The first time Tom Aspinall stepped onto a mat — be it a wrestling mat, jiu-jitsu mat... he doesn’t really remember those details — he cried the whole time.
“From the first day I stepped on the mat, I’ve loved it,” Aspinall recalled in an exclusive interview with John Gooden last month. “I have no memory of it whatsoever, but I believe it was wrestling.”
As a flexible six- or seven-year-old with a short memory, Tom’s father took him to a jiu-jitsu gym next. Then boxing. Then more wrestling. As he grew up, martial arts was just as standard in the Aspinall household as Sunday cartoons were for any adolescent.
Now, the 27-year-old is truly a man of mystery from a fighter’s perspective, as we’ve seen very little of him. Since his UFC debut in March of 2020, he’s amassed a total of 2 minutes of 20 seconds of Octagon experience across two fights. And throughout his entire professional career? The Englishman’s nine wins, in total, have been achieved in just over eight minutes.
If it were up to Aspinall, he’d like to keep the air of mystery about him for as long as possible.
“Hopefully I won’t have a chance to show [my skills] in this one as well,” Aspinall said with a lax grin. “I don’t want to be in there for longer than I need to be. If I can finish it, I’ll finish it. Every time.”
It’s a confident statement to make, even for someone whose nine victories have all come by first-round finish, especially given the fact that the man on the other side of the Octagon, former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, is competing in his 52nd professional fight.
“He definitely knows how to control his emotions, control his energy, save his energy and when to go, when not to go, which is something I’m still learning,” Aspinall said of his seasoned opponent. “I’m sure he’ll teach me a few things.”
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When the UFC rookie was presented with Arlovski as his next opponent, he said there was no hesitation whatsoever in saying yes. While he called out Serghei Spivac and Chris Daukaus, both athletes being featured on Saturday’s card, after his victory over Alan Baudot on UFC Fight Island in October, Aspinall said he believes this is the “perfect time” for him to fight “The Pit Bull.”
“I think he looked great in his recent fights,” Aspinall said of the Belarusian. “[The UFC] knows talent when they see it. This is the best organization in the world, and they know what they’re looking for, so I’m happy with it.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Around the time Andrei Arlovski was making his UFC debut in 2000, Tom Aspinall was spending his childhood days accompanying his father Andy to various martial arts gyms throughout the northwest of England.
His earliest memory of martial arts takes place in the living room of his childhood home — his dad had returned from a makeshift jiu-jitsu gym in the early days of the discipline's growing popularity across the world to talk Tom through the basic concepts. From that moment on, Tom “basically grew up in the gym.”
Growing up in Salford, a large town shrouded by the shadow of Manchester, Aspinall described his locality as a humble, blue collar town with an ardent interest in rugby, boxing and wrestling. He said he could never imagine having a “normal job,” and throughout his pursuit to find his true calling, he always gravitated back to martial arts.
Aspinall bounced around different disciplines as he grew up, going “wherever the competition was.” Due to his size and build, it became more difficult to find opponents, so he often found himself facing off against men significantly older than him, something he had “no problem with.”
“Martial arts has been prominent in my life for as long as I can remember, basically, because my dad’s always done it. So it’s something that I’ve been in and out of and it’s just always been something I’ve known I wanted to do. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my dad."
It’s a no-brainer that Andy Aspinall, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and a coach for Team Kaobon, would undeniably have a profound impact on the trajectory of his son’s mixed martial arts career. Now, nearly two decades since the day Andy nudged his son onto that wrestling or jiu-jitsu mat, he stands in Tom’s corner on the biggest stage in MMA.
The stage is something that doesn’t really seem to faze Tom. He’s been around UFC for quite some time now, sharing his Team Kaobon gym with the likes of retired UFC veterans Paul Kelly and Paul Taylor, and middleweight Darren Till, to name a few.
“The main thing is you’ve just got to look at it like any other fight,” Aspinall said. “It’s no different. There’s a guy trying to fight with you and it’s the same in any organization. To be honest, I think it’s actually more dangerous in other organizations because the guys aren’t as skilled, and you don’t know what’s gonna come at you.”
THE EDUCATION CONTINUES
Almost as if combat was woven into his DNA, Aspinall said he’s always carried an inexplicable drive and level of confidence that he’d arrive here someday. Normally characterized as laid back and maybe even a little quiet, when the spotlight appears on the canvas and Tom is standing in it, he feels at home.
Although the goal to undeniably become the best in the world has remained the same, it hasn’t always been easy. The heavyweight struggled to find opponents throughout his amateur and pre-UFC professional career. He was training to make ends meet in fights that weren’t guaranteed, and ones that often fell through.
Lucky enough to have the unwavering support of his family, even at the lowest points, Tom has always been able to listen to the voice, albeit sometimes faint, inside that told him “I could do it. I always knew I could do it.”
A true student of the sport, Aspinall knows he has a lot of experience to gain on his rise to the top. He’s different in that way. After all, very few fighters reflect on their first loss with a smile and the humility to say they “enjoyed the lessons” brought forth by defeat.
The path to the top, to him, is clear: he’s taking it slow, lapping up experience and lessons wherever he can get them, because “when I get there, I want to have a really good go at winning the title, and stay up there.”
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With plenty to learn and a challenging test in front of him in Arlovski, Aspinall is eager to rise to the occasion of his second UFC Fight Night main card appearance.
“I just love his confidence, that’s the main thing. To be that calm and confident in the situations he’s been in is unbelievable,” Aspinall said. “I’m all about the movement… the way the body moves and getting out of the way of punches, I just love that. For me, defensive fighting is probably something I’d rather watch than attacking fighters. I just think he’s brilliant in every aspect.”
Aspinall said he’ll take “as many fights like these as I can, where I can get experience as I’m going.” But he’s not getting ahead of himself; he still has to step into the Octagon with a revered UFC veteran.
“Obviously I’m going in there to knock him out. I’ll finish him, any way that I can,” he said. “It’s the same as any fight. I’m going to go in there, and it might be a veteran, it might be a UFC champion, but I’m going in there to stop him.”