Tom Aspinall's rise up the UFC ranks has been under incredibly unique circumstances, debuting for the promotion during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore competing inside mostly empty venues in his first four trips to the Octagon.
Things will be vastly different for the British heavyweight on Saturday, when he headlines UFC Fight Night 204 in front of a sold-out audience in England at The O2 Arena.
"It's feeling pretty good right now," Aspinall told reporters at Wednesday's media day in London. "I'm absolutely loving life. This is my dream, so looking forward to Saturday. Going to be the absolute time of my life. I'm going to go in there and enjoy it."
Aspinall (11-2 MMA, 4-0 UFC) has impressed in his UFC run thus far, looking every bit the part of a future title contender while racking up four stoppage victories and three "Performance of the Night" bonuses along the way. But at Saturday's event, which streams live on ESPN+, he'll face the toughest test of his career in 6-foot-7 Russian striker Alexander Volkov (34-9 MMA, 8-3 UFC).
Aspinall said he enlisted the help of vaunted kickboxers Rico Verhoeven and Benjamin Adegbuyi to assist him in preparation for the challenge, leaving him incredibly confident ahead of the clash.
"I think I've improved more in this camp than I have in the last two years, honestly," Aspinall said. "I feel so good. I feel in such a good place mentally, as well, like I'm just here enjoying it – but this is what my focus is on: just enjoying it. I'm not even thinking about the result, to be honest. I'm not even thinking about how I'm going to finish the fight or if it's going to go the distance. I couldn't give a s---. I'm just going to go in there and have the time of my life. This is my dream, and I want to enjoy it."
Aspinall's preparation for Saturday was clouded with a bit of uncertainty along the way. The political pushback following Russia's invasion of Ukraine left Volkov uncertain as to whether he would be able to secure a visa to travel to England for the fight. Aspinall admitted it wasn't exactly ideal circumstances ahead of his first UFC headliner, but he also realized that it wasn't anything he could control, either.
"It was difficult, to be honest, but in them situations, you've got two options, really: You can either completely lose your s--- or just try and focus on yourself," Aspinall said. "Obviously, I was trying to just focus on myself, but there was a couple of days I nearly lost my s---, I'll be honest. But both of those options don't really change anything, like if he can come or not. It doesn't really change if I lose my s--- or not, so I was just trying to just focus on myself, and yeah, there's not a lot that I can personally do, so I was just trying to focus on what I can control."
At 28, Aspinall is expected to be a relevant name in the UFC's heavyweight division for some time to come, but in Volkov, he faces an athlete who has been a champion in other promotions and a top contender in the UFC throughout his five-plus years in the organization. Aspinall realizes the numbers don't necessarily lean in his favor but also knows that's not what determines who walks away with a win.
"If you look at the fight, like if you look at the stats on paper, this is a complete mismatch in his favor," Aspinall said. "I'm aware of that. Like he has got so much more experience than me. He's fought far more high-level guys than me. He's been in the top 10 for I don't know how many years at this point. I'm just, you know, an up-and-coming guy breaking into the top 10 on paper, but on paper doesn't really mean nothing when it comes to actual fighting."
Should Aspinall prove victorious on Saturday, he'll likely find himself headlining another UFC event very soon and on a shortlist of potential title contenders. Of course, there is a very large task at hand first in Volkov, which Aspinall readily admits is "the biggest test of my career by far."
Still, Aspinall plans to relish the experience on Saturday, featuring in his first UFC main event and walking out to a packed house for the first time.
"I feel like I need to go out there on Saturday night and enjoy this thing; that's it," Aspinall said. "I'm not bothered about putting a statement on, not bothered about knocking anyone out, not bothered about doing an exciting fight – not bothered about any of that stuff. What I'm bothered about is living my dream Saturday night, and that's it."
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