It was 6 a.m. on Tuesday, U.K. time, when Tom Aspinall was awoken by his vibrating cell phone.
Usually, that meant his three kids were awake; his wife wanted them taken to their bedrooms, out of the owner’s suite that he, a big guy who slept hot, left for a cooler spare bed when they came up.
Half-asleep, Aspinall got up and checked the kids’ rooms. They were all tucked in. He again looked at his phone and saw a UFC executive on the caller ID. In three years of fighting for the promotion, he’d never gotten a call direct. But with a training session just four hours away, sleep sounded like a better idea – at least, in theory.
“Obviously, I can’t sleep,” Aspinall said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “There’s a million things going through my mind.”
Aspinall bit the bullet and called back. The voice on the other end, whom he didn’t identify, didn’t say hello.
“I know it’s early there,” he told Aspinall. “Are you healthy?”
“Yeah, I’m healthy, what’s going on?” Aspinall replied.
“Will you be ready to fight in two weeks?” the UFC executive replied and added, “there’s some crazy shit going on for this New York card. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
Tomorrow meant 4 a.m. Half-asleep, a day removed from a understandably distracted training session, Aspinall got the news that the UFC needed a replacement headliner for UFC 295. Heavyweight champ Jon Jones was injured, he would be “out for like a year,” and, as he remembers it, Stipe Miocic “didn’t want the fight” with Sergei Pavlovich, the scheduled backup fighter for the Nov. 11 pay-per-view.
The UFC wanted Aspinall to fight Pavlovich for the interim heavyweight title – a little over two weeks away.
“I’m like, ‘I’m in,’” Aspinall said of his response. “No contracts talk. I’m not asking for more money. I’m not asking for more time. I’m in. This is my chance.”
For the second consecutive UFC pay-per-view, the promotion has been forced to scramble for a replacement headliner due to a last-minute injury. And again, it’s found someone willing to take a huge risk, willing to gamble with their career in taking a tough fight on very short notice.
Aspinall views Pavlovich as “the most dangerous man in the UFC.” And like he and Alexander Volkanovski, who stepped in on short notice for the injured Charles Oliveira and was brutally knocked out in a rematch with the fully-trained Islam Makhachev, he is facing a fully-trained fighter.
Also like Volkanovski, Aspinall is betting on himself.
“I think I can beat him,” he said of Pavlovich. “I’ve been matched up against him twice before. I’m hungry to get the heavyweight title.”
“There’s a lot of people who give it the big time in the media, and they’re dodging fights left and right,” he added later. “Look at Stipe. Stipe didn’t want this fight … and he’s the greatest heavyweight of all time. … There’s plenty other people dodging Pavlovich, as well, and I’m stepping up. … I’m doing stuff no one else will dare to do.”
So just how ready is Aspinall to take on the tough heavyweight on two weeks’ notice? The answer is, ready enough.
“I’ve not been on holiday,” he said. “I always stay in the gym. Obviously, if I knew that I had a world title fight coming up, I would be in better shape than I am right now. … I’m not making no excuses, mate. I’m a professional fighter. I should be ready at any time, which I am.”
The world title Aspinall is preparing for is not the undisputed one but an interim title. UFC CEO Dana White didn’t explain why that was the case when he announced the news on Tuesday evening. But according to Aspinall, UFC executives told him “it’s gonna be a while” before Jones returns to action, and Miocic turned down the fight.
In other cases, such as former light-heavy champs Jamahal Hill and Jiri Prochazka, who co-headlines Saturday’s pay-per-view event opposite ex-middleweight champ Alex Pereira, an extended injury layoff prompted them to vacate the title.
Aspinall can’t argue with the idea that an undisputed belt would be better. But the chance to capture any belt against a fighter he said is avoided by others, is an epic opportunity he can’t pass up – not even with the memory of Volkanovski’s fate lingering in the air.
Asked about the UFC 294 knockout,
“We saw it last weekend, but what about my guy, Michael Bisping?” Aspinall said. “2.5 weeks notice to the day, Mike Bisping went in there and took it from [Luke] Rockhold on 2.5 weeks notice. Exactly the same day as I got the fight. That’s something to talk about, isn’t it? Two U.K. guys. Mike’s my really, really close friend as well. He’s my mentor.”
And what does the mentor have to say about this particular opportunity?
“He taught me to believe in myself,” Aspinall said of Bisping’s advice. “And he told me that it’s not about 2.5 weeks. It’s about the last 10, 15 years of your life that you’ve been putting in…the time scale is irrelevant. I’ve been putting the hard miles in … years before anyone believed in me.
“There was a time that me and my father used to train together, just did it in my dad’s garage. So many years, I’ve been traveling; I used to go to Liverpool, which is really far from my house, for years. But I couldn’t even afford to put petrol in the car. I’ve put in some serious hard yards and sacrifice into this sport, and this is not about 2.5 weeks. This is about the last 15 years of my life and, I’m ready to show that man.”