‘Can you fight in 17 days? Something crazy is happening’

Venue: Madison Square Garden, New York Date: Saturday, 11 November
Coverage: Follow text commentary on BBC Sport website & app from 05:00 GMT on Sunday, 12 November.

The time is 06:00 GMT and Tom Aspinall stirs in his sleep at his home in Greater Manchester.

Aspinall is used to being woken up by one of his three children at this time in the morning, but, unusually, it is his phone which disturbs him this time.

Blurry-eyed, the 30-year-old reaches over, picks it up, and to his surprise, sees it is someone “really high up in the UFC” ringing him.

Before he is able to answer the call however, the phone goes dead, but, unable to go back to sleep, a curious Aspinall rings them back.

Aspinall never expected what he would hear next.

“Listen, are you healthy and will you be ready to fight in two weeks? There’s some crazy stuff happening on the Madison Square Garden card,” said the voice.

A shoulder injury to heavyweight champion Jon Jones meant his fight with Stipe Miocic at UFC 295 in New York on 11 November was off, with the promotion wanting to match Aspinall up with Russia’s Sergei Pavlovich for the interim title in its place.

Despite having just 17 days’ notice, which gives Aspinall only around 10 days to train because of travel and media commitments, he accepted the fight.

“Who I was speaking to on the phone was like ‘you catch up on some sleep now’. And I was like ‘how am I supposed to sleep when I’ve just found out I’m fighting for the heavyweight title?’,” said Aspinall.

“The UFC announced it as soon as I accepted it, so my phone was going absolutely wild. There was a million people coming at me, media, and all kinds.

“It was a mix of emotions to be honest. It took me a couple of days to get settled in and to get my head around it.”

Aspinall will become the first Briton to challenge for a UFC interim heavyweight title and should he win, will join an exclusive club of British fighters to win belts in the promotion.

Michael Bisping (middleweight) and Leon Edwards (welterweight) remain the only two British fighters to become UFC champions.

Despite having 17 days to prepare, as opposed to the standard eight-week training camp, and facing a fighter with six straight first-round knockouts in Pavlovich, Aspinall says the opportunity was too good to turn down.

“A lot of people wouldn’t take Pavlovich on a full camp – I know that for a fact, never mind two weeks notice,” said Aspinall.

“I took the fight because I believe in myself. I’ve been having a lot of success recently, coming back from a year off with injury, and I want to stay active. And opportunities like this don’t come around all the time.

“The UFC believe in me – I’ve been doing great work for the UFC. You can ask anyone who works there, I’ve never said no to a fight yet. I’m ready for it.”

‘Fighting Pavlovich is scary’

Aspinall, who sits at fourth in the UFC heavyweight rankings, has had a remarkable start to his career in the promotion, finishing six of his seven fights since debuting in 2020.

The only blemish on his UFC record is a defeat to Curtis Blaydes last year after Aspinall seriously injured his knee in the first round, but he returned to action in July, knocking out Marcin Tybura inside 73 seconds.

At one minute 36 seconds, Aspinall has the shortest average fight time in UFC history (minimum of five fights), but in Pavlovich is facing the athlete with the second shortest of an active fighter, at two minutes 22 seconds.

The 31-year-old has won seven of his eight fights in the UFC, all by first-round knockout, with his sole defeat coming against Alastair Overeem on his debut in 2018.

Aspinall says fighting Pavlovich is daunting, but is relishing the prospect of a bout which will entertain the fans.

“It’s scary. But I love that, I absolutely love that,” said Aspinall.

“That’s what I want – I don’t want to fight someone who people are like ‘Tom’s going to run over him’. I want challenges, I want someone who’s going to take me to the next level.

“I think both of our resumes speak for themselves. So I think you’ve got to expect fireworks. I think it’s two absolute machines going against each other and it’s not something you see very often in the heavyweight division.

“You see a lot of brawls and stuff, but not with the finishing ability that we’ve both got, so it’s going to be exciting.”

‘It’s not about two weeks, it’s about the last 15 years’

The injury to Jones caused the third high-profile reshuffle of a UFC bout in the space of a few weeks for the promotion, with Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman stepping in on short notice for bouts at UFC 294 in October.

Both Volkanovski and Usman suffered defeats, illustrating the perils of taking a fight without a full training camp.

But there are examples of fighters who have been successful at taking last-minute fights in the past, including Bisping.

Remarkably, the 17 days Aspinall had before facing Pavlovich is the same amount of time Bisping had to prepare for his middleweight title bout against Luke Rockhold in 2016.

On that occasion, Bisping knocked out Rockhold in the first round to become Britain’s first UFC champion, and Aspinall is taking inspiration from the historic moment.

“I think so yeah [believing in fate]. I think you can’t not when it’s something like that,” said Aspinall.

“Bisping is a really good friend of mine. He’s not just a UK legend but an MMA legend.

“He called me and we had a conversation and he said something that really helped. He said ‘listen, it’s not about two-and-a-half weeks, this is about the last 15 years of your life.

“Focus on all the sacrifices you’ve made, all the wins you’ve had previously. It’s about the last how many years of your life’.”