From almost quitting the sport for good, to signing for the biggest martial arts organisation in the world, Salford-born UFC heavyweight Tom Aspinall has made waves since his ascent to MMA’s summit, showing exactly why he’s one of the most highly touted prospects to come out of the UK.
Tom’s father, Andy, a Jiu-Jitsu coach and lifelong MMA fan, wanted to see his son succeed in something he loves. For Tom that was mixed martial arts.
Although a promising golfer and having dabbled in rugby, he would always excel in combat sports, adopting his father’s Jiu-Jitsu roots initially, assisting him with the development of his own craft and attending the sessions he would teach.
Even from the early days of Tom immersing himself in the world of MMA and learning the different crafts, Andy maintains that his son was the best finisher he had ever seen from his time watching the sport, whether it be submitting people in Jiu-Jitsu or putting people down in boxing, it was clear Tom had a knack for any combat artform he would invest his time into.
With great confidence in his son, Andy decided to convince him that this was a viable career path, believing and knowing full well, Tom was an anomaly.
Of course, the level of talent Tom possesses and freakish attributes he has for a heavyweight was sure to garner some interest from MMA promotions, but the problem wasn’t a lack of interest from organisations, it was a lack of interest from potential opponents.
Tom was a young talented heavyweight trying to make a name for himself, he is fast, composed, explosive, powerful, an opponent’s worst nightmare, thus making it very difficult for him to secure many bouts at all in the early stages of his career.
Andy secured a role at Team Kaobon in Liverpool as a Jiu-Jitsu instructor, giving Tom access to top tier training partners and high-level coaching in a gym that had UFC competitors among their ranks.
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Still being very young and taking on such tough competition not only raised his game but instilled that work rate needed to compete at the top level. Still in education, Andy spoke about how Tom could not wait to come home every day, get his gloves on and go sparring. It was his passion.
Although it was his passion, the lack of fights once he started his career prompted a change of heart. Tom decided to try his hand at boxing instead.
He’d been competing in MMA professionally for 2 years and a lack of fights meant a lack of progression. The boxing path was certainly a decision he thought he wanted, with Andy having links with the Fury family, Tom was initially paid as a sparring partner for heavyweight champion of the world, Tyson Fury. A priceless experience that would give him the best preparation possible to venture down this new path.
After competing in his first boxing bout in 2017, Tom secured a knockout in the very first round. Following this and his subsequent boxing training, he decided that it wasn’t as exciting to him as he thought, he needed something more.
When he was younger and finished people in competitions based in multiple different disciplines, this was his domain, he was a natural fighter, not with a restricted ruleset but one which encompasses the many tools he’d utilised and refined at a young age. With some persuasion from his father, Tom decided to make the jump back to MMA, putting his heart and soul into his craft and pushing forward no matter what may be there to hold him back.
His potential was unlocked yet again, it never left, that raw talent and uncanny heavyweight mobility, paired with a fight brain beyond his years, the UK’s premier MMA organisation soon came knocking.
Cage Warriors picked Tom up on their roster and within the span of just 8 months, he had amassed two first-round finishes, this was all that was needed before the sports peak was clearly visible. Earlier in his career, Tom had been approached by the UFC but felt he wasn’t experienced enough to make the run at that stage.
This time however it was different, he had steamrolled two tough opponents on the European circuit after a revitalised focus on the sport he loves. So after just a year back competing in the sport of MMA, Tom had landed himself a contract with the UFC, the largest MMA organisation in the world.
“If he wasn’t good enough to do combat sports, I wouldn’t have let him, do it” – Andy’s confidence in Tom’s abilities was certainly warranted, and soon, the whole world would know about it on the biggest stage of all.
Andy told me that he’d “never seen a better finisher” than Tom and that his ability to find openings and pounce on them was second to none. This quality was blatantly evident in Tom’s maiden first 2 UFC appearances when he finished Jake Collier and Alan Baudot both in the very first round, putting the world and the UFC heavyweight division on notice. He proved he was good enough for the big show and certainly set himself up for a step up in competition.
His third and most recent bout in the UFC was the one that was surreal to Andy himself. Tom had drawn none other than former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski.
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Andrei was a UFC staple when Andy first got into MMA, he made his UFC debut when Tom was just 7 years old and is a very accomplished mixed martial artist. This was a true test of the finishing ability Tom possesses and if he was really ready for the heavyweight elite.
Andrei had only been finished in the last 5 years by guys who either challenged for the belt or were top 5 in the world. As composed as ever, Tom went out there and did what he does best, taking out the battle tested veteran in round 2 with a slick submission. “You’ll never ever see a better takedown and a better choke, that fast against anyone in any division” said Andy, that killer instinct had been well and truly proven, and with a win like that, the Salford born UFC star, Tom Aspinall, found himself in the top 15 of the division with a ceiling that is as high as he wants it to be.
The relationship between Andy and Tom is truly a special one. A lot of people in this industry do their business with family supporting and watching from the sidelines, Andy however has experienced everything with Tom, they live on the same road, they train together, and they grow together. “Tom said he doesn’t ever hear any voice apart from mine”, this demonstrates the trust they have for one another and the fact that even though Andy is his Jiu-Jitsu coach, he just trusts him with general advice during the fight no matter which art it refers to. This is reinforced by the story Andy told me about when Tom trained with the Fury’s for boxing, Peter Fury wanted Andy in Tom’s corner because he knew Andy is the voice he would listen to, even though he isn’t a boxing coach, that voice of a father just being there as guidance for his son was all he needed.
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I asked Andy about what it’s like to experience the whole journey with his son as opposed to just being at home and watching it on TV, he told me “He’s my friend”. This alone indicates the sort of dynamic they have, he’s not just a son but he’s also a friend, they have similar friends, are so involved in each other’s lives and ultimately, martial arts have been a major factor in doing this.
From a young boy trying to find his path to a UFC contender with championship hopes on the horizon, Tom found his passion, harnessed it and became a virtuoso, setting out a future in MMA that is destined for greatness.
Snippet of my interview with Andy: