find outside India. MMA is a global sport so it's very important to make sure the coaching and training you're receiving is up to that standard."
As for himself, Arjan said training with AKA in the USA and travelling to Asia for the fights was not going to be an issue,
"I travelled to the Philippines and it was great, I wasn't bogged down by jet lag or anything. I have been in Asia many times during my wrestling career so it has prepared me for the experience... AKA is the best place to be, with so many world champions around it gives you the push to become one... wins and losses are part of the game, but when you have an atmosphere like that you don't get off track no matter what."
Apart from his fight on Sunday, Arjan said he was also keeping an eye on the main event of the night, since it features Brandon Vera, the current ONE Heavyweight champ. He signed off saying,
"I want to build the sport in India. It's best to to that with the belt around my waist."