Kaur displays her gold medal for becoming the flyweight national champion of India and the president’s award of excellence. (Photo courtesy of Evinka Singh)

Dedication, Dance and Violence

Meet the Sacramento State student who moved from India to study mixed martial arts with Urijah Faber

Back Web Only Dec 21, 2023 By Celine Imensek

This story was written by a student journalist as part of our Media Makers Project. To learn more, click here.

How do normal college students choose to spend their time enjoying the last days of a golden October? Maybe they sit outside and get a cup of coffee with their friends. Aranjot Kaur chooses differently. While her classmates soak up the sun, she spends up to five hours a day in a hall illuminated by fluorescent lights. The air is filled with the smell of old sweat that permeates the mats at Team Alpha Male headquarters. But Aranjot, called Aran, doesn’t mind.

Two months ago, at only 18 years old, she moved from her home in India to Sacramento, California. For one, she had always imagined herself settling down abroad. For the other, she came to pursue her dream: becoming a professional mixed martial arts athlete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of the world’s most influential MMA organizations.

‘Every day I had one goal’

Aranjot Kaur fights during a competition in Uttar Pradesh, India. (Photo courtesy of Aranjot Kaur)

In 2018, a friend told her about a fight that would be one of the biggest in the UFC’s history: Conor McGregor versus Khabib Nurmagomedov. At the time, Kaur had no idea what MMA even was. But when she looked it up and started watching fights, something clicked: “I knew I wanted to try it. It felt like something I am. Like a part of me.”

Even though many people describe martial arts as a kind of dance, it’s a brutal sport. Not many parents would like their daughter to perform it, but Kaur’s accompanied her for trial training on Feb. 17, 2019, a date Kaur still remembers. A year later the pandemic hit, school closed, and the only thing she could look forward to was her training. A transition began in her mind: “All my dedication went to MMA. Every day I had one goal — learning everything.”

In that period, she decided she wanted to become a professional fighter. She worked up an amateur record of 3-0-0 and became the under-18 MMA national champion, fooling herself into thinking she could somehow progress further while staying in India. But when she told her stepfather Jatin she had her best shot in the States, he urged her to go. “He knew I was serious and convinced my mom to let me go. He is the reason I can do MMA,” Kaur says.

MMA was illegal in California

While her mother Gurvinder, a businesswoman, shaped her determination and vision, Jatin, who hates being called Kaur’s stepfather, helped make the dream a reality. Now, his daughter is training in one of the world’s most renowned gyms, founded and led by the UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber.

Faber started with MMA while the sport was still banned in California. He was a wrestling coach at UC Davis and fought the illegal sport underground in Native American casinos. When the sport became more accepted and prominent, he was one of the pioneers for the lower weight classes. Today, many well-known names train in his gym, and he was pleased when Kaur joined. 

“It means a lot when somebody steps out of their comfort zone into a scary place like a new MMA gym,” Faber says about Kaur. “Additionally, she is a girl, a lighter weight class, and is taking a risk. That tells me she is serious.”

He thinks Kaur needs to focus on building her strength and conditioning as well as adding more techniques. Other than that, he sees her potential in being where she already is: “By training in this room with other UFC fighters at her age, she is on the track to make it.”

No plan B

Kaur shares this point of view and is certain that she is in the right place — locally and mentally — to perform at her best. “The training is well-rounded, and I miss nothing from home. Sure, I miss my mom, but I never feel that void, always happiness,” Kaur says.

For her, family is one of the most important parts of her life. Helping her mother navigate through a difficult divorce brought them together closely. Kaur could always count on Gurvinder to support her decisions, so she wasn’t anxious about leaving her behind: “I was looking forward to what I had to do. We have a dream of me getting into the UFC, and I am going to fulfill it.”

Some might think the pressure of that goal and responsibility could get to a teenager, but Kaur never even made a plan B. She focuses on what is in front of her. Right now, she wants to work on her record, win around seven more fights and become a professional in the next two to three years.

So she comes to the fluorescent-lit gym every day to practice with different partners. Everybody watching her may understand what people mean by “dance.” They see the rhythmical back- and- forth and the intense eye contact. Besides that, they may notice how little smirks on Kaur’s face alternate with stern focus, and maybe they understand why she chooses this over a coffee with friends like a normal student.

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