Issue 202

January 2024

Uncover the behind-the-scenes story of Tom Aspinall’s path to UFC glory amid unforeseen circumstances.

On November 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Tom Aspinall strode into the Octagon to once again test a theory he’s been working on for quite some time: that he has the skills, abilities, and general makeup necessary to be the best heavyweight on planet Earth. The funny thing is, he wasn’t supposed to be there that evening. That night at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” was supposed to belong to Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, the reigning and former UFC heavyweight champions who were slated to headline the promotion’s annual trip to “The Big Apple” and close out UFC 295. But a few weeks before the event, Jones suffered a torn pectoral tendon and was forced out of the contest, prompting the UFC to move in a different direction. They reached out to Aspinall, offering up an interim title opportunity against streaking Russian Sergei Pavlovich, a menacing figure riding a six-fight winning streak, where all of his triumphs had come before the first round expired. Aspinall agreed, but even then, getting to The Garden and making it through the contest were still giant obstacles the mild-mannered man from Atherton needed to clear.


“I didn’t have a visa until the day before I left for New York, so I was never actually sure that I could go until the day before,” Aspinall said, reminding me that his ability to travel to the States for the event wasn’t guaranteed. “I took the fight, a few days later, trying to get my visa and stuff — and it’s really, really difficult in the UK to get an American work visa on a week’s notice; it’s near impossible. So I was constantly on the phone, filling out forms, not knowing if I needed to go to London, which is five hours away from where I’m from, and then the back goes.” And then the back goes out. Three days after agreeing to the biggest fight of his career, Aspinall pulled his back to the point where he could not train, turning an already challenging assignment into an even more difficult task. But for the British heavyweight, the fact that nothing else about the fight had come together the way he would traditionally like decided to press forward and roll the dice easier. “Looking back on it, I think if I would have had a perfect eight-week camp like I like, something like that would have completely messed me up mentally,” he said of the back issue, which instead became another piece of his hastened preparation to face off with Pavlovich. “Ideally, I would have liked to be in the full swing of training, but to be honest, the fact that so many other things were going wrong as well, I just thought, ‘F**k it — it’s just another thing going wrong; I’ll just deal with it.’” Deal with it, he did.


Less than a minute into the contest, Pavlovich hit Aspinall with a left hand on the jaw that jostled his mouthpiece and gave him a taste of the devastating power his opponent was brandishing. It prompted Aspinall to get behind his jab and rely on his footwork, keeping the hulking finisher off-balance by mixing in a quick but heavy low kick that caused Pavlovich to buckle ever so slightly. As he circled to his left and planted his feet, Aspinall fired off a right hand that caught the upright Russian in the temple, shaking his equilibrium and causing him to teeter in place. Another quickly followed, landing in the same spot, causing Pavlovich to collapse backward to the canvas. The Brit pounced, driving home a trio of hammerfists before referee Dan Miragliotta shoved him aside, signaling the end of the bout. The whole thing lasted a tick less than 70 seconds. Tom Aspinall was your new interim UFC heavyweight champion.


Speaking with Joe Rogan in the Octagon following his victory, he was gracious as always, encouraging people to take the opportunities that scare them as he had, dedicating the victory to his father, Andy, and acknowledging that while Pavlovich scared the bejesus out of him, he believed in his abilities just as much. Several weeks removed from the win, with more time to reflect on everything that transpired and think about his place in the heavyweight hierarchy, Aspinall is already starting to get that competitive itch again. “It feels good, obviously — it feels really good — but I think now that time has passed a little bit, I just feel like I’ve got more to prove,” he said, his focus already shifted from the past to the present and his future. “I’m just excited to be coming back, doing it again. “I’m more hungry to keep going. I’m more hungry for more success. I’m just not satisfied — I’m nowhere near satisfied, to be honest, so I’ll keep going until I am satisfied. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some really, really good moments, especially the last fight, so it’s not that I don’t appreciate those because I do,” clarified Aspinall, who has gone 7-1 inside the Octagon, with seven finishes, and his lone setback coming in the summer of 2022 when he suffered a non-contact knee injury 15 seconds into his main event bout with Curtis Blaydes. “But I feel like I want to be undisputed in every sense of the word. I don’t want to be the interim champion. I don’t like the fact there is a guy out there, and everyone is saying he’s better than me, and I’m not just talking about Jon Jones; I’m talking general. “I want it to be unquestioned that I am the best heavyweight on planet Earth, period. I don’t want that to be a thing anymore, that there is some other guy. There is always going to be a next opponent, of course, but I don’t want anyone to be like, ‘This is the guy; not Tom.’ I want that to be gone.”


Just a handful of weeks after winning the interim strap, the usually low-key new titleholder turned up in a bit of a social media storm. Speaking with the UFC’s first British champion, Michael Bisping, on his YouTube channel, Aspinall said that he believed Jones should be stripped of his title, citing recent instances where the UFC has kept divisions moving forward and the championship in play in instances where sitting champions have suffered serious injuries like the one incurred by Jones. As you would expect, that kicked off a tsunami of activity on social media, with folks lining up on either side of the debate and “Bones” quickly taking to X to dismiss the newly minted titleholder’s assertion. In a much more “on brand” reaction, Aspinall replied to Jones’ response by saying he was right and apologizing. "When I said that he should get stripped, I kind of said it wrong; I used the wrong word,” Aspinall said when asked about his comments and the interaction with Jones, whose timeline to return remains unclear. “What I actually meant is that I think he should vacate the title, so I used the wrong terminology on that. “Obviously, I was hoping nobody would notice that I used the wrong terminology, but anything I say goes right across the MMA world now. Jon saw it, and I felt like I needed to apologize. I felt like I was wrong saying it. I completely agree with what he said — he doesn’t deserve to be stripped; I said the wrong thing. “It’s absolutely nothing personal against Jon Jones,” continued the British standout. “The only thing with Jon Jones is that people are saying he’s better than me. I respect everything he’s done. As he alluded to, he has way more accomplishments on his resume way more legends on his resume than I do, but that being said, I want to be the guy, and I think I am the guy, and up until this point in my career, I’ve done everything that shows that I’m the guy. “All I’m missing is the opportunity to prove it, and I want it, and that’s all.”


When short-notice championship fights come together like Aspinall’s interim heavyweight triumph over Pavlovich, the truncated run-up to the contest often results in fascinating pieces of the story that led to the fight getting brushed aside or overlooked. Everyone is caught up in the commotion of a highly anticipated clash falling apart at the 11th hour and the direction the promotion opts to take, leaving the fact that Aspinall and Pavlovich were going to face off for championship gold with less than three weeks to prepare standing as the main narrative element surrounding the fight. Sure, there is the customary technical analysis and thorough, thoughtful discussion about how the two match up stylistically — plus all the usual nonsense that floods social media in these situations — but a few months removed from the memorable night in Madison Square Garden, two elements that went under-discussed as the fight world readied for this contest feel like they deserve to be brought into the light a little more. “What would you have said on July 24, 2022, if I told you that in less than 16 months, you’ll have UFC gold draped over your shoulder?” I asked Aspinall, referencing the day following his clash with Blaydes in London, where he suffered multiple torn ligaments in his right knee. “I would have struggled to believe it, to be honest,” he answered, eschewing the usual bravado most of his contemporaries would display if faced with a similar question to give an accurate, honest assessment of things. “First of all, find a professional athlete that has had a full knee reconstruction, and they’re back competing within a year; they’re pretty difficult to find, mate. “Just getting back to competing has been massive for me because, at one point, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it anymore when I injured that knee. “Obviously, winning the title is just,” he added, his words trailing off before he picked up again. “I always knew that I could win the title, to be honest. As I’ve said, heavyweight MMA, you’re never guaranteed anything, but skill-for-skill, I’m the best out there; I know that I am. I knew that I was in for a good shot, but I didn’t think it would be 16 months after the biggest injury of my career, so I’m very happy with the way that things have panned out, obviously.”


Injuries are never a good thing. However, positive moments can come from those negative events, and that was the case for Aspinall, as the other element that seemed to slide under the radar in the preamble to his punch-up in New York City came together while he was convalescing and contemplating his next move. When Aspinall arrived on the UFC stage, he was training at Team Kaobon in Liverpool, with his father working with the team as its Brazilian jiu jitsu coach. He’d returned to mixed martial arts after dabbling in professional boxing, where he trained alongside heavyweight champ Tyson Fury and posted a pair of rapid victories under the Cage Warriors banner before hitting the ground running inside the Octagon. Faced with a lengthy recovery timeline following his knee injury, Aspinall sat down with his father, who has been his coach since childhood and present at just about every training session the 30-year-heavyweight has ever gone through, to figure out the best direction to take once he was cleared to get back on the mats and work his way back to the cage. “It was black and white for me, especially when I injured my knee,” began the interim titleholder, laying out the thought process that led to his decamping from Kaobon and setting up a small team of his own, with his father at the helm. “Me and my dad just decided I need to be training with big guys every day, simple as that. There is no malicious intent or anything like that, but I needed to know where I was at, physically and mentally, on a regular basis. “For example, in my fight with Pavlovich, I could have been in better shape, for sure, 100 percent. I would have loved an eight-week camp or a 10-week camp for a title fight, obviously, but I didn’t have that — I had two weeks — and the only reason I had the confidence to say yes to something like that is because I know where I’m at every single training session because I’m training with guys my size. “I didn’t know that before; it was a bit of a guess, and that was affecting my confidence a little bit,” Aspinall admitted. “I wanted to make sure that I know where I’m at every day. “I remember thinking about it when I got the call about Pavlovich, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I sparred with this guy last week, I reversed him in this position, I got up from the bottom on this other guy, and then I got out of the way of this guy’s shots; my conditioning held up okay.’ I couldn’t do that before. I didn’t have anything — I couldn’t compare my physical condition to anything, really, because I wasn’t training with big guys on a regular basis, and that’s what I needed. “Everyone is a full-time MMA fighter,” he said of the crew he’s surrounded himself with, including KSW heavyweight ruler Phil de Fries and DWCS grad Mick Parkin. “We’ve got guys fighting in top-level promotions like Brave, KSW, et cetera, et cetera, all around the world. “These are not your local doorman turning up for a scrap on a Tuesday morning: these are guys that are training twice a day, and they’re dedicated to the craft just as much as me and Phil and Mick are. These are high-level guys.”


Being in a room with other big bodies daily has turned that shallow puddle of doubt into an ocean of confidence for the deceptively big yet tremendously dynamic heavyweight athlete. Still, it’s the direction and guidance from his father that Aspinall cherishes and values the most. “My dad is not gonna be the type of guy that sticks his face on the camera and does a million interviews, post on social media — that’s not his thing; he’s not there for his own recognition,” he said of his dad, who was one of the first Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts in the United Kingdom and has shepherded his son down the path of martial arts from the time he was seven or eight years old. “I’m incredibly lucky to have him — incredibly lucky. “If I got off the phone with you now and my dad called me and said, ‘D’you know what, Tom — I think you should retire,’ I’d retire instantly; that’s how much his opinion means to me,” declared Aspinall without an ounce of hesitation or wavering in his voice. “He’s been at every training session since I was seven, eight years old, whenever I started — honestly nearly every single training session — and he’ll be there until I stop doing this thing.” Thankfully, that isn’t the direction things are heading. However, at this moment, where things are heading is still up in the air.


When news of Jones’ injury, the postponement of his fight with Miocic broke, and that Aspinall and Pavlovich would be stepping into battle for an interim title instead of the originally scheduled main event, many immediately wondered, “How is this all going to work?” UFC President Dana White quickly declared that Jones and Miocic was a pairing that was staying intact and would be rebooked once Jones had recovered and was ready to get back into the Octagon. But there was no immediate timetable for Jones’ return, nor any guarantees that everything would go smoothly in his recovery from the gruesome injury, not to mention that he turns 37 in the summer, and by that time, he will have fought just once since his narrow win over Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 in March 2020. And then there is Miocic, who turns 42 in August and sauntered out to his seats at UFC 295 like someone who needed knee or hip replacement surgery (or both) and not someone who was initially penciled in to be stepping into the cage to challenge for the UFC heavyweight title that evening. With the date for the postponed undisputed heavyweight title fight still unknown, the interim champion is unsure what comes next and trying to solve an understandable, unpleasant dilemma. “In all honesty, I have no idea right now. I keep going back and forward in my mind with it, and I’m just trying to have a break from thinking about it,” Aspinall said when asked how 2024 could shape up, laughing as he noted that he was still willing to answer the question and address the complex situation he’s currently faced with. “It’s all very political, which is something that I didn’t really expect being at the top of the division. I thought it was like I win an interim title, and automatically, I’m next for the undisputed title, but that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going right now. “I want my next fight to be for the undisputed title, but also, I don’t want to wait two years,” he stated, pointing out one of the issues. “But also, in the same breath, why am I gonna take the fight that nobody wants, on two weeks' notice, in the worst situation possible, risk everything, win, and then give someone else a shot just to swoop in and take it off me? “It’s a tough one; I can absolutely see both sides — I can see why I would wait, and I can see why I would not wait and fight.” Most pundits and fans can, too, which complicates things even more.


There have been 23 previous interim titleholders in UFC history; Aspinall is the 24th. Just three fighters — Jon Jones, Colby Covington, and Tony Ferguson — were stripped of their titles without either defending their belts or fighting for the undisputed championship in their respective divisions. Three competitors that won interim belts defended them — heavyweights Andrei Arlovski and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and bantamweight Renan Barao — and four interim champions were promoted to undisputed status when the reigning titleholder was unable to return to action in a timely fashion or abdicated their throne — Arlovski, Barao, middleweight Robert Whittaker, and featherweight Jose Aldo. Of those 23 athletes, 15 of them went on to fight for the undisputed title in their next fight after winning interim gold, including each of the last four men to occupy the position Aspinall finds himself in now: Frank Mir, Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum, and Ciryl Gane. But with Jones’ return date unknown and Miocic still penciled in as his next opponent, which means the Atherton man could be looking at an extended stay on the sidelines if he’s not keen on putting his belt — and his place in the pecking order — on the line. That being said, his question about taking on and taking down the boogeyman Pavlovich — on short notice — and then affording someone a chance to cut the line by beating him for the interim belt rings out loudly because that’s not really how any of this is supposed to work. You can see why he’s perplexed and uncertain and why everyone wants clarity. “Fighters fight, man, simply as that,” said Aspinall, offering up what felt like both a glimpse into which way he might be leaning but also the kind of pragmatic, “this is just how it is” response that has become his calling card in recent years. “What else am I gonna do for the next however long? “I have absolutely no idea,” he added. “When I get offered a fight, I’ll decide.”


When it comes to getting the opportunity to learn and develop as a British heavyweight, you couldn’t ask for much better than the arrangement Dana White’s Contender Series grad and current UFC heavyweight Mick Parkin has at the moment. Each day, the aspiring heavyweight works with de Fries under the watchful eye of Andrew Fisher as part of the TFT MMA squad in Sunderland. After a five-fight run inside the Octagon netted a 2-3 record and putting together back-to-back wins after splitting his subsequent six appearances, the 37-year-old grappling standout de Fries signed on with Polish outfit Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW) winning the company’s heavyweight title in his debut, and successfully defending it eight times and counting since. When the Aspinall’s set up their own shop dedicated to getting Tom working with big bodies on the daily, Parkin, who had trained with Aspinall a little in the past, was happy to ride shotgun with de Fries and make the nearly three-hour trip southwest from Sunderland to Wigan to work with the now interim UFC champion. “I train with ‘Big Phil’ day-in, day-out,” began the 28-year-old, who went 2-0 in his rookie year on the UFC roster, registering decision wins over Jamall Pogues and Caio Machado to advance his record to 8-0 overall. “We started traveling down because it’s hard to get a big guy training, but down there, they have six guys who are all huge and competitive. “Sometimes the big bodies might be hobbyists, or they might be grapplers, but down there, they’re all competitive rounds. There is a few of us going down, and they’re hard rounds. It’s unheard of anywhere in the world to have that many big guys that are competitive.” While natural ability and talent certainly factor into how successful an individual may be when they step through the gate and into the cage, the reality is that almost no one is so preternaturally gifted as to waltz onto the biggest stages in this sport and succeed.


It all comes with hard work, dedication, and a commitment to improving and doing everything possible to give yourself the best chance to succeed. Parkin is getting double-barrelled exposure to that as he begins his journey at the sport’s highest level. “Nobody is born amazing; everybody trains for it,” said the affable UFC heavyweight. “They show up every day, and all you can do is show up every day trying to get better. “It definitely gives you some belief because when you’re a kid and you’re watching people in the UFC on the telly, you’re like, ‘they’re so amazing,’ because we put them on a pedestal. When you train with them, you recognize they’re just a person, and everybody can get beat on the day and stuff like that. “It’s amazing to be around, and you have to think, ‘Why could it not be me?’” he added. “We’ve all done the same things. They’re dedicated, and I’ve dedicated my life to this now. I’m just trying to get a little better than the week before.” After punching his ticket to the UFC with a first-round submission win over then-unbeaten LFA standout Eduardo Neves, Parkin made his debut in London in the summer, where he was fortunate — and thankful — to have Aspinall around to show him the ropes. “It was super-helpful,” he said of having the interim champ and his father there to help him navigate his first UFC Fight Week. “There were probably a few things Tom didn’t realize at first when he was just new to UFC that I wouldn’t have known.“ I wouldn’t have known to go and see the physios every day. The food thing — I wouldn’t have known they make you meals every day. Supplements — they’ll give you whatever you ask for. "Obviously, him and his dad now know everybody, and they’re both so friendly that everybody speaks to them,” he added with a laugh. “They know everybody in the company now.” Parkin’s second appearance in the Octagon came the week after Aspinall defeated Pavlovich in Las Vegas, where he watched his friend and training partner claim championship gold before venturing out to secure his second win of the year the following Saturday. Witnessing that moment and being alongside de Fries on several of his successful business trips served as a reminder of what a fortunate position he’s in as he looks to follow the path blazed by “Big Phil” and the new interim UFC heavyweight champion. “Watching it live, watching him win the world title, it’s crazy,” said Parkin. “I’ve got two of the best heavyweights in the world to train with. I’m in such a lucky place because I don’t really have to travel; I’ve only got to go to Wigan, which is a three-hour drive.”


There are currently 16 British fighters signed to the UFC roster, placing the nation fifth, behind only the United States, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico, in terms of the number of competitors representing their homeland on the biggest stage in the sport. Two of those 16 — Aspinall and welterweight Leon Edwards — carry championship gold, and being a part of this moment brings the interim heavyweight titleholder a great deal of pride. “What UK MMA is on at the moment is just incredible,” said Aspinall when asked about the wave of success and recognition he and his fellow Britons are enjoying. “We are a very small country, in comparison to somewhere like America or Canada or Brazil, and we have so many fighters in the UFC now. It’s absolutely incredible. We’ve led the way in boxing for a long time, so we can obviously fight, and now it’s kind of clicking on now that we can MMA, too. It’s just beaut.”


One person who has spent a great deal of time observing and covering the rise of British fighters on the UFC stage is John Gooden, who wears several hats with the mixed martial arts leader and sees big things ahead for British MMA. “I’m very high on UK MMA right now, 100 percent,” began Gooden, who not only calls the action inside the Octagon (on too few occasions, if I may) but also serves as a presenter, reporter, and producer for the Las Vegas-based promotion. “Now there are two champions in two different parts of the UK, in and around two gyms, that young, aspiring fighters can look to and say, ‘I want to be like that person.’ “They can go and talk to them, get the necessary advice and direction, and that has to be invaluable. We’ve seen that is a tried and tested path for success.” Like everyone else, Gooden recognizes the immense skill and talent he carries into the Octagon each time out. Still, the dapper Londoner with a diverse vocabulary also believes the laid-back father of three with a deep passion for the sport could make his mark on the microphone and in front of the camera in the future, should those opportunities arise. “When I first started speaking with Tom, he was such a down-to-earth, guy next door, and I wasn’t sure how he’d get on with all the bright lights and the cameras and the microphones,” admitted Gooden, who does a marvelous job chronicling European talent in the UFC with his pre-event Euro Watch series on UFC Fight Pass. “But he has grown into that role so brilliantly, in such a short amount of time, because he’s not been that long in MMA. “I feel like Tom is embracing his role as a leading light in UK mixed martial arts and world MMA. He’s turned his hand to the analyst side very well in between his own appearances, and I think he loves this sport so much that I could see him doing a really good job on the microphone. I think he would do a really good job representing the sport as we grow, being a pundit.”


Gooden recalled an appearance in France where Aspinall worked alongside French-Canadian legend Georges St-Pierre and came away as the shining star of the moment, and the mention of the former two-division champion’s name sparks a thought for me: can the relatively reserved, always respectful British heavyweight fill a similar role in the United Kingdom and beyond as St-Pierre did during his rise to prominence? “Tom is so steady, likeable,” said Gooden, mentioning two traits that applied (and still apply) to St-Pierre in his heyday. “He’s a really good analyst and a marvelous teacher. His natural ability to communicate his love for the sport and his details — he’s risen to the occasion a little bit quicker than I think a lot of others would. “If someone from a mainstream medium came and asked me, ‘Is there an athlete that could represent well on mainstream spots?’ Yes, there is, and his name is Tom Aspinall.” That’s similar to how things worked with St-Pierre, both here in Canada and abroad. Always well-spoken, respectful, and camera-ready in style and demeanor, “Rush” stood apart from his more flashy, demonstrative contemporaries, bringing a certain level of professionalism, decorum, and evident respect for the martial arts to every interaction, with little concern for the trappings of fame and the celebrity life. Aspinall feels the same way. “I really, really care about martial arts and my journey in martial arts; that’s it,” he said. “I’m not bothered about celebrity lifestyle. “Money is important — I’ve got a family, and I want to have generational wealth — but all that outside stuff, it’s like I wanna get better at martial arts, and I want to prove I’m the best to everybody else, and that’s it. I’m not really interested in much else.”