NEW YORK – Tom Aspinall expected to be here the whole time. Spending the week leading up to Saturday’s UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden giving interviews, taking photos and shaking hands is what he expected from the start. The only thing he didn’t plan on doing was throwing hands on Saturday instead of just shaking them.
But when heavyweight champion Jon Jones suffered a pectoral muscle injury requiring surgery less than two weeks before his scheduled fight against Stipe Miocic in the main event, Aspinall’s life turned upside down.
The UFC had planned for Aspinall to take part in UFC 295 as a guest fighter. He gave interviews, made appearances and generally helped promote both the card and himself as perhaps the next contender for the heavyweight title. In addition, he was also expected to do some work for the British television show. Jones’ injury changed all that. Instead of commentating on the heavyweight title fight, Aspinall would take part in it.
At the second straight UFC pay-per-view event, injuries forced a dramatic change at the top. Alexander Volkanovski replaced Charles Oliveira against Islam Makhachev in the main event of UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. And on the same card, Kamaru Usman stepped in to replace Paulo Costa against Khamzat Chimaev.
Jones’ injury, which UFC president Dana White said could sideline him for up to six months, forced Aspinall into action. The UFC wanted to keep the fight between Jones and Miocic together, so when Jones needed surgery, they postponed it and replaced him with Aspinall against Sergei Pavlovich for the interim heavyweight title. However, Pavlovich has some advantage as he was named Jones-Miocic’s replacement and has been training intensively to prepare in case he is needed.
Aspinall trained, although it wasn’t the intense, fully focused type of training that a fighter goes through when he’s about to compete. And despite the losses suffered by Volkanovski and Usman, Aspinall had no qualms about stepping in and taking on the formidable Pavlovich with less than two weeks’ notice.
When asked whether the fate of Volkanovski and Usman ever influenced him, he answered unequivocally.
“No, not really, to be honest,” Aspinall told Yahoo Sports. “I think you have to be there to win. And if I’m not there, I definitely don’t have a chance. At least I’ll be there on Saturday. “I’m leaving” to get my chance. And yes, I will do my best. And that’s all I can do.
The line has shifted ever so slightly and is essentially an even fight. Just the fact that Pavlovich, who is 18-1 with 15 knockouts, was training for a fight and Aspinall doesn’t appear to have swayed the outcome in the Russian’s favor.
However, Aspinall has long been considered the future of the heavyweight division alongside Pavlovich. When Francis Ngannou parted ways with the UFC after resolving his contract dispute and was granted free agency, the UFC chose Jones and Ciryl Gane for the vacant belt. For years there had been a feeling of inevitability that Jones, the longtime light heavyweight champion and by most accounts the greatest MMA fighter in history, would eventually rise and claim the heavyweight throne.
He did this at UFC 285, defeating Gane with a guillotine choke within two minutes. That made him a man, but it didn’t change the belief that Aspinall would one day rise to the top of the sport’s glamor class.
UFC Hall of Famer Michael Bisping said he believes Aspinall will be the greatest heavyweight of them all when he’s finished. That’s high praise, but it also shows the respect Aspinall has gained in the industry.
He’s a quiet, humble guy who was woken up in the middle of the night and asked if he would be willing to face Pavlovich for the interim title. He said yes and went back to sleep. When he woke up in the morning, he wasn’t sure if he remembered correctly.
“I honestly thought it could be a dream,” he said of getting the call to fight for the title. “I am not joking. I wasn’t sure if I had imagined it or not. I thought, ‘Oh my God! Is this really happening?’ But I knew the title fight would come sooner or later, so of course I was happy to take it. … I will live my dream on Saturday evening. Nowhere else in the world would I do that. I would rather fight Sergei Pavlovich on Saturday evening than at Madison Square Garden.”
Should he win, as he believes he will, he will have to face the inevitable question of the legitimacy of his belt and whether he needs to beat the Jones-Miocic winner to validate himself. But as great as Jones is, he didn’t beat the champion. He won a vacant belt by defeating Gane after Ngannou decided to leave the UFC. Similarly, Aspinall will not feel like he is less than the actual champion should he beat Pavlovich.
It should be a memorable fight in what could be a long series for the 30-year-old Aspinall.