UFC Fight Night 223 Aftermath: A Much-Improved Mackenzie Dern

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“UFC Vegas 73” was a major coming out party for Mackenzie Dern. Her five-round defeat of perennial contender Angela Hill announced to the women’s strawweight division that Dern was an improved fighter and a major player in the future of the division. Dern absolutely dominated from bell to bell and delivered what was probably a career-best performance where she mixed up striking and grappling better than she has in times past.

Today, we look at that fight and how Dern managed to go in there and dominate so completely. What did Dern add to her game? This is the question we will be exploring today.

Head and Arm: A Bane of My Existence

From the jump, Dern managed to get to the clinch with Hill with her boxing. In the first round, we saw Dern utilize the head and arm throw to try to get Hill to the ground only to have Hill end up in a better position than her.

The head and arm throw is a legitimate throw, surely. But in women’s MMA we see it all too often. Fighters, noticeably women without wrestling experience, will often get caught in a head and arm and get taken to the mat over and over. Instead of adjusting and not getting caught in a clinch and letting an opponent grab your head, they make the same mistake over and over.

There are videos of children, six- and seven-year-olds, defending this properly. If you’re caught in a head and arm throw, lock your hands around the body and step around to the close leg. There you can drop down to grab the back, pick up a single leg, or step around. This is Day 1 stuff and seeing it week in and week out is driving me crazy, but I won’t fault Dern for using the head and arm throw. If your opponent keeps putting him or herself in a compromising position, it’s your responsibility to keep exploiting that. What I will say about Dern is that she lost position on the throw and that’s not optimal, but then again, she’s a former ADCC champion. Being on the bottom is not all that bad for her, especially considering how aggressive she is from her back.

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

Dern did just that in the fight. Hill consistently (1) grabbed Dern and allowed her to get a clinch herself. Dern will have space to work and Hill won’t do what we talked about to defend the head and arm earlier. (2) This allows Dern to get her hips turned and to bring the leg across Hill. Notice Dern’s hands, this is where the throw gets it’s name. She grabs the head lock and pulls the arm through and to the ground. (3) Dern, however, didn’t control position on the throw and Dern actually ended up in the worse position with Hill pushing into her and on top. But it’s Dern and she is no slouch on the ground.

Much Improved

When we analyzed this fight in Beforemath, the burning question was: Could Dern get the necessary takedowns to snag a win over Hill? Her win over Hill was not only Dern getting more takedowns but also her striking being improved. These are the two aspects we will be looking at in depth today.

Before we get into the grappling, I’m really excited to discuss Dern’s striking. We spoke previously about how her striking has traditionally been looping punches that are essentially her trying to grab a clinch. The path to victory for Hill was straight punching against those long, wild punches, and getting out of the way. Dern took that away with a legitimate jab and cross. With straight punches finding the mark faster than overhands and hooks, the fighter who punches straight land quicker. By using a cross and jab more often, Dern took away those opportunities from Hill and landed the heavier blows that led to the beating Dern handed out.

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

Now Dern’s striking wasn’t perfect. She still got wild at times. She kept her chin high (figure 2) and admired her punches a bit too much. If she doesn’t get this under control, someone who can crack like Jessica Andrade or Weili Zhang will catch Dern clean and seriously hurt her. But this fight was a success for Dern on the feet and showed actual improvement.

Blaine Henry/Sherdog.com illustration

Dern’s coach, Jason Parillo, is notorious for instilling a good jab in his fighters. With the jab being so integral to the standup game, it makes sense. He’s created seven UFC champions and BJ Penn also captured two of those belts. In this fight, we saw Parillo’s imprint on Dern. In figure 1, Dern (1) opens up her attack with her jab. Hill will slip to the right, on the outside of the jab. Dern responds to this in the proper way. Instead of throwing a right over the top where Hill can deflect by getting behind her shoulder, (2) Dern comes underneath Hill’s arm with a right uppercut. Full torque on her hips puts Dern in a good spot for another follow up shot with the left and gets maximum power out of the punch. Dern (3) will come behind the uppercut with a left and land again.

Again, Dern isn’t perfect. As mentioned earlier, she looks at her punches a bit and this could spell disaster. But if she improves as much between this fight and next as she did her last, Dern will be a force in the best women’s division the UFC has to offer.

Of course, Dern’s grappling was top-notch, but what you might not appreciate as much as her submission game is her ground-and-pound threat. Against Hill, Dern racked up over 13 minutes of control time and much of that was spent pounding her opponent out.

While I’ll never advocate for a fighter to fight from the guard, fighting there is throwing away minutes of a round, Dern does well attacking and keeping damage to a minimal. But it isn’t only submission chasing that makes Dern so effective off the back. When Hill managed to get to an advantageous position, Dern struck off her back with hammer fists and elbows that clearly made a difference with Hill.

With Dern improving, it will be a matter of time before she can take a long-awaited shot at the title. The UFC likes to see the defeat of a former champion or challenger before a title shot is given for the most part. That puts Dern in the cage with Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas or Andrade. These are all fights I like, and you should too. It’s a good time to be Dern. Things are coming together.


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