New UFC champion Tom Aspinall: ‘Fear is a weapon that most fighters haven’t unlocked’

Before stepping in the Octagon with Sergei Pavlovich, Tom Aspinall was scared. The Wigan heavyweight admitted as much in the days leading up to their title fight at UFC 295. Aspinall was still scared when the cage door closed in Madison Square Garden. In fact, he was scared even after knocking out the Russian in Round 1, in one of the most captivating moments in recent MMA history.

“I think, generally speaking, if you ask me an honest question, you’ll get an honest answer,” Aspinall tells The Independent and other publications over Zoom, four days after his interim-title win. “I try not to lie about anything, just in general...” And then comes the revelation: “I don’t think the fear really stops, you know?

“It continues in the cage. After the fight even, I’m scared for a little bit, I can’t relax for a couple of hours. I’m like that in every fight, but in this fight even more so. But when I’m scared, that’s when I’m at my most dangerous – I really, really believe that. I feel like fear is a secret weapon that a lot of fighters don’t understand how to unlock. I accept it, I embrace it, I use it to help me. I don’t try to push it out or deny it; I go with it and let it fuel me, if that’s possible.”

It fuelled Aspinall’s first-round destruction of Pavlovich, whose record was even more impressive than Aspinall’s heading into UFC 295. Aspinall, 30, entered New York City with a 7-1 UFC record, including just one defeat due to injury and seven stoppage wins – all of which arrived in the first two rounds. Meanwhile, 31-year-old Pavlovich had an identical UFC record but with all of his victories earned in Round 1.

It was reasonable for Aspinall to be scared, but it is now reasonable for all other heavyweights to fear him. Even Jon Jones, perhaps – even with all the American achieved at light-heavyweight, and even considering his heavyweight title win in March.

Jones, 36, is Aspinall’s dream opponent, but the coming months look hazy. Jones was due to defend the heavyweight belt against divisional great Stipe Miocic at UFC 295, only for an injury to rule him out. That opened the door to the interim-title fight between Aspinall and Pavlovich, where the Briton’s win should have positioned him as Jones’s next challenger; except the UFC still seems keen on Jones vs Miocic, in spite of the latter’s age (41) and inactivity (he has not fought since being knocked out by Francis Ngannou, three years ago).

Aspinall, right, became Britain’s third UFC champion by beating Pavlovich in just 69 seconds (Getty Images)
Aspinall, right, became Britain’s third UFC champion by beating Pavlovich in just 69 seconds (Getty Images)

“It would sting a little,” Aspinall says, discussing the prospect of a fight with Jones eluding him. “Is that fight gonna define my overall career? No. But would it be nice to have that experience against someone who’s considered the greatest of all time? Absolutely, I’d love that fight more than any other fight at this point.”

And Aspinall, in his current form and with his unique speed and movements at heavyweight, may just be the favourite if that bout comes to fruition.

Yet he is keen to clarify: “I think you’re never unstoppable in the heavyweight division. You’re one punch away from disaster at all times. Can anyone win at any time? Of course, this is the heavyweight division at the highest level.”

When Pavlovich landed a clean left hook in the first minute of his fight with Aspinall, the Briton briefly looked to be in danger, only to remain calm and swiftly turn the tide. “Pavlovich has definitely got the heaviest hands in the division, he’s definitely the most dangerous, he definitely caught me with a sweet shot,” Aspinall says. “But I was like: ‘Ah, it’s not too bad... I think I took one of his best ones there.’ Watching it back, he definitely hit me clean, but it didn’t rock me or nothing. I was absolutely fine.”

Aspinall became the interim UFC heavyweight champion with his win in New York (Getty Images)
Aspinall became the interim UFC heavyweight champion with his win in New York (Getty Images)

Within seconds, Aspinall had harnessed his secret weapon, to devastating effect. It was a historic moment, as Aspinall became just the third British champion in UFC history.

Then came the celebrations, which were “quite minimal actually,” Aspinall admits. “By the time we’d done all the media and got back to the hotel, it was about 3am. Couple of drinks, then we went to a bar. It was probably about 6am by the time I got back, but it was only a couple of hours [that I was out].

“I’ll chill for a little bit, but to be honest, I’m looking to get back in the gym in the next couple of days and do a little bit. I’m focused now on being the best heavyweight of all time.”

To achieve that status, Aspinall may yet have to go through Jones. The Briton would relish the challenge.