Tom Aspinall’s UFC debut lasted 45 seconds.
Fortunately for the fast-rising British heavyweight prospect, it was he who came out on top, delivering on a promise generated through an already-stellar start to his professional career.
Riding a seven-fight win streak – all stoppages – Aspinall dispatched veteran Jake Collier with a thudding right on the first Fight Island in Abu Dhabi in July to announce his arrival on the grand stage in grandiose fashion.
Climbing to 8-2 in pro mixed martial arts, Aspinall not only signalled his intent in the world’s lead MMA promotion, but he landed a nice Performance of the Night bonus, too.
"That was an amazing moment for me, especially getting the bonus," the Englishman tells The National from his hotel room in Abu Dhabi, as he gets set for a second UFC appearance on Sunday at UFC Fight Night. "I'd been struggling financially for years to try and make this stuff work and to finally get the money out of it was really good.
"But obviously I believe in myself and I knew I was going to make it work one day even through the rough times. It was just a real relief that it’s all starting to pay off now.”
A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Aspinall had previously left MMA for a brief stint in professional boxing, at one stage acting as sparring partner to world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.
However, he returned to his chosen craft in 2017 and, after excelling in Cage Warriors, signed with the UFC last October. Injury and personal issues delayed his debut, but Aspinall more than made up for lost time against Collier.
Saying that, blockbuster bow secure, the father-of-three insists life hasn’t changed much at all.
“Not really to be honest,” Aspinall, 27, says. “It’s hard to say because we’re not living a normal life at the moment, are we? You don’t go anywhere with big numbers. I don’t really get recognised or anything like that.
“My life’s really simple anyway: I go on the school run and go to the gym and back, and that’s basically it. I don’t do anything else. Obviously my Instagram’s busier, but apart from that I don’t really feel any difference.
“It’s not been a massive adjustment. Like I say, there’s stuff on social media: I get more messages, which is really nice because most of them are positive as well. I try and get back to everyone as much as I can. Apart from that, everything’s still pretty much the same: school run, gym and that’s it.
UFC Fight Night 3 in July
"I’ve still got a lot of stuff I want to do in this sport and I’ve got another 10 years of working hard at it. So I’m just focused on my fights really.”
With that in mind, Aspinall has sights set firmly on Sunday. He had been scheduled to face Sergey Spivak, whom he called out after his July victory, but the Moldovan-Ukrainian tested positive recently for Covid-19, meaning French debutant Alan Baudot steps into the breach at Flash Forum.
Still, the 6-foot-six-inch Aspinall is taking the late switch in his giant stride.
“He’s completely different, so it’s not ideal, but this is martial arts, anything can happen in there anyway,” he says. “So you have to be ready for it all.
“I’m just lucky to be just there fighting, because that’s what I love doing. [Fight Island] brings a massive opportunity for everyone to do what they love at this tough time. I know personally a lot of people who’ve lost their jobs, and we can still come out here, to an amazing place, and live our dreams when a lot of people can’t even go to work in the morning. So I just feel so lucky to be able to come and do it.”
Now here, Aspinall wants to prove again that he’s here to stay in a heavyweight division he considers to be on the rise. To his credit, he is preaching patience, intent on trusting the process, interested first in honing his talent and ensuring there’s a long and lucrative career in the UFC in front.
“I’m nowhere near the finished product, I’m still learning,” Aspinall says. “We’re not going to do anything or get pushed into anything we don’t want to do. I’m not trying to run before I can walk. I’m just going to be learning and taking my time and doing it the right way, rather than rise up too quick and get knocked down too quick.
“I’m going to be up there when I’m ready, rather than looking for the big fights straight away. These kinds of fights against these kinds of guys are perfect for me. So I’m happy with where I am right now, happy just going at slow pace.”
Not that he’s unsure of his ability, or unable to handle the pressure that comes with his swift ascent.
“This is what I love; I love that. This is what I always expected,” Aspinall says. “In my mind this was the way it was going to go for years, way before I even turned professional.
“I know I’m going to be the best in the world, I know that I’m special. And I know that people can see it. Obviously there’s going to be people as well who say I can’t do it. But it doesn’t really matter what anyone says. I know that I can.”
Asked where that confidence takes root, Aspinall pauses before delivering, rather appropriately, a knockout answer.
“I just think I’m better,” he says. “I’ve just got a good skill set and I don’t think many heavyweights do have. A lot of heavyweights are dangerous – if they hit you, you can go over – but I don’t think a lot of them are very skilled. And I’ve been taught properly by good coaches since I started.
“I just think my mindset is a lot different to other people. Because I absolutely love this sport, I absolutely love everything about it. I live for it.”