This is where Sergei Pavlovich always expected to be.
While the circumstances may be a little unusual, and neither the setting nor the opponent were ever really considerations, the bare bones of what is set to transpire this weekend has been the objective for the streaking Russian heavyweight from the outset of his mixed martial arts career.
“The goal was always to get to this day,” said Pavlovich, who faces Tom Aspinall in the co-main event of UFC 295 in a battle for the interim heavyweight title. “I have been waiting for a long, long time for this moment.”
As recently as a couple weeks ago, the 31-year-old wasn’t officially taking part in this weekend’s return to Madison Square Garden.
Currently stationed at No. 2 in the heavyweight rankings, Pavlovich was chosen as the backup fighter for the heavyweight championship clash between Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic that was originally programmed to headline Saturday’s pay-per-view. He was in camp, readying to make weight in case his services were needed when news came down two weeks ago that Jones had suffered an injury and was forced from the highly anticipated heavyweight clash.
Rather than step in for “Bones,” that pairing was preserved for a later date, and Pavlovich was instead matched off with Aspinall, with the two ascending standouts facing off for the interim title and a chance to face the winner of the Jones-Miocic pairing once that contest comes to pass.
“I kept in mind that I could change for somebody in the fight between Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones,” began Pavlovich, explaining his thoughts on finding his way into a championship bout opposite Aspinall. “I expected that I would be one of them.
“In my mind, I was preparing for the title,” he added. “When I got the news I was going to be the backup for the fight, I was expecting for this to happen.”
UFC 295 Breakdown | Sergei Pavlovich vs Tom Aspinall
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UFC 295 Breakdown | Sergei Pavlovich vs Tom Aspinall
Most fighters will tell you that they expect to fight for UFC gold in the future, with many suggesting they’re ready for that challenge prior to even having touched down in the Octagon because that’s the level of confidence and self-belief it takes to reach this level.
It sounds altogether different coming from someone that has forged a path to title contention; that has bounced back from a loss in their promotional debut by rampaging through the next six opponents they’ve faced, stopping each of them without exiting the first round.
The fact that it’s been Pavlovich’s message for the last several fights adds a little something different to the delivery, as well.
"For me, I’m not surprised that I’m going to fight for the title because it’s supposed to happen,” offered Pavlovich, who posted four wins in 13 months after going without a fight in 2020 and 2021 as a result of injuries and travel issues. “I’ve been fighting for a long time, I’ve won six fights in a row, and if not this one, the next one was going to be for a title shot.
“After Curtis Blaydes, the UFC was saying the winner of this fight is going to have a title shot, so I was expecting it 100 percent after that fight,” continued the streaking contender, who dispatched Blaydes in May to run his record to 18-1 overall, with 15 of those victories coming by way of first-round stoppage. “There was a change in some plans, but I was thinking I was next in line.”
Shifting from being the backup and potentially facing Jones or Miocic to a fresh pairing with Aspinall is a considerable switch, as the British heavyweight offers very different stylistic problems to contend with than either the injured champion Jones or the two-time titleholder Miocic.
But just as Pavlovich always expected to be fighting for UFC gold at one point, he also knew that it was inevitable he would one day share the Octagon with Aspinall, and viewed the challenge of readying for Saturday’s meeting as almost entirely mental.
“Yes, of course,” he said quickly when asked if he expected to face the surging British heavyweight at some point, breaking out a smile as he responded in English rather than having his coach translate for him.
“First there is the mental preparation, and if you’re mentally ready, it doesn’t matter who you’re against,” added Pavlovich, who wrapped his camp at American Top Team in South Florida. “I was ready for the wrestling, the striking; I was ready to exchange with one of them at the last minute.
“As soon as I was mentally ready, all the other work is easy to do. It’s been 10 years of work in MMA and there is a lot of work done in order to get here.”
That mindset and approach — that everything from Day One has been in service of reaching this point, and that getting here was inevitable — is a big part of what has made Pavlovich someone to keep close tabs on throughout his UFC journey, and a fighter that felt destined to be in this position once he returned to action and continued decimating everyone that stood in his way.
As I said after speaking with him prior to his fight with Blaydes in May, the “matter of fact” manner in which Pavlovich and many of his compatriots speak about their careers and ascending the ranks isn’t because they’re unaffected by their accomplishments or trying to be stoic — it’s genuinely that they are goal-oriented, and there is really only one goal: UFC gold.
And now, after laying waste to Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa, Derrick Lewis, and Shamil Abdurakhimov since returning last year in London, he’s shifted his focus to the man that closed out that raucous night at The O2 Arena last March.
"Tom Aspinall is a strong fighter, a real warrior,” Pavlovich said of his opponent. “He’s very good on the ground, in the striking, and it’s definitely going to be a fight.
“I promise to show my best and make a real show; anybody that comes won’t forget this fight,” he added. “The goal is to finish him, and after that, I am No. 1.”
UFC 295: Procházka vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 11, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!