UFC heavyweight Tom Aspinall: Year with injury was ‘one of the best of my life’

Entering the main event of UFC London last July, Tom Aspinall’s form was verging on frightening. The Wigan heavyweight was fresh off his eighth straight win, which also marked his eighth straight stoppage, and only one of those fights had reached the second round. Yet none of those victories was as swift as this ‘defeat’.

Aspinall’s knee buckled beneath him just 15 seconds into his bout with Curtis Blaydes, leaving the Briton wincing on the canvas, clutching his knee. Blaydes flung his hands above his head, expressing disbelief, disappointment, and then sympathy for his opponent.

Aspinall’s scintillating rise was halted in the most stupefying fashion, but the 30-year-old intends to resume his pursuit of the UFC heavyweight title on 22 July – 364 days after his ill-fated clash with Blaydes. For the third straight fight, Aspinall will headline an event at the O2 Arena, taking on Poland’s Marcin Tybura.

However, Aspinall in fact offered to forgo a main-event slot while the UFC expressed uncertainty over the match-up. “Me and Tybura actually know each other personally,” Aspinall tells The Independent. “We were both looking for fights and believed that none of the heavyweights were really free, so we said, ‘Let’s get a fight going with each other.’ I asked the UFC matchmakers when I was in London [for UFC 286 in March], and they were like, ‘We’re keen on it, we just don’t know if Tybura is a big enough name to do a main event.’

“I started seeing people were getting booked for this event, so I messaged the UFC again and asked: ‘What’s going on? Why have you not sent me a contract yet?’ They said, ‘We’re not overly thrilled on this for a main event.’ So, I said, ‘I don’t mind not fighting in the main event, just give me a fight.’ They said they were gonna try a couple of other opponents first, because they wanted me as a main event. The opponents declined, so I’m fighting Tybura. That’s where we’re at.”

It is a testament to the UFC’s belief in Aspinall’s potential that they proceeded to book the bout as a main event, four months after compatriot Leon Edwards retained the welterweight title against Kamaru Usman to cap off UFC 286 at the O2 Arena. And while Aspinall insists that he is “thrilled” to be headlining under the dome again, and acknowledges that the UFC views him as a future “title contender or champion”, he also offers a self-deprecating take.

Aspinall suffered an injury against Curtis Blaydes in his last outing, in July (Getty Images)
Aspinall suffered an injury against Curtis Blaydes in his last outing, in July (Getty Images)

“I think the UFC sells itself, really,” he says. “You could have two 10-year-old girls fighting each other, and they’d probably sell out the O2. Especially in this country now, when we’re in a massive boom for MMA, I think you could put basically anyone on and it would do well. But for them to have faith in me is a dream. I’m so privileged to be able to represent the UK again, I’m over the moon.

“It’s definitely important, because I’ve had a lot of fights where nobody cared, to be honest – especially pre-UFC,” Aspinall adds candidly. “Nobody was bothered whether I won or lost, and as a fighter you want people to be invested, because I’ve invested my whole life in this. I want people to be behind me.”

When Aspinall fought Alexander Volkov in a main event at the O2 last March, submitting the Russian in the first round, his victory aligned with the highest gate in the venue’s history of sporting events. When the UFC returned to the O2 this March, for its first pay-per-view card since 2016, it broke the record for the highest gate of any kind at the arena. While this July’s event will be of a smaller scale than UFC 286, it is still expected to sell out with ease.

“Numbers aside, I think the UFC realises that I’m definitely gonna be a title contender or champion one day,” Aspinall says. “In my mind, I’m gonna be one of the best heavyweights to ever walk the face of the earth.”

Aspinall submitted Alexander Volkov at the O2 Arena in March 2022 (Kieran Cleeves/PA) (PA Wire)
Aspinall submitted Alexander Volkov at the O2 Arena in March 2022 (Kieran Cleeves/PA) (PA Wire)

Aspinall, currently the UFC’s No 5 heavyweight, will get another chance to prove his potential when he faces ninth-ranked Tybura this summer. Light-heavyweight great Jon Jones returned from a three-year absence in March to claim the heavyweight title, and while a shot at the gold still seems to be ahead of Aspinall, he is confident that his knee injury is behind him.

Furthermore, the 30-year-old does not see his time on the sidelines as a ‘lost year’ in his career.

“To be honest, I think I had one of the best years of my life,” Aspinall says. “I had so much personal growth out of the experience, and I think my mind is just in a really good place now. Any athlete will tell you that your mind is one of the most important tools you can use.

“I think I was a little bit burnt out before; I was so active and going back-to-back-to-back-to-back with fights constantly. Everything was going so smooth, I had no push-back on anything, whereas now I appreciate everything. I appreciate going in there in nine weeks’ time, being able to earn money and get respect from doing what I love.

“I’m very thankful that all of this has happened.”

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