This weekend at UFC 295, big-hitting heavyweights Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall will collide with interim gold on the line.
The pair of top-five contenders will be making the walk inside the prestigious Madison Square Garden in New York City as the pay-per-view co-headliners.
Initially, championship stakes were set to come in the form of a long-awaited showdown between reigning kingpin Jon Jones and legendary former champ Stipe Miocic.
But with “Bones” suffering a torn pectoral tendon less than two weeks out, Aspinall answered the call to face Pavlovich, the previously planned backup fighter for the night.
While many have predicted a sizzling match-up, the Englishman remains unfazed by his opponent’s firepower.
He said: “It’s not really surreal for me. I feel completely comfortable here. I’ve got the heavyweight title shot in a few days, and I’m completely relaxed.
The 30-year-old was just as breezy about having a slightly shorter training camp than he wanted.
“Ideally, I would have liked longer, at least 10 weeks of this if I could,” Aspinall admitted.
“But I had two weeks, which is not by any stretch of the imagination a training camp. You’ve got a week to train, and you’re not putting in any hard sessions during fight week.
“There are some mental advantages, though; there’s not been a massive build-up of pressure like there usually is.
“I’m just going to go into New York City, have a scrap on Saturday, and so far, I feel pretty relaxed about it”.
“Since I had that knee injury, everything changed. Mentally, I had a massive switch, and what’s the point of being in this sport if you’re not trying to be the best?
“A lot of what was holding me back was knowing my body wasn’t in a good spot, and my training was poor, which meant I always felt that I needed a little bit longer to prepare.
“Now that my body’s good, I could beat anybody. I really believe in the phrase ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’. I will be in there Saturday night when many people said I couldn’t. I feel confident to fight five rounds with the best guy in the world on Saturday if I need to,” he said.
That might be the best moniker for an opponent that can finally justifiably claim to be the scariest knockout artist in the division after Francis Ngannou’s departure to the PFL. Fortunately, Aspinall is keyed into Pavlovich’s strengths.
He said: “he makes excellent decisions. On the outside, he’s this big, swinging guy, but he hits the right shots at the right time.
“There’s a lot of other people in the UFC who hit with a lot of power like him, but they’ve not got the record or credentials he’s got, or the first-round finishes and knockouts.”
That much is true. Not only does Pavlovich average the highest number of knockdowns per 15 minutes in UFC history (6.31), but in his last six fights, he’s only been in the octagon for a combined total of just over two complete rounds – 11 minutes and 37 seconds to be precise.
Though Aspinall envisions Pavlovich to be just as tricky as the data suggests, he still pits himself as an entirely different prospect.
He said: “he’ll see a heavyweight completely different from all the other heavyweights. He’s never fought anyone like me, and that’s one of the advantages I have going into this fight. Heavyweights don’t move like me.
“And I don’t take it too seriously either, or I’ll freeze up. Heavyweight title shot in Madison Square Garden? I’ve got to put that aside and enjoy it because this is my absolute dream.
“Come Saturday night, there’s nowhere else in the world I would rather be, nothing else I would rather do than fight Pavlovich,” he added.
Looking beyond MMA and into boxing, Aspinall also offered his insight on who Ngannou may fight next after the Cameroonian narrowly – and controversially – lost to Tyson Fury in his first-ever bout.
“I heard a rumour he’s going to fight Joseph Parker, and that’s definitely a fight I’d want to see,” he said.
“Parker brings it, even though he’s had a few losses here and there. Ngannou brings it, too. I’d love him to fight Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder; that would be incredible.”
Does he think Ngannou can beat those guys?
“Well, before last week, I would have said absolutely not. But what he did against Fury was absolutely unbelievable. I’m still in shock from it nearly two weeks on. So, yes, I think he can,” he answered with a smile.