Mackenzie Dern was labeled the “Next Ronda Rousey” as soon as the jiu-jitsu starlet declared her plans to transition to mixed martial arts in October 2015. Just two fights into her professional career, the black belt believes a victory over former Golden Gloves champion Katherine Roy at Legacy Fighting Alliance 6 on Friday in San Antonio could land her an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract.
“I think so, maybe,” Dern told Sherdog.com. “There’s a good chance that this could be my last fight before [the] UFC.”
Dern gathered significant momentum when she showcased her amazing skills in a first-round submission of Montana Stewart in October. The rare “chokoplata” finish paid homage to Masakazu Imanari and sent her hype train into overdrive, but she claims to be unhindered by the expectations that have resulted from early success.
“I think I had more attention going into my first fight than Ronda Rousey did,” she said. “Even when she went pro, nobody really took her seriously until they started to realize that she was submitting her opponents in every single fight. There were so many eyes on me from the announcement to the first fight and then into the second fight. I’m lucky because I’ve always had the support of the jiu-jitsu community. I always feel like I’m representing them, and I don’t want to let them down.
“I think I’m growing with the added attention,” Dern added. “I always seem to fight better at bigger events. I perform better when there is a lot of expectation on me.”
Given the constant comparisons to Rousey, one might think Dern sees the judoka as an inspiration. However, the MMA Lab representative revealed she found it hard to connect with the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion’s persona.
“I definitely didn’t look up to Ronda,” Dern said. “Maybe it was just the personality part of it. I just never really connected with that type of personality. I’ve never met her in person, so I really don’t know how she is. She definitely opened the doors for women. When I saw everything that she was able to accomplish with her skills and everything else, it made me think that I could do this.
“I never looked at her as an inspiration,” she added. “I want to be bigger than her. I want to be the best Mackenzie. I think I have a different image and I can be a different kind of role model. I have a different style to her, and I want to take that as far as possible.”
Dern claims she found value in Rousey’s rise and fall, and she insists she tries to emulate Demian Maia more than anyone else. Her jiu-jitsu always takes precedent over the other disciplines MMA encompasses.
“Jiu-jitsu will always be my go-to in MMA,” she said. “I want to be more like Demian Maia. I want to represent jiu-jitsu as well as I can. I think I can learn a lot of lessons from watching [Rousey]. I can look at the choices she made throughout her fighting career and learn from them -- the good things and maybe things that I wouldn’t have done, too. Of course, I am putting a lot of time into my standup, but I’m very confident.
“We really don’t think that anyone in the UFC’s strawweight division has a jiu-jitsu game that can compare to mine,” Dern added. “In the standup, I’m way behind, so that’s something we’re really trying to work on. That’s more so my opponents will respect my standup and that will allow me to work my jiu-jitsu a bit more. The strategy will always be to get my opponents to the ground, though. I want to take the least amount of damage that I possibly can. I don’t want to get into brawls. I don’t like getting punched in the face.”
As one of the most successful jiu-jitsu practitioners ever to embark on a journey in MMA, Dern understands the inherent difficulties associated with her approach.
“It’s really hard to get submissions,” she said. “Of course, knockouts are very hard to get, as well, but you can connect with a lucky shot and get a knockout. For submissions, everything has to be on point, especially when they’re really clean submissions.”
Dern believes that once she makes her UFC debut she will need two to three years before challenging for a title. The 23-year-old remains conscious of the dangers involved with MMA and does not plan to overstay her welcome.
“I wouldn’t retire as soon as I won the title,” Dern said. “For sure, I’d want to defend my title, but in every sport, you have to know when it’s the right time to stop. I think that’s a big problem for athletes; we always want to accomplish more. I want to have babies. I’ll always have jiu-jitsu, but I think it’s good that I can do MMA now, and then when I’m 30, I can just go back to training and competing in jiu-jitsu.
“Now is the time to focus on MMA and win the title and do whatever I have to do,” she added. “Maybe I can win the [strawweight] title, and then if they make a 125-pound division, I can challenge for that title.”
As for her latest assignment, Dern has focused on getting in and out of the cage as quickly as possible against Roy.
“I hope I can get another great submission,” she said. “I just want to do the best that I can do and hopefully everybody will like that. We’ve been working a lot on my standup, but I really don’t want to make it a standup fight. I feel like I need to get used to the feeling of getting punched. There were a lot of critics when my first fight went to the judges, but I was happy with that experience. I need that kind of experience before I go to the UFC.
“I plan to always win by submission, but it’s good to know that I don’t panic if I can’t submit my opponent immediately,” Dern added. “Of course, I want to finish the fight as soon as possible and not get hurt. She’s a Golden Gloves champion, so I for sure don’t want to get punched too much in the face.”