Venue: O2 Arena, London Date: Saturday, 22 July
Coverage: Follow live text commentary and reaction on BBC Sport website & app from 21:00 BST

As Tom Aspinall and Curtis Blaydes shook hands before their showdown at the O2 Arena in London one year ago, the anticipation among fans climaxed.

In throwing a kick, Aspinall, 30, tore his medial collateral ligament (MCL) and his meniscus, and sustained damage to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

American Blaydes was declared the winner while Aspinall’s five-fight UFC winning streak, momentum and confidence were shattered.

Remarkably, it was an injury Aspinall had carried for years, first sustaining it before signing his maiden UFC contract in 2020, but one he never got time to fix as he steamrollered through opponents and catapulted up the heavyweight rankings.

  • Relaxed Aspinall jokes with Tybura at weigh-in

Although his knee completely gave up on him when the stakes were highest, it has allowed Aspinall to have surgery, solving a problem which has niggled away at him for his entire UFC career.

A year later he is set to make his return, headlining against Poland’s Marcin Tybura back at the O2 Arena at UFC London on Saturday.

“I feel like I’ve got a new leg to be honest with you,” Aspinall tells BBC Sport.

“My whole leg – it wasn’t just my knee – my whole leg was inactive for so long. My ankle and my hip were really stiff because I couldn’t use the leg really for years, so now it’s mobile, moving, explosive and feeling good.

“Being able to train with two legs is so much easier than it was before. Not only easier [physically], but easier mentally. I can do as many rounds as I want to do, as many different exercises and movements I want to do without the fear of my knee giving out or swelling up, so it’s great.”

Aspinall revealed that the hardest part of being injured was being left almost totally immobile.

“It’s just difficult in general to be injured, especially publicly. It’s a big blow to the ego to say the least, it’s not very nice,” said Aspinall.

“The toughest part was when I couldn’t walk and not be able to get up on my own, not be able to get a drink, not be able to go outdoors.

“It was a strange time but it’s over now. It’s all in the past and my knee is completely fixed and I’m really happy moving forward.”

‘The heavyweight division is the best it’s ever been’

Jon Jones after winning the UFC heavyweight title
Jones, widely regarded as the best fighter in MMA history, is the current UFC heavyweight champion

The heavyweight division has changed dramatically during Aspinall’s time on the sidelines.

In January, former champion Francis Ngannou was stripped of his title as he left the UFC, before later joining the PFL.

Jon Jones made the step up from light-heavyweight to defeat Ciryl Gane for the belt in March, and the UFC has set up a mouth-watering bout against former champion Stipe Miocic for his first defence in New York, on 11 November.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Sergei Pavlovich has dominated, earning three first-round knockouts inside a year, including a win over Blaydes in April, to rise to second in the rankings.

“I think the top 15 are the best [heavyweights] that’s ever been in the UFC in my opinion,” said Aspinall.

“These guys aren’t prospects, they’ve proved themselves as contenders, and it’s great.

“They all excite me, are all incredibly dangerous. I look forward to fighting any of them but my dream fight would be Jon Jones.”

Aspinall currently sits fifth in the heavyweight rankings and is facing a veteran five places below him in 37-year-old Tybura.

Last March, Aspinall defeated Alexander Volkov in London but during fight week, there were doubts whether the Russian would be allowed to compete following his country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Because of the uncertainty, Tybura was brought in as a back-up, so Aspinall spent the days leading up to the event preparing for both fighters.

“It was always like a bit of unfinished business between me and Tybura. He’s turned up to fight me and we’ve not got to fight, and I always felt a bit unsettled with that,” said Aspinall.

“I think he’s a dangerous opponent. The guy is good everywhere, can do everything well, he’s very durable, has an unorthodox style, so I have to make sure I’m well prepared.”

‘If I can be like my grandad that’s pretty good’

Aspinall’s bout with Tybura will be his 16th in almost nine years as a professional, but it will be his first without his grandfather Peter, who passed away in May.

In a post on Instagram,external-link Aspinall described his grandfather as a “legend” and “the head of his family”.

“He was an important factor in my life and that all gears towards your career,” said Aspinall.

“He’s very proud of me. I’m a bit sad to know the last time he saw me fight was when I got injured. I just hope that wherever he is now he can see the next one.

“This will be my first one without him so it’s going to be an emotional day.”

Aspinall continued: “He was a really pleasant, laid back, nice to be around person. A lot of people say that I have a similar personality.

“If I can be similar to that, always pleasant, if I can be like that, that’s pretty good.”

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