Tom Aspinall always figured that when his right knee eventually gave out, it would happen in the practice room. Probably during a wrestling or grappling session. There’d be a shift of weight in one direction or another, and his partially torn meniscus would lock up the knee and cause more damage. And whenever that happened, he’d deal with it.
He never once pictured it happening the way it actually did.
One year ago, Aspinall (12-3) suffered the first loss of his UFC career when his right knee buckled as he threw a kick at Curtis Blaydes just 15 seconds into their heavyweight main event inside London’s O2 Arena. Aspinall, 30, immediately fell to the ground in pain, and the bout was waved off as a TKO.
“I never thought it would happen in a fight,” said Aspinall, who had competed for three years with the injury, which occurred during training. “The weirdest thing about it was that my knee locked. That’s happened a few times before, definitely, but it happened when I was grappling on my knees. It would never happen when I threw a kick. That was the first time it happened with a kick.”
Aspinall, of Salford, England, returns to the Octagon on Saturday (ESPN+, main card at 3 p.m. ET, prelims at noon) for the first time since he underwent surgery on a torn MCL and damaged ACL. He’ll face Poland’s Marcin Tybura (24-7) at the O2 in front of 17,000-plus, no doubt some of whom were in attendance one year ago for his disastrous result against Blaydes.
Not surprisingly, Aspinall says he’s keen on getting through the weekend and never again discussing the intricate details of his right knee. The high-profile way in which it blew out has drawn a lot of attention. And the fact that he came into the UFC in 2020 with the injury but never revealed it until now has only prompted more questions and interest from media and fans alike.
“I can’t wait to fight just so I’m not the guy with the bad knee anymore,” Aspinall said. “I’m sick of speaking about it. For the last year, people have been stopping me on the street every day, asking, ‘How’s the knee?’ And now that the fight is coming up, it’s every interview. … I can’t wait to never speak about it again.”
Unfortunately for Aspinall, addressing the knee is unavoidable. His recovery is an obvious focal point going into this weekend’s fight.
And as much as he might not want to talk about it, it has been a major part of his story and development as a martial artist. Aspinall is considered one of the best prospects/contenders the UFC’s heavyweight division has seen in years — and if he’s honest about it, everything up until last July had been so easy. In his first five UFC fights, he went 5-0 with five finishes. On a bad leg. He was able to mask the injury from opponents, athletic commissions and the UFC alike because it was a lingering issue that wasn’t obvious.
Looking back, he says he didn’t grow much during that time. Over the past year, he has.
“Everything was moving so smoothly before, but there were a lot of things wrong that I didn’t want to change because everything was going so smoothly,” Aspinall said. “Before, I was training four hours a day and the other 20 hours I was living just like a regular person. I wasn’t living the life of a professional athlete. I feel like I definitely needed some adversity. It was just all too easy for me.”
ASPINALL’S RISE TO becoming the No. 5-ranked heavyweight in the UFC truly is remarkable, considering some of the finer details around it.
After starting his pro career in 2014, he didn’t even compete in MMA in 2017 and 2018, as he half-heartedly considered a move into boxing. He was a sparring partner of English heavyweight champion Tyson Fury during that time but never fully embraced the squared circle. His father, Andy, says his son found the sport too “boring.”
When Aspinall resumed his MMA career in 2019, his training regimen was far from elite, even after he signed with the UFC in 2020. The majority of it took place at Team Kaobon in Liverpool, where he’d spar with UFC welterweight Darren Till because Aspinall was usually the only heavyweight in the room. His performances in the Octagon — a 45-second knockout, a 95-second knockout and a first-round armlock — masked a somewhat amateurish form of preparation.
“When he first fought in the UFC, I said to him, ‘You’re a bit fat. You’re too flabby,'” said Andy Aspinall, who founded and teaches at four Aspinall Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gyms in the north of England. “He was showing up at Team Kaobon for an hour and a half, in a class of 20 people. He was dropping his kids off at school at 9 a.m., getting to Liverpool at half past 10, getting home at 2 and just eating along the way. I said to him, ‘You’re going to end up doing this against some very dangerous guys, and then it won’t be just about showing up to practice once a day.'”
And in addition to Aspinall’s relatively lax schedule, there was, of course, the knee. It limited the amount of weight he could squat and his comfort level in moving in certain directions.
“I realize now that I was in denial,” Aspinall said. “You can ask anybody who’s ever trained with me in the last five years. I couldn’t get through a session. I’m not exaggerating. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t grapple for any amount of time. I couldn’t be on my knees for any amount of time. Now, it’s like a new lease on life.”
So, why didn’t he get the surgery before signing with the UFC? Or after his first couple of fights? He says it’s because one opportunity led to another, and to another. He didn’t want to pause for knee surgery when the UFC came calling in 2020. After he won his first fight and the UFC quickly offered another, he didn’t want to say no. When he got an opportunity to headline his first card in March 2022, he couldn’t turn it down.
And Aspinall says that’s only half the story.
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have got the surgery,” Aspinall admits. “Believe it or not, I don’t like going into the hospital and getting my leg cut open and being unable to walk for weeks. I knew I needed the surgery, but it was always, ‘I’m going to get it fixed before the next one.’ ‘Oh, the next one.’ ‘The next one.’ And then I would think, ‘I’m literally beating former champions on one leg, right?’ Maybe I just got a little bit greedy.”
Since the injury, Aspinall’s mindset has changed. He used to think his level of dedication was good enough because of the success he had achieved. His knee was injured, but it was fine because look how well he was doing. His training had holes, but it was sufficient because of where he was. Now, everything has been revamped. He’s training solely with heavyweights in his own gym, closer to home. His knee is fixed. His lifestyle is different. And that shift is based not on where he is, but where he’s going.
“He’s saying things like, ‘I want to go at this for 10 years and get as good as I can,'” Andy says. “He’s had a reality check. He was embarrassed by what happened. He wants to do it all now. He wants to fight Jon Jones.”
IN A RECENT interview with the U.K.’s TNT Sports, UFC president Dana White couldn’t help but state the obvious when it came to the promotion’s heavyweight division.
Jones (27-1), the heavyweight champ and arguably the greatest fighter of all time, is scheduled to defend against Stipe Miocic (20-4) on Nov. 11. Aspinall headlines a card in his home country this weekend. The future narrative writes itself.
“Imagine if we could end up with an England vs. Jon Jones fight,” White said.
“If I’m not trying to fight Jon Jones, what am I doing? I’m just wasting my time. I want to fight Jon Jones and honestly, hand on heart, I think I can beat Jon Jones.”
Aspinall has imagined it plenty, although he has refrained from discussing it too much. Jones has been fighting professionally since 2008, six years before Aspinall made his pro debut. Jones has the most title fight wins in UFC history with 15, whereas Aspinall has yet to even beat an opponent ranked inside the top five of his division.
Aspinall says he believes in his abilities in a fight against Jones, but calling for it feels premature.
“Of course, I want to fight Jon Jones,” Aspinall said. “Every time I speak about it, people are like, ‘He doesn’t deserve to speak about Jon Jones,’ and I agree. Let me just say, I agree right now.
“But if I’m not trying to fight Jon Jones, what am I doing? I’m just wasting my time. I want to fight Jon Jones, and honestly, hand on heart, I think I can beat Jon Jones. Seriously, I do. I’ve not proved that I can do that, but I honestly believe I can.”
Maybe it’s premature for Aspinall to talk about the greatest of all time. Maybe. Or maybe it’s not. At all. If the president of the UFC is ready to talk about it, that’s a strong sign it’s perfectly fine to be talking about Jon Jones vs. Tom Aspinall.
Is Aspinall ready for something like that? No way of knowing unless it happens. But one thing is for sure. He’s more ready for it now than he was a year ago, and ironically, a nightmarish evening in his backyard of O2 Arena has a lot to do with that.