NEW YORK — Tom Aspinall expected to be here all along. That he’s spent the week leading into UFC 295 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden doing interviews, taking pictures and shaking hands is what he expected all along. The only thing he hadn’t been planning on was throwing hands Saturday instead of just shaking them.
But when heavyweight champion Jon Jones suffered a pectoral muscle injury that required surgery less than two weeks before he was supposed to fight Stipe Miocic in the main event, Aspinall’s life turned upside down.
The UFC had planned for Aspinall to attend UFC 295 as a guest fighter. He would do interviews, make appearances and generally help promote the card as well as himself as perhaps the next heavyweight title contender. In addition, he was also expected to do a bit of work for the British television broadcast. Jones’ injury changed all that. Instead of commenting on the heavyweight title fight, Aspinall would be competing in it.
For the second UFC pay-per-view event in a row, injuries forced a dramatic change at the top of the card. Alexander Volkanovski stepped in to replace Charles Oliveira against Islam Makhachev in the main event of UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. And on that same card, Kamaru Usman stepped in to replace Paulo Costa against Khamzat Chimaev.
Jones’ injury, which UFC president Dana White said could keep him out for as long as six months, forced Aspinall into action. The UFC wanted to keep the Jones-Miocic fight together, so it postponed it when Jones needed surgery and replaced it with Aspinall against Sergei Pavlovich for the interim heavyweight title. Pavlovich has something of an edge, though, because he’d been designated the back-up for Jones-Miocic and had been training vigorously in preparation in the event he was needed.
Aspinall was training, though it wasn’t the intense, fully focused type of training a fighter endures when he’s about to compete. And despite the losses suffered by both Volkanovski and Usman, Aspinall had no qualms about stepping up and agreeing to fight the fearsome Pavlovich on less than two weeks’ notice.
Asked if the fates of Volkanovski and Usman ever impacted him, he was unequivocal in his response.
“No, not really, to be honest,” Aspinall told Yahoo Sports. “I think you’ve got to be in it to win it. And if I’m not there, then I’ve definitely not got a chance. At least on Saturday, I’m going to be there. I’m going to have my shot. And, yeah, I’ll give it my best go. And that’s all I can do.”
The line has moved ever so slightly, and is basically a dead even fight. Just the fact that Pavlovich, who is 18-1 with 15 knockouts, has been training for a fight and Aspinall hasn’t seemed to push the outcome in the Russian’s favor.
Aspinall, though, has been viewed as the future of the heavyweight division alongside Pavlovich for a long time. When Francis Ngannou parted ways with the UFC following the resolution of his contract dispute and was granted free agency, the UFC made Jones versus Ciryl Gane for the vacant belt. There had been a sense of inevitability for years that Jones, the long-time light heavyweight champion and by most accounts the greatest MMA fighter in history, would eventually move up and claim the throne at heavyweight.
He did that at UFC 285, submitting Gane in two minutes with a guillotine choke. That made him the man, but it did nothing to lessen the belief that Aspinall would one day ascend to the top of the sport‘s glamor division.
UFC Hall of Famer Michael Bisping said he believed that by the time Aspinall was done, he’d be the greatest heavyweight of them all. That’s high praise, but it’s indicative of the respect Aspinall has garnered in the business.
He’s a soft-spoken, humble guy who was awakened in the middle of the night and asked if he’d agree to face Pavlovich for the interim title. He said yes, and went back to sleep. When he awakened in the morning, he wasn’t sure if he remembered correctly.
“I was honestly thinking it might be a dream,” he said of getting the call to fight for the title. “Like, I’m not even joking. I wasn’t sure if I had imagined it or not. I was like, ‘Oh my God! Is this really happening?’ But I knew the title fight was going to come sooner or later, so, yeah, I was obviously happy to take it. … I’m going to live my dream on Saturday night. There’s nowhere else in the world that I would rather be on Saturday night, other than Madison Square Garden, fighting Sergei Pavlovich.
Should he win, as he believes he will, he’ll have to deal with the inevitable question regarding the legitimacy of his belt and whether he will need 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 chose to leave the UFC. In much the same way, Aspinall won’t feel like he’s anything less than the actual champion should he beat Pavlovich.
It figures to be a memorable fight in what could be a long string of them for the 30-year-old Aspinall.