NEW YORK (AP) — Tom Aspinall sat in the locker room in the hours before a UFC title fight that came together in a matter of weeks and really only had one thought:
“What am I doing,” Aspinall asked himself.
Aspinall could say it now, he pulled a muscle in his back and didn't have much of a training camp. The Englishman in New York — he walked out to the Sting hit song — had visa issues. Aspinall even had to cancel a planned vacation with his family.
So what was Aspinall doing? Try winning a championship in only his eighth UFC fight.
Alex Pereira used a series of elbows to Jirí Procházka's head to win the vacant UFC light heavyweight championship and Aspinall became the first British heavyweight to win gold in the UFC 295 title fights Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“The UK guy is the world champion,” Aspinall said. “I'm the best in the world now.”
Well, Jon Jones might have a beef with that decree.
Aspinall knocked out Sergei Pavlovich in the first round for the interim heavyweight championship in front of a packed crowd that included former President Donald Trump. Aspinall then campaigned for a championship fight in England against Jones.
“Give me my dream fight,” Aspinall said. "Let me fight for my legacy, please."
The interim title fight was a late addition to the card after Jones tore a pectoral tendon off the bone during training late last month. He needed surgery and his heavyweight title defense against Stipe Miocic at the Garden was called off.
While UFC waits for Jones to return, it’s Aspinall who now holds the gold.
“It's been a crazy 2 1/2 weeks,” Aspinall said.
Jones congratulated Aspinall on social media, writing, “ that was an awesome performance! ”
His teary celebration lasted longer than the fight. Aspinall needed only 69 seconds to earn his 11th career knockout win — he has made it to the second round just once in his eight UFC fights — and then collapsed in tears on the canvas. Aspinall landed consecutive rights to Pavlovich's temple that sent the Russian crashing to the canvas.
“He's a big, scary guy,” Aspinall said. “I've never been as scared in my life as fighting this guy. But I've got a lot of power, too, and I believe in myself.”
Aspinall draped himself against the cage as fans roared for the new champ.
Not much later in the main event, Pereira won his second UFC championship in just his seventh fight for the promotion. Pereira, who won the middleweight championship last November at MSG, badly hurt Procházka and the fight was stopped at 4:08 of the second round. Procházka had won 13 straight MMA fights, including his first three in UFC.
Pereira became the ninth fighter in UFC history to win championships in two weight classes.
The light heavyweight division had been without a champion since Jamahal Hill relinquished the title in July after he was injured in a pickup basketball game. Hill was at the Garden to watch the fights.
He wasn't the only name in the house.
Trump and musician Kid Rock were greeted by cheers and “USA! USA!” chants as they walked to their cageside seats ahead of the start of the main card. UFC President Dana White accompanied Trump and Kid Rock and watched the fights with them. Trump slapped hands with fans and mingled with visitors.
The fighters couldn't help but notice the celebrities in the crowd.
“It was some pretty trippy scenes over there," Aspinall said, laughing.
Former UFC 115-pound champion Jéssica Andrade snapped a three-fight losing streak with a TKO win over MacKenzie Dern at 3:15 of the second round. Andrade became the first woman in UFC history to earn four knockdowns in a single fight and tied Amanda Nunes for most wins in UFC women’s history with 16.
UFC has run a major card in November at Madison Square Garden every year (except for 2020) since New York legalized MMA in time for a 2016 debut. Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre and Daniel Cormier all headlined pay-per-views at MSG and this one promised to perhaps be the biggest main event yet — Jones defending his heavyweight crown against Miocic.
Jones, on the short list of great MMA fighters, tore a tendon during training last month and was forced to withdraw. White then deemed an interim championship fight was beneath a fighter of Miocic’s stature. The two-time heavyweight champ, Miocic has not fought since March 2021.
The bout could be rescheduled for as early as next summer, depending on Jones’ health.
“That's the fight they want, that's the fight that makes sense, that's the fight that should happen,” White said.
Even without the anticipated fight, there was reason for the company to celebrate with 19,039 fans and a $12.4 million gate at MSG. UFC now holds the top-three spots for highest gate at the Garden. Also, Sunday marks 30 years since the company's debut show, UFC 1.
UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie won three fights that night in Denver in a no-rules tournament that was just the start for the billion-dollar company owned by Endeavor that now stands as the global leader in MMA.
UFC was built on personalities as much as great fights and New York native and recovering drug addict Jared Gordon gave fans at the Garden a reason to cheer.
Gordon scored his first KO since 2017 when he beat 2016 Olympic silver medal wrestler Mark Madsen in a prelims bout. Gordon has been open about his drug issues, overdoses and difficulty staying clean while pursing a brutal MMA career. He had a new reason to appreciate fighting in New York.
”I used to shoot heroin in Penn Station underneath this building," he said. “Now I'm fighting in it and knocking guys out.”