Tom Aspinall is feeling a little nervous during our interview. As we're speaking, he is heading to the gym to hit pads for first time since after suffering an injury to his right knee in the opening moments of his main event bout against Curtis Blaydes more than two months ago in London.
“The last time I went this long without punching something, I was 14 years old (laughs),” Aspinall told UFC.com. “It’s been a long, long time.”
The previous day, I saw Aspinall in Atherton, a borough of Wigan in the Greater Manchester area, where the British heavyweight went through a weightlifting session some hours after a rehab appointment for his knee. Sporting scars just a couple months old from surgery to repair a torn MCL, torn meniscus and damaged ACL, Aspinall is back to some sort of activity every day, and sometimes twice a day, a cadence to which he is much more accustomed.
Reflecting on the injury, Aspinall admits the knee is something that has bothered him since his UFC debut, but the quick wins and rise up the heavyweight ranks kept forcing him to put off a proper recovery. Although he spent time rehabilitating the knee each camp, he said it would occasionally lock up on him when he knelt on the ground. A second headlining bout in London was too much to pass up, though, so he powered through the way fighters do.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Aspinall said. “I felt like if it’s a card in London, I feel like I should be on it, especially if it’s the main event. Everybody has a lot of respect for Curtis. I’m a fighter. This is my job. This is what I love.”
Aspinall had the O2 Arena in the palms of his large hands as he made the walk to the Octagon. As he readied himself for a fight that could really throw him into title contention, he drank in the scenes, which included fans constantly singing, “Tommy Aspinall, Aspinall! Tommy Aspinall!”
However, when he threw a low kick against Blaydes in the opening moments of their fight, the knee locked up and “everything went” as he stepped back.
“The most frustrating thing is I didn’t get to have a fight I trained for,” he said. “It’s a fight I thought I was going to win and that had title implications, and it turns out I was on my back after 15 seconds and not able to move my leg for six weeks.”
To that end, Aspinall is not going to rush his return to action. He admitted he “underestimated how tough” the rehab process would be, describing the workouts his physio is putting him through as “the toughest workouts ever.” Despite the various “painful and uncomfortable” positions he is finding himself in through the early stages of recovery, Aspinall can already see the benefits of the operation as he is able to do certain movements he couldn’t perform throughout the last few years.
As far as a timeline, Aspinall said the doctors gave him an initial projection of eight months. However, the mental side of recovery matters just as much to the 29-year-old after suffering a major injury on an international stage.
“With the nature of this sport, as a top-level UFC fighter, I understand the way we think,” he said. “Before, I had a knee injury and nobody knew. Now everybody knows. If one of my opponents had that, I’d attack it. I need to take 20 kicks to the knee. I need to be in that place.
“It’s not football or running. As a high-level UFC fighter, you have to take locks, twists, and turns against another massive guy. I’m only going to consider returning once I feel I can do that. Until I can do that without ending up on my back and in pain, I’m not fighting. I’m not doing that again.”
Now on the mend for at least the next six months, Aspinall gets some time to settle into his recently gained status as one of the freshest faces at the top of a heavyweight title picture that felt a little stagnant just 18 months ago while Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier were in the midst of their trilogy.
Although the time gained came from an undesirable event, Aspinall is grateful to have a break from the everyday grind of a fight camp. Despite his growing profile, both locally and across the world, he credits his wife, and particularly his three young children, for keeping him grounded. The time on the mend also allows him the space to recalibrate for the first time since making his UFC debut on Fight Island in 2020.
“The focus is, I just want to enjoy my life,” Aspinall said. “I was basically in a training camp for two years. The goal is to get physically and mentally healthy.”
Later in the day, I shoot Aspinall a message asking how he felt hitting mitts for the first time in two months.
He simply replied: "I've still got it."