‘Scary’ gamble pays off spectacularly for Aspinall

As Tom Aspinall waited in his locker room, making the final preparations before facing Sergei Pavlovich at UFC 295 for the interim heavyweight title, he thought to himself “what am I doing”?

And the risk was greater than most could have imaged, as unknown to everyone apart from Aspinall’s close circle, an injured back meant he was was not able to fully train on any of those days.

It was a huge gamble to face fearsome Russian knockout artist Pavlovich under such circumstances, but one which paid off spectacularly as Aspinall superbly knocked him out inside 69 seconds.

Still chewing on a celebratory pizza, Aspinall revealed the injury in his post-fight news conference.

“I think this will take a while to sink in to be honest, it’s been an absolutely crazy two and a half weeks,” said Aspinall.

“I got the call [to fight] three or four days after I pulled my back really bad. I could barely move or do anything. It’s still not great – I’m going to have to get it treated properly when I go home.

“Too many people in this game, and I think in life in general, hide away from fear. I openly admit I’m scared but I’m going to do it anyway, and that’s when I do my best.”

In victory, Aspinall becomes just the third British UFC title holder in history after Michael Bisping (middleweight) and Leon Edwards (welterweight).

Aspinall has been tipped to reach the top since making his UFC debut in 2020, and a glance at his resume proves why.

Using extraordinary speed and footwork for a heavyweight, combined with his punching power and black-belt-level jiu jitsu, Aspinall has secured seven finishes in eight UFC fights, with the only blemish on his record coming against Curtis Blaydes last year when he suffered a serious knee injury.

At one minute 32 seconds, Aspinall has the shortest average fight time in UFC history (minimum of five fights).

His skill, confidence and composure in the octagon is a result of a lifetime spent training, where under his father Andy’s tutelage in Manchester, an eight-year-old Aspinall started his martial arts journey.

‘Making team-mates proud means the world to me’

“For years my dad’s had this garage where we train some unorthodox stuff, and he just launches tennis balls at my head and I have to move out the way,” said Aspinall, before looking over at his father, who is waiting to the side, off-camera.

“But it’s paid off tonight, hasn’t it dad?

“We’ve been through hundreds, thousands of hours of conversation. It’s not just in the gym, it’s the drive to the gym, it’s the drive back, in the gym, at home, going to competitions as a kid every weekend.

“There’s a million things he’s told me but the most important thing, every single time, is just enjoy yourself, and that’s what I always try to do.”

Speaking to BBC Sport last week, Aspinall’s father said he always believed his son would be a world champion.

“When I finished work [to teach jiu jitsu] I was sure he could be really good at something,” he said.

“Tom listened to instructions about the grappling that I knew. He was always good, and took instructions well, and always got better. And he was always really dedicated and his thing is, he always wants to get better at doing stuff.

“I kind of live my life through my kids. I finished work because I wanted to be with my kids. I’m happy that they want to be with me, and I’m proud of him.”

After Aspinall injured his knee during the defeat by Blaydes last year, he made some key lifestyle changes, including bringing in a number of fellow heavyweights to help him train.

Aspinall paid tribute to every person who has helped him on his journey to the title.

“There have been a million people involved with this career, not just my dad. I’ve trained at gyms all over the world, I’ve boxed with the Furys for years, I go over to Holland to train,” said Aspinall.

“And I just hope everyone who’s been a part of that can be like I’m proud of him’. For someone to look at me and be like ‘I’m part of that journey’, that means the world to me.”

What’s next for Aspinall?

With heavyweight champion Jones recovering from injury and unlikely to fight for at least eight months, the future of the heavyweight division remains unclear.

Following Aspinall’s win over Pavlovich, UFC president Dana White said the promotion still plans on matching Jones up against former two-time champion Stipe Miocic, which was the original idea for the card in New York.

That means Aspinall will potentially have to wait around a year for an undisputed title fight, or defend his interim title in the meantime, which is a rare option in the UFC.

“Right now I just want to chill for a bit and see what happens but ultimately I just want to fight Jon Jones,” said Aspinall.

“I think we should do it in Manchester, that is something special and I’m sure the UFC would be on board with that.”

Aspinall’s performance caught the eye of Jones, who paid tribute to him on social media after the win, writing: “Tom, congratulations on the interim heavyweight championship belt! That was an awesome performance!”