When you’ve knocked out the “scariest man in the UFC”, what is there left to fear? Some may offer ‘nothing’ as a valid answer. Some may say ‘Jon Jones’, arguably the greatest UFC fighter of all time. Either way, Tom Aspinall, who was so honest about being scared ahead of UFC 295, believes his fear is his “superpower”. So, maybe fear will inspire Aspinall to a career-defining victory over Jones, or maybe the Briton will realise he doesn’t need to fear the icon at all.
Days before UFC 295 – days before his date with destiny at combat sports’ Mecca, Madison Square Garden – Aspinall had this to say of his clash with Sergei Pavlovich: “I’m pretty scared. He’s a scary, intimidating guy.” But? “I do my best work scared. Fear is something I have a really good relationship with. It gives me a superpower – the more scared I am, the better I do in the fight.”
And with the interim heavyweight title on the line, and just two weeks’ preparation behind him, Aspinall could not have done better than he did on Saturday. Even when the Wigan fighter was caught clean with a left hook in the opening moments of the co-main event, he stayed calm. Perhaps surviving that shot meant Aspinall’s fear dissipated, or perhaps being tagged like that only augmented his fear. The beauty is that, for Aspinall, either outcome keeps him dangerous, and Pavlovich would find out just how dangerous in the seconds that followed.
Aspinall was out of range, surely. But in the blink of an eye, he wasn’t. Closing distance with a spitfire one-two – as only he can – Aspinall had Pavlovich shaking and wobbling, before a short left hook and right hand felled the Russian for good. The hammer fists, all three of them, were to make sure of something that was already certain: Aspinall had ascended, as Britain’s third UFC champion. Then he descended, joining Pavlovich on the canvas, burying his head to hide the tears.
“I can’t even tell you, it’s been a crazy two-and-a-half weeks,” he said in the cage, moments later. “Oh, my God. I just want to say to everyone at home: Listen, if you ever get the chance to do something, and you’re scared to do it, you should f***ing definitely do it, because there’s a chance it’s gonna pay off. He’s a big, scary guy. I’ve never been as scared in my life as fighting this guy, but I’ve got a lot of power, too. And I believe in myself, I really believe in myself. I’ve worked so hard over the years.”
Aspinall’s hard work has yielded results as terrifying as Pavlovich and the Russian’s own statistics. The Briton is now 7-1 in the UFC, with his only loss coming as the result of an injury 15 seconds into a fight, and his victories all coming in the first and second rounds. Meanwhile, Pavlovich entered his bout with Aspinall with a 6-1 UFC record and all wins via first-round finish; in other words, Aspinall was right to harbour a little fear.
Now, however, Aspinall may just be the most fearsome fighter in the division, especially with Jones absent. Aspinall’s clash with Pavlovich came together on two weeks’ notice when the heavyweight champion suffered an injury that derailed his planned title defence against Stipe Miocic – and which is set to keep the former light-heavyweight king out of the ring for up to a year.
Still, the UFC’s plan seems to be to reorganise the bout, despite the facts that: Jones may be 37 by the time he returns, Miocic could be 42 by then, and the latter has not fought since he was brutally knocked out by Francis Ngannou in March 2021. Furthermore, Jones’s heavyweight title win over Ciryl Gane in March marked his first fight in three years.
Age and activity are working against the Americans, as is apathy; in the aftermath of UFC 295, fans have expressed disinterest in that ‘legacy’ fight, preferring the prospect of a unification bout between Jones and Aspinall.
Naturally. Miocic may be the greatest heavyweight of all time, but few were giving him a chance against Jones. While both men have been inactive and ageing, Miocic is the older and less active of the two, and Jones at least impressed with his rapid submission of Gane this year.
But to debate how Jones vs Miocic would play out feels very ‘March 2023’. The greater question is how Jones vs Aspinall would play out, and for all of Jones’s feats and accomplishments over the years, the reality is that he would be facing the quickest heavyweight in the sport, who also hits harder than any of the American’s previous opponents, and who is only approaching his prime at 30 years old. Furthermore, Aspinall has the kind of well-rounded skillset that might just enable him to neutralise Jones – or even get the better of him – in any grappling exchanges.
Of course, the situation is further complicated by the fact that Aspinall may not want to sit out until Jones returns, while the UFC will also be keen to keep the Briton active. It may mean that Aspinall has to defend the interim title, a rarity in the UFC. That could make for intriguing an match-up between the 30-year-old and Ciryl Gane, Jailton Almeida or even Curtis Blaydes, who picked up a technical win over Aspinall when the latter sustained his knee injury at UFC London in July 2022.
At this point, the hope is that all roads lead to Jones vs Aspinall – one of the biggest fights in the history of British MMA. Aspinall has nothing to fear, but then again: A little fear goes a long way for the interim heavyweight champion.