The fight card for UFC 286 in London is shaping up nicely, but one name that may well be missing from the bout sheet on fight night is that of Tom Aspinall.
Aspinall said he’s closing in on a return, and has returned to sparring following his recovery from knee surgery following the injury sustained during his bout against Curtis Blaydes at UFC London in July 2022.
Aspinall threw a leg kick at Blaydes and, as he looked to reset, collapsed to the mat in agony, forcing the bout to be waved off immediately.
The Englishman had torn his MCL, his meniscus and damaged his ACL. Surgery was essential, and the Brit went under the knife for reconstructive surgery, setting him on a recovery journey that was set for around eight months.
On schedule and feeling good, Aspinall has let himself entertain the idea of making his return on the huge pay-per-view event at The O2, where Leon Edwards will put his welterweight title on the line for the first time in a trilogy fight with former champ Kamaru Usman.
“I spoke to the UFC before Christmas about UFC 286 and they just said keep them updated if I wanted to be on the show or not,” he told OLBG.com.
“Especially for a UK show, I’m a pretty big draw, and without sounding arrogant, it’s up to me whether I want to be on that show or not. I’m sure they’ll try to get me on it if I want to be on it. I’m just waiting to see where everything is at.
“If I want to get on that show I’m sure they’ll allow me. There’s no cut-off date per se, but if I give them a reasonable amount of notice, if I give them six or eight weeks, I’m sure they’ll do their best to get me on.
“But it also depends on the division, it’s got to be a fight that makes sense. It’s got to be someone I’m interested in fighting, I’m not just going to fight some unranked guy, it’s got to be someone who is a good fight for me.
“My gut feeling is I’m not going to be on the card but who knows? I’m feeling pretty damn good in sparring, I’ve done my first two spars this week. My cardio is exactly where it needs to be, I’m strong as hell because I’ve been lifting loads of weights, my timing is good because I’ve been drilling loads, even though I’ve not been sparring.
“I feel really good and, who knows, I might have a couple more spars and think, ‘Stuff it, let’s go for it!’ There’s a slim chance of that happening. Throughout my UFC career so far I’ve always been a bit keen to please everyone else, whether that’s the UFC, fans, people around me – and I do not want to do that anymore. I think it’s up to me now.
“I’ve got my foot in the door pretty good, I’m in a really good spot and will come back when it’s right for me, not just because I’m pressured into it.
“I might turn around next after two great spars again and feel like I can fight in nine or ten weeks, or I might think I’ll come back when it’s right.”
Clearly, whether it’s in London or sometime after, Aspinall is eager to get back into the cage and resume his rise up the UFC heavyweight ladder. Victory over Blaydes could have catapulted him into the championship picture. But, despite that momentum hitting the buffers after his injury, he said there have been positives to his enforced absence.
“I don’t think having this break has done me any harm, it’s actually got me in a good spot mentally,” he said.
“I went on a wild run of being really active and finishing everybody and now I’m ready and getting my body ready to do what I set out to do, which is be UFC heavyweight champ of the world.”
Aspinall has also been keeping close tabs on the heavyweight division, and has earmarked a few names as potential opponents to target upon his return.
“There’s a lot of good heavyweights coming up,” he said.
“Marcin Tybura is fighting soon. If he wins that’s a potential fight. I think Jairzinho Rozenstruik is potentially a good fight for me, because of where we are in the rankings.
“I know Alexandr Romanov is fighting Alexander Volkov, that’s a big ask. I don’t think he beats Volkov, but if he wins that’s a potential fight. You’ve got Tai Tuivasa, there’s loads.
“And also I’ve noticed, especially in the heavyweight division, they’re not really as bothered about the rankings as they are in other divisions … Ones coming off a loss, and ones coming off a big win and they’re still putting them together. It’s a free-for-all and I’m OK with that. I’m not here to avoid anyone. Rankings don’t mean anything to me, anybody in the top 15 can beat each other on any given day.”