Sergei Pavlovich was a great athlete who grew up in Russia. He played a lot of basketball, tried handball and wrestling. But the one thing that was pretty certain, even at a young age, was that he would fight. Those around him almost demanded it.
He grew up in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where it was a given that boys had to fight.
He didn’t have to wrestle bears like Abdulmanap, the late father of UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov, made him do when he was growing up in Dagestan, but Pavlovich did wrestle quite a bit as a kid.
“We grew up in a place where you had to constantly fight for yourself and your rights,” Pavlovich told Yahoo Sports. “You had to be able to be strong. You had to be a strong person to survive there. Growing up, fighting was pretty ingrained in my soul and spirit.”
He is just as menacing as an adult as he must have been to his peers growing up in Rostov-on-Don. He’s 6-foot-1, 260 pounds and has steadily risen to the top of the UFC heavyweight rankings. On Saturday, Pavlovich will face Tom Aspinall for the interim heavyweight championship in the co-main event of UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden in New York after the fight between champion Jon Jones and former champion Stipe Miocic was canceled due to a Jones shoulder injury.
Pavlovich was preparing to be Jones-Miocic’s replacement, but it was no shock when he received the news that he would fight Aspinall. The two had been eyeing each other for some time and were supposed to fight each other twice, but that didn’t happen.
But they are remarkably similar. Pavlovich is 31 years old and has a record of 18-1 with 15 knockouts. Aspinall is 30 years old and has a record of 13-3 with 10 knockouts. Aspinall is 6-5, so slightly taller than Pavlovich, although Pavlovich has an 84-78 inch advantage in reach. Both weigh about 260.
In the UFC they are even more similar. Both are 6:1 in promotion. Aspinall’s only UFC loss came 15 seconds into the first round of a fight with Curtis Blaydes, when he seriously injured his knee. Pavlovich’s only UFC loss came in his debut, when he was stopped by Alistair Overeem in the first match.
But aside from the loss to Blaydes, Aspinall is 6-0 in the UFC with four first-round knockouts, one first-round submission and one second-round submission. Pavlovich is 6-0 after the loss to Overeem and has won all six games by knockout in the first.
“I always knew we would meet at some point [in a big fight]said Pavlovich. “Of course I didn’t expect it when I did [agreed to be the backup for Jones and Miocic]but I knew it would happen eventually and I think Tom would say the same.
He actually said the same thing. And it’s one of those fights that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats from the start.
Aspinall has the shortest average fight time in the UFC at two minutes and 19 seconds. Pavlovich has the third-shortest average fight time at 2:23. Drew McFedries is No. 2 with an average of 2:20.
Pavlovich has struggled through the competition since losing to Overeem. He said he learned more from that fight than any other, but shied away from talking about it much. He didn’t want to come across as apologizing, but the fight was in Beijing and word was he didn’t arrive nearly early enough.
“Please understand that I am in no way trying to make an excuse for this loss and I understand that a loss is a loss,” he said. “I understood it as a man. But the fact is, and I’ve said this before, I only got to China four days before the fight and on the day of the fight I was still dealing with a pretty serious jet delay.
“I learned from that. Part of being a professional is knowing these things, and I’ve learned how important it is when fighting in a different time zone to have enough time to recover so I can perform at my best. And that’s something I’ve done since then and that’s why I say I learned so much from that fight.
While Aspinall may be the better pure striker, Aspinall is probably better on the ground. But Pavlovich trained for a time at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, and two of the heavyweights he used to play with were former UFC champions: Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier.
It’s been five years since he’s been with AKA, he said, but he acknowledged he’s learned a lesson from them.
Given their record, it will probably be a short night either way. Pavlovich emphasized that he did not think that way and was prepared for all eventualities.
But when you have two heavyweights with a combined record of 31-4 and 28 finishes, there’s a good chance it’ll go to the fifth round. For Pavlovich there is only one thing on his mind.
“The UFC belt,” he said. “That’s all that matters, getting that belt.”