When she spoke to MMAjunkie 15 months ago, Mackenzie Dern wasn’t there yet, but she knew a time would come when jiu-jitsu would have to take a backseat to MMA.
Then two wins into her pro MMA career, the grappling ace said she simply couldn’t yet live off her new sport. Jiu-jitsu remained a passion and something that Dern still excelled at. More pragmatically, it was still what paid the bills.
Now things have changed.
Dern went on to fight three more times, with three wins. The last of them, a submission over Kaline Medeiros at Invicta FC 26, stamped Dern’s ticket to the UFC. She meets fellow strawweight Ashley Yoder on March 3 at UFC 222 in Las Vegas.
And so the time has come for a slight shift in focus.
“It’s very hard, because I really love jiu-jitsu,” Dern told MMAjunkie. “It’s very hard for me to just drop it. But, from the start, I said that when I joined the UFC – which has a much better fight purse than other promotions and is a much higher level – I said I would focus 100 percent in MMA.”
OK, so it’s more like 90 percent.
“I want to keep doing super fights if I don’t have an MMA fight scheduled,” Dern said. “I want to fight the World Championships, ADCC, the major ones. If I don’t have an MMA fight scheduled, I’ll try to do that. Obviously, I won’t fight the smaller championships like I did before.
“But I know that now I have to put 100 percent of dedication into MMA. So the priority will be MMA. Around May or June, I’ll try not to schedule MMA fights in order to be in the World Championships or something. But the priority will be MMA.”
RelatedVideo: Watch Mackenzie Dern get the tap in her Invicta FC debut
Of course, Dern is not just any UFC debutant. A jiu-jitsu practitioner since she was 3, she brings in more than two decades’ worth of mat experience and multiple world titles. As it happens with fighters who have done so much in a previous field, like Bellator’s Aaron Pico, the grappling ace has been watched from her very first time in a cage.
Sure, that means everyone got to watch as Dern scored three submission wins – including a particularly elaborate finish over “TUF 26” alum Montana De La Rosa. But, on the flip side, it also means everyone got to see her missing weight twice.
While some fighters get to grow quietly in the amateur circle, making their mistakes away from the public eye, whatever Dern does – good or bad – gets put under the microscope.
“For sure, there’s a lot of criticism,” Dern said. “Toward my striking or the fact that I missed weight. Maybe a lot more than other fighters who are just getting this experience. I think the thing I hear the most is to not be like Ronda Rousey, who thought she was a striker and fought a girl who had good timing and movement and lost.”
That’s an interesting way to get compared to former 135-pound UFC champion Rousey. A few years ago, the dominant judoka was seen as the ultimate compass for success in MMA. But then, after back-to-back knockout losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes, respectively, her striking ability came under fire – and, with it, a lot of her credibility.
Dern looks at these types of comments two ways.
“It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to not make mistakes other fighters have made,” Dern said. “The fact that everyone is watching, critiquing, making these comments – I think it’s good, even. Because it keeps reminding me that I’m from jiu-jitsu.
“But I also like proving myself. I like proving people wrong – or even proving them right, too. I take it in stride. I don’t see it as a bad thing.”
Dern has been presented with the classic MMA dilemma, which seems particularly tricky considering lifelong grapplers: How to stay true to yourself and stick to your strengths without becoming one-dimensional – or even boring.
It’s a thin line, but so far Dern has been able to toe it.
RelatedUsually the one eating punches in training, LFA's Mackenzie Dern happy to land some of her own
Although most of her wins have stemmed from her area of expertise, she got to showcase her improved striking in her two most recent outings. Against Mandy Polk at LFA 24, Dern set up her submission with punches. Then in her Invicta FC debut in December, Dern rocked Medeiros a couple times before an armlock late in the third round.
“I feel a lot better (about my striking),” Dern said. “In my first fights, I thought a lot before throwing a punch. I thought, ‘I’ll throw a jab and a right hand.’ And, as I took that time to think, I was already a step behind. Now … Of course, I don’t have many combos yet. I have about three combos that are instinctive. But this is evolution.
“I’m getting to a point where I don’t really have to think that much about what I’m going to do. I can see openings. I can see the punches, too, on the defensive bit. When she punches me, I’m not closing my eyes as much. I look at my opponent a lot more.”
To a point, Dern reasons, that’s inevitable. Considering the sheer amount of time and practice that have been put into honing her striking, it would be basically impossible for her not to evolve from her first MMA bout. But it’s also the product of something that she has applied to every aspect of her life.
“I never think that I already know everything,” Dern said. “I’m always open to learning. Even in jiu-jitsu, which is my strong suit and I’ve been training for 21 years, I’m sure there’s a lot to evolve and learn.”
‘I don’t want to get punched in the face forever’
It’s with the same humble, open approach that Dern is preparing for her UFC debut. Sure, she feels absolutely prepared to be at the highest level – and even thinks it could’ve happened sooner if not for surgery earlier this year and her weight misses. But she knows there’s still a way to go before she reaches the likes of champ Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Even when it comes to assessing her opponent, Dern prefers to take guidance from those who have been doing this longer than she has.
“I’m not at the level yet, where I can study my opponents,” Dern said. “I don’t even know my own game yet. I’m getting to know myself as an athlete, so I leave it up to my team to watch tape and study them.”
Dern is fully aware of the attention that will be on her when she enters the cage at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. And she knows that, while many are supportive, there’s also a portion just waiting to pounce on her should this become her first loss in MMA.
“There have been people saying that I’ll get my ass beat, that I’ll lose like Ronda Rousey,” Dern said. “MMA is a lot more aggressive than jiu-jitsu in that aspect, so it’s something I’m getting used to – focusing on the good, on the people near me.
“I don’t care too much. I’ve been practicing focusing on myself and on my training. I take vacations. I have my life.”
Mackenzie Dern at LFA 6. (Legacy Fighting Alliance)
There’s also the fact that, before, Dern represented women on the mats. Now that she’s on a new stage, she’s taken it upon herself to represent both women and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In that sense, she ponders, the more attention, the merrier.
Dern’s athletic career has been one to admire. And the strawweight, just like every other UFC athlete, hopes to achieve that same type of success in the octagon, too. Whether she’ll get there, we’ll see. But you might want to get your Dern fix while you can, because she’s not going to be around forever.
“I don’t want to stay in MMA for too many years,” Dern said. “I’ve accomplished a lot in jiu-jitsu. I come from such a big history in jiu-jitsu. I dedicated so many years to this sport. I want a life, too. I want to have kids. I want to get married. I want to do these things. I don’t want to get punched in the face forever. I want to get in there and evolve as an athlete.
“I know what I need to achieve that, to be a UFC champion. How long it’s going to take, I don’t know. I hope it’s not 10 years. I hope it’s more like three years. But that’s just a guideline. I want to keep evolving, as fast as I have been. I don’t think I’m going too fast or too slow.
“I think I’m going at the right pace. I’m 24, and I think I’m at my peak. I think things are happening at the right time. Hopefully I won’t get injured. I want to stay healthy and keep going like this.”
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