Deep in the bowels of The O2 Arena following his victory in March, Tom Aspinall made a point of tracking down UFC President Dana White and grabbing a minute of the boss’ time.
“I don’t think people realize because they only see the camera shot, but I waited for Dana for like 20 minutes and grabbed him when he was going from media-to-media. I made sure I broke through and spoke to him.”
“I said, ‘Dana, you need to come back! Please come back!’” said Aspinall, who headlines the UFC’s return to London this weekend in a clash with Top 5 heavyweight stalwart Curtis Blaydes. “Obviously that doesn’t come across in a 30-second conversation on camera, but I felt like I needed to speak to him and make sure he knows that they needed to come back again this year, and here we are.”
After being unable to venture to the United Kingdom for its annual March event each of the previous two years, the UFC’s return four months ago was arguably the best overall event of the year in terms of atmosphere, results, and just the vibe of it all.
The joint was packed from the jump, the fans unleashed years of pent-up excitement and support for the home side, and those athletes largely delivered, with Muhammad Mokaev kicking the night off with a 58-second submission win and his pal Aspinall closing out the show with a first-round submission finish of his own against Alexander Volkov.
The electricity that coursed through the arena on March 19 was likely enough to get White thinking about making a hasty return to London, but Aspinall’s dominant victory certainly made the decision even easier.
In just his fifth UFC appearance, the 28-year-old from Manchester walked out in front of a raucous, partisan crowd and ran through Volkov in the main event, dragging the tall and talented Russian to the canvas, submitting him with a straight armbar in less than four minutes.
No one in the UFC had beaten Volkov in that manner, but with things being as one-sided as they were, a lot of folks looked at the result as an indication of everything the veteran is not, rather than a moment to sing the praises of the ascending Brit.
“I think the biggest challenge for me is I beat these guys who are really good, and then people think the guys who I beat are not good,” said Aspinall, who has won eight straight overall and never ventured beyond the second round in his entire career. “I make them look like they’re not very good, but they really are good.
“If you look at Volkov for example: he won his next fight against another Top 10 guy in minutes when he knocked out Rozenstruik. Volkov is absolutely top of his game. I beat him and everyone was like, ‘Well, Volkov’s not that good,’ but Volkov is actually really good; I’m just better.
“This seems to be a common theme in my career,” he said with a smile. “I beat really high-level, top guys, and people are like, ‘Well why is he fighting people that are not very good?’ The answer is that they’re really good, and I’m just really, really good.”
There is not a hint of bravado to the way Aspinall speaks about himself, his skills, and his success inside the Octagon thus far; he’s simply stating the facts as he sees them, and, quite frankly, as they have been presented to this point.
It’s pretty difficult to argue that he’s not supremely talented when he’s earned five finishes in as many starts since arriving in the UFC two summers ago, but all of that success hasn’t gone to the head of the surging British heavyweight, who remains appreciative of each and every one of these moments.
“I’m a very, very lucky and grateful person to be where I am because not everybody gets to live their dreams,” said Aspinall, whose average fight time in the UFC is a couple ticks under three minutes. “These moments, they come with a lot of pressure, and I’m not pretending that they don’t because they really do, but we need to enjoy them because these moments are not going to last forever, and not everybody gets to experience these moments.
“I know so many fighters who have not anywhere near made it to the UFC and they’ve dedicated their whole lives to it, never mind being a main event in their home country. That is massive and this is the second time I’m doing it.
“Win, lose, or draw, I’m going to enjoy every second of this stuff because these are very special moments and I’m very, very lucky to be able to experience it,” he added. “Not everybody gets to have that experience, and I get to experience it, and I feel very lucky and grateful for it.”
Cerebral in his approach to his craft, Aspinall spoke candidly ahead of his fight with Volkov about the myriad questions he had of himself and the way he would react in such an unfamiliar situation — headlining a UFC event, in London, in front of roughly 17,000 fans that likely felt like 170,000 when he was making the walk to the Octagon.
Asked about those questions on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s clash with Blaydes, the Manchester man instead gave a little more insight into his overall perspective on this sport and competing before laying out the new questions he’ll be seeking answers to on Saturday night.
“I found some answers, but each and every fight brings different questions,” said Aspinall. “I am in this sport not just to make money and be the champion of the world, but also to get some answers about myself.
“This fight brings even more questions and I’m looking forward to finding some of the answers on Saturday night,” he said before rattling off the main questions he has heading into this weekend’s main event. “Can I compete with a guy who has the best wrestling in the division? Can I compete with a guy who has been in the Top 5 for the last five years? Can I beat a guy who no one else wants to fight?”
His questions are the same ones everyone else is asking of him as he heads into this bout against Blaydes, a Top 5 fixture coming off a second-round knockout win over Chris Daukaus the week after Aspinall dispatched Volkov.
With Blaydes, a former NJCAA National champion wrestler, boasting an 11-3 record (with one no contest) in the UFC, Aspinall knows he’s in for a tough test on Saturday, but he’s done everything he’s needed to do in order to be fully prepared to face the Coloradan, and now he’s simply ready to get out there and compete.
“I’ve done everything that I can — win or lose,” Aspinall said in regards to his preparations. “I really have given myself the best chance at winning, and I can only do my best. I know on Saturday night I’m going to go in there and give it my absolute 100 percent, and I’ve given it my absolute 100 percent in the lead up to it.
“I’m happy and content with myself right now, and I’m ready to go perform on Saturday.”
But don’t confuse his “I’ve done all I can” perspective for resignation or a lack of confidence heading into his weekend’s finale.
Aspinall has been unstoppable thus far, and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
“I’ll beat Curtis Blaydes because he has no idea what I’m going to do; same as the rest of the world, really,” he said calmly. “I’ve got all kinds of stuff in my game that I’ve not shown yet. There are a million things that I can do that the film has not shown.
“Curtis, the rest of the division — nobody really knows my game at this point, and I intend to keep it that way with these short fights.”
UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs Aspinall took place live from the at The O2 Arena in London on Saturday, July 23, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!