Coming off the longest layoff of his professional career as the world grappled with COVID-19, Arjan Bhullar was anxious to return to the cage for his showdown with Brandon Vera. When he left the UFC, turning down an offer with the promotion to sign with ONE Championship in 2019, he did so with an eye on making history as the first Indian-origin fighter to win a high-level MMA title.
“I went through a range of emotions (throughout the pandemic), but just wanting to compete, not taking anything for granted anymore,” Bhullar told Uproxx Sports. “Anytime, anything could happen and this could be over. So (the layoff) really rejuvenated me for this next stretch of competition.”
That focus and energy was on full display in mid-May, when Bhullar used just two rounds to knock out Vera and claim the heavyweight crown.
“I’m huge on legacy,” Bhullar said. “(Becoming the first Indian world champion) will remain forever and ever. It’s a lifetime of work. My family, myself, my coaches and teammates, all throughout the years, just a culmination of a great body of work.”
Bhullar admitted part of his decision to join ONE was the expectation that things could happen “quicker” with ONE than it might have with the UFC. The 35 year old needed only one fight — a 2019 decision victory over Mauro Cerilli — to earn his title shot. But now, with the title in tow, Bhullar is in the driver’s seat of his own legacy.
“The structure at ONE, they value their guys. They have a lot of the same Asian values I grew up with,” Bhullar said. “And I wanted to be able to create superheroes. I wanted to have my own brand, telling these values, what I’m about and all of those things. And I’ve done a lot with ONE over the last couple of years. I don’t have to be something I’m not. I don’t have to make up a gimmick or say things I wouldn’t otherwise say. I want to bring honor to my family and respect to my community. I carry a mace that represents my wrestling lineage. And I wear a turban and that represents my faith and culture.”
While Bhullar has yet to nail down his next opponent in ONE, he has large ambitions that range from winning a pro wrestling championship to fighting some of the all-time greats in MMA.
“I want to (be a professional wrestler and fight in MMA),” Bhullar said. “I have done some training with Jinder Mahal in the past. We had conversations (about pro wrestling) even before the Vera fight. We’re gonna get on the same page as far as how we move forward.”
Bhullar has a clause in his contract that gives him the opportunity to test his skills in the squared circle, with options between the likes of WWE and AEW.
“I never go where the money is, but I like to be shown respect and appreciation. It’s about relationships and what makes sense long-term,” Bhullar said. “But the perfect scenario for me is winning a pro wrestling title, where we have both industries by the throat.”
While ONE’s relationship with TNT could theoretically open doors to AEW with some crossover programming, Bhullar is open to either primetime promotion.
As far as opponents go, Bhullar wants a shot at Jake Haggar or Bobby Lashley, and it doesn’t matter whether that fight is inside the cage or squared circle. But if we’re talking about strictly inside the Octagon, Bhullar can envision a shot against Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones. That may be even more realistic of an option than even Bhullar thought months ago after ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong fueled the fire of a mega event featuring ONE and UFC fighters.
— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) May 23, 2021
“I want to get Stipe,” Bhullar said. “There’s some history with my guy DC that I’d like to exact some revenge. He’s supposed to be the heavyweight GOAT, so I would love that. I was a part of every one of those camps with DC and I didn’t want to see him go out (with a loss).”
For Bhullar, whatever is future looks like, it’s all about creating a legacy he can be proud of.
“I’ve trained with the best all-time with Cain (Velasquez) and DC,” Bhullar said. “Legacy is huge for me, so when it’s all said and done, I just want to look back and have a smile on my face.”