LAS VEGAS — Mackenize Dern was one of the most heralded prospects to join the UFC when she signed a contract and made her debut on March 3, 2018.
Dern’s jiu-jitsu credentials were impeccable — she’s a multi-time world champion and won gold at the 2015 ADCC World Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil — and she seemed as if she were born to fight.
And, in a way, she was. Her father, Wellington “Megaton” Dias, is a black belt in both jiu-jitsu and judo and started her training when she was still a toddler.
When she joined the UFC in 2018, she’d hit the big-time and was enjoying life.
“I was training since I was 3 years old, and I’m not going to say I was burned out, but I was going through a little bit of a rebellious stage,” Dern told Yahoo Sports. “I was fighting, but more because people were saying, ‘Oh, you should do it.’ People were putting pressure on me to fight. I wanted to look for new goals and man, I was tired. I was tired of training. I was tired of competing, [which I had done] my whole life.”
She got pregnant in late 2018 and her daughter, Moa, was born on June 9, 2019. Moa’s birth was the tonic that lifted Dern out of the doldrums and helped her to realize her potential. She’s won four in a row, looking increasingly dangerous each time out, and is now ninth on the Yahoo Sports women’s pound-for-pound list.
She’s also tied for fourth in the UFC strawweight rankings and on Saturday at Apex, she’ll headline her first show when she meets Marina Rodriguez in the main event of UFC Vegas 39.
She’s 4-1 since Moa’s birth, her only loss to Amanda Ribas on Oct. 12, 2019, only fourth months after becoming a mother for the first time. She’s been flawless since, both in her performance and, most importantly, in her approach.
“When I became pregnant, I took the nine months, kind of relaxing,” Dern said. “It was good because my daughter, she took all the muscle, but she absorbed a lot of the fat, too. I was kind of able to start from zero. My body restarted. My metabolism had changed again.
“And then the mentality going forward, this is my sixth fight since my daughter was born, and I’ve kept that mentality. I’m 118 1/2, so [I have] basically no weight cut. I’m feeling strong. I’m feeling great. Just my maturity since my pregnancy started [has improved] and I’ve been able to keep everything controlled.”
Controlling the fight will be a key for her on Saturday. Dern’s an outstanding grappler with good striking skills; Rodriguez is an outstanding striker with good jiu-jitsu skills.
She doesn’t want to play Rodriguez’s game, because that’s a losing formula. Rodriguez is 14-1-2 and her only loss was by controversial decision to Carla Esparza. She has wins over Ribas, Michelle Waterson and Tecia Torres, among others.
Dern knows full well the importance of a win. And so she’ll rely heavily on her jiu-jitsu skills Saturday to get her to where she wants to be.
“I am looking at this fight like it’s [for] the belt,” she said. “If I win this, I think I’m next in line. … People are asking me, ‘Are you going to test your striking with Marina?’ I don’t have plans to test that. Of course I’m confident if I need to go all five rounds striking, I’m ready to do it, but the easiest way to win the fight is by grappling. Take it to the ground, finish fast, get the win [with] no injuries, no elbows, no cuts, no stitches. Just get paid and go home.”
Champion Rose Namajunas will defend the title in a rematch against Zhang Weili on Nov. 6 in the co-main event of UFC 268. Behind Zhang is No. 2 Joanna Jedrzejczyk, No. 3 Esparza and Dern and Yan Xiaonan tied at No. 4.
Esparza has made a strong case for a match with the winner, but Dern is going to do her part on Saturday. But she’s open to proving herself.
“If I don’t get a title shot [off a win Saturday], who knows, maybe me and Carla will fight each other,” Dern said. “She has five wins [in a row]. This will be five wins for me. I’ve never fought a pure wrestler. But we’ll see.”
Dern was an outstanding prospect before. But since becoming a mother and discovering a newfound maturity, she’s been even more dynamic.
Don’t sell her short in anything she sets her mind to doing at this point.