When you take your first steps in the Akhara, you know your life will be anything but ordinary. Akhara in Punjabi means dojo, community centre, or place of learning. It was here, out on his family's farm in Richmond, British Columbia that Arjan Singh Bhullar was raised. To say wrestling is in his blood, is an understatement.
Bhullar is Sikh and Canadian. His family's roots can be traced back to the Northern Indian State of Punjab, in the region of Jalandhar. Boldness and sacrifice run in the family when Bhullar's great grandfather took the brave gamble of traveling to the Canada of 1904 in search of greater opportunities. Over one hundred years ago the journey was much different than it is today. Steamship via Hong Kong and across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean to a destination that was not so welcoming to Asians in those days. A long, arduous voyage with an uncertain outcome at the end was what awaited those who felt their destiny lay in Canada. Not everyone was allowed in. Many Sikhs were turned away due to laws specifically discriminating against Asians and thus many potential Canadians decided not to come at all.
Bhullar's great grandfather's gamble paid off. But if the journey to Canada was hard, it was only the beginning. Upon arriving in Vancouver, he managed to get a job working on the Pacific railway. He worked and lived alone without family for five decades before finally, in 1959, he was able to bring his son-in-law, Arjan's grandfather, to Canada. Bhullar's grandfather was made of the same stuff as his father-in-law. Making a similar voyage, Bhullar's grandfather arrived in Canada without a dollar in his pocket and a pregnant wife and six children he had no choice but to leave behind. He too managed to find a job in Canada working at the sawmill. Bhullar's father was born soon after but it wasn't until 1971 that he finally met his own father. Each generation of the Bhullar family dedicated years of sacrifice and hard work to bring their children to Canada.
Bhullar admits to having a much easier childhood than his father who also worked in the sawmill like his father before him. But as opposed to just enjoying what his forefathers had built, he looks to add to his family's legacy while at the same time carving one out for himself. He instead reached even farther back into his roots, to the way of life of his ancestors who practiced the ancient art of Pehlwani.
"The struggles and sacrifices my family made were instilled in me from a young age. I was taught to have a bigger purpose in life."
For many Sikhs living abroad, wrestling was about paying homage to your roots, as a lot was left behind during immigration. As Bhullar explains,
"Since the beginning of time India has been invaded via the North, that's Sikh territory. Everyone came that way: Muhammad Ghori, Genghis Khan, the British. India used wrestling as a form of defence, it's a pure sport and we're very proud of our bloodline."
Continuing to practice Pehlwani in Canada had its practical purposes as well. Bhullar's father grew up in a generation where you were to taught not to walk on the same street as white people. Getting beaten up or having your turban knocked off was just part of life back then. Being a member of the high school wrestling team was a way for Bhullar's father to protect his own, to find common ground with his peers, and it gave him something to excel at. It also created a lot of prestige in the homeland; despite graduating only from high school and working a blue collar job, Bhullar's father was held up on a pedestal in India because of his achievements in wrestling.
Bhullar's Dad was an Olympic level wrestler who was considered for the 1998 games, but due to unforeseen circumstances he was not able to represent his country. It was his father's unfulfilled dreams that made Bhullar's Olympic fire burn more fiercely. Bhullar took no short cuts and won the national title every year since his first attempt in Grade 10. He then went on to win a bronze medal for his university at the World Championships, and a gold medal for Canada at the 2010 Commonwealth Games; he was the only Sikh Athlete to win gold that year and did so by beating India in the final. Two years later Bhullar walked out in his turban to represent Canada in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Now, officially set to make his debut on Sept. 9 at UFC 215, in Edmonton, Bhullar has expanded his team. He trains under Jay Jauncey for his striking, Adam Ryan for his BJJ, and regularly visits AKA in San Diego for some fine tuning. But it's those first steps taken in the Akhara that shaped Bhullar into the fighter he is today. Bhullar is set to be the first ever Sikh, and first ever South Asian to compete in the UFC and might be the fresh face needed to help the UFC expand into South Asia. While his family didn't originally support his transition to MMA, they've come a long way. Bhullar feels, that while there are the obvious dangers involved in fighting MMA, something else contributed to India's reluctance to adopt the sport.
"You can't go on live TV and curse or talk about someone's mother. I think that's why, despite a deep history of wrestling, the UFC hasn't really taken off in India."
Bhullar's ultimate goal, winning the UFC Heavyweight Title, is something he has carved out for himself. After offers came in from the WWE, Bhullar admits it was a strategic and calculated decision to sign with the UFC. He had done everything he could in the sport of wrestling and still was passionate about competition. Not wanting to be on the road, the newly wed Bhullar prefers to stay at his family's compound in Richmond where he lives with 20 other family members.
After his gold medal win at the Commonwealth Games, he went back to his family's village in India where his great grandfather made that fateful decision to leave that set in motion the lives of four generations of the Bhullar family. There, he built an Akhara for the community, in his ancestral home, to use. He goes on to explain how being a fighter in the largest MMA promotion in the world gives him a platform to be able to reach out to other kids. His Akhara on the family farm in Richmond has over 15 kids training there, free of charge.
It took two generations of sacrifices, sustainable only by love, to get Bhullar to where he is today. That act of giving makes people so much more than just individuals, so much more than just champions. It's what good families are in their truest essence, the ability to give and give even when there is nothing left to give. That selflessness repeats itself and Bhullar's legacy will be passed on just as his forefathers' and ancestors' were. That rich tradition of Pehlwani in a modern form for a modern age. And so, representing Canada, his Akhara, and his South Asian heritage, Arjan Singh Bhullar's UFC debut is the latest culmination of a unique family's history in Canada.