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There are few fighters in the UFC as qualified to identify the hallmarks of a future champion as the welterweight supremo, Kamaru Usman.
‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ has risen from the depths of relative obscurity over the course of his career to now sit unassailably atop the pound-for-pound rankings having left a trail of contenders beaten and broken in his wake.
This week, the Love Hemp ambassador sat down with BT Sport as the UFC prepares to make its first appearance in London for three years, turning athlete to analyst to run the rule over our very own rising heavyweight star, Tom Aspinall.
Aspinall, 11-2 (9 KO), has made a blazing start to his own UFC career, winning all four of his trips to the Octagon so far in increasingly stylish fashion.
And despite the 28-year-old’s frequent promises to take the scenic route on his way to heavyweight contender status, performances have dictated that Aspinall must be fast-tracked towards the top five sooner rather than later.
As such, Saturday night’s headline tilt against perennial contender Alexander Volkov will go a long way to finding out whether Aspinall can continue delivering on his potential as a future champion – and he has caught Usman’s eye on his ascent through the land of the giants thus far.
“I think he’s a great athlete,” Usman told BTSport.com this week.
“A very, very good athlete. I love the way that he is able to bounce in and out [of range] and at heavyweight that’s not easy to do because… it’s heavyweight! Any shot can end your night.
“I think that [distance control] is his biggest attribute but at the same time, when you haven’t fought someone that has the experience as someone like Volkov and gone that distance for those championship rounds like Volkov has, it’s going to be difficult.”
Aspinall’s four wins so far in the UFC have seen him spend less than 11 minutes inside the Octagon – a stat that pales in comparison to Volkov’s 2hrs and 48mins under the bright lights of the world’s leading MMA promotion.
“Tom is used to being able to go in and demolish someone and run through them, to do whatever he wants,” Usman continued.
“What happens when you can’t do that? How are you able to deal with that heart? How will you deal with that in your mind? There’s going to be a moment in that fight when you two hit each other and he’s still there and in your mind it’s like ‘oh, I don’t hit hard enough, how can I get him out of here?’.
“Being able to deal with that mental battle with yourself is so important. But I put nothing past him I think he’s a great athlete and he’s certainly capable of dealing with it. He's dealt with his rise well so far.”
Aspinall’s ascent over the past 18 months has also piqued the interest of fellow Brit Michael Bisping – Britain’s first and, to date, only UFC champion having ruled the middleweight division back in 2016.
He's potentially a champion
- Bisping on Aspinall
Speaking to talkSPORT last year, the 43-year-old labelled Aspinall “championship material” after watching the big man from Southport make light work of former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski.
“He has the speed, which is important. Speed kills power and on top of that he has the power,” Bisping said.
“He’s a big dude, he can wrestle, has heavy hands, is agile. He’s potentially a champion.
“In the heavyweight division, you’ve got some monsters right now like Francis Ngannou.
“I wouldn’t be throwing him in against Francis anytime soon… but Tom has got a very bright future and I’m excited to watch him grow.”
A win on Saturday night however would propel Aspinall even closer to a potential showdown against Ngannou, leaving him perhaps just one fight away from challenging the Cameroonian king for the belt.
Heavyweight king Ngannou is a man whom Usman knows well having grown close to the 35-year-old since Ngannou’s move to Las Vegas from Paris, even cornering ‘The Predator’ in two of his most recent fights.
With a front row seat to Ngannou’s last performance, Usman watched on as his friend shocked the MMA world by deploying a brand-new skillset to defeat interim champion Cyril Gane, relying on his improving wrestling and ground game to neutralise Gane’s cerebral striking skills.
But how would that second evolution of Francis Ngannou match up against Aspinall in a potential future heavyweight clash?
“It’s very, very scary because Francis Ngannou is not the guy that you trade a punch with if you want to be still standing to tell the tale about it. When he connects, people fall down,” Usman replied.
“Yes of course, Aspinall is elusive, he’s good. He’s very good, I’m not taking anything away from him. But Francis now? Wrestling as well… it’s like, which way can he not beat you?
“If you trade punches with him, most likely you’re going to be waking up after the fight. But now being able to wrestle and actually get the fight down to the ground and use his jiu-jitsu, it’s a very, very scary development for the heavyweight division.”
For now, Aspinall’s focus will be trained solely on the man standing opposite him on Saturday night.
But should the Team Kaobon man produce another statement performance that fans have almost come to expect – don’t be surprised to hear Aspinall’s name in the mix whenever Ngannou makes his return to the Octagon.
Kamaru Usman is an ambassador for Love Hemp, the UK’s leading supplier of CBD products. To find out more head to www.lovehemp.com