MacKenzie Dern has been the most sought after free agent in the world of combat sports for the past few years, but wasn’t sure she wanted any part of it.
“I really didn’t want to get hit in the face,” Dern said, during a recent sit down interview at The MMA Lab.
She is a multi-time world champion in jiu-jitsu, having been ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation in 2017, having won 12 world titles and 18 medals (9 gold, 4 silver and 5 bronze) from 2014 to 2016.
Dern will make her long-awaited UFC debut when she headlines the preliminary fights against Ashley Yoder at UFC 222, March 3 in Las Vegas live on television.
She said she is training hard and ready for her big debut at the highest level, even with the pressure mounting.
“I don’t really feel the pressure because I have been competing since I was 6 years old,” Dern said. “I am ready to show the world what kind of fighter I am.”
Born to be a competitor
Dern grew up in Glendale, graduated from Ironwood High School in 2010 (walking with her class in 2011), and has been around jiu-jitsu since birth.
Her father is Wellington “Megaton” Dias, also a multiple medalist and two-time Pan American Champion as well as three-time European Champion.
He started taking Dern with him to his academy when she was 3 and she was quickly tossed into training at that time.
“Most kids had a babysitter; mine was the gym and my dad’s academy,” she said. “I put on my first gee at 3 and had my first competition at 6, and from then, it was just normal to me.”
Dern, her father and mother, Lucinana Tavaraes, are all black-belts in jiu-jitsu and Dern said she was determined to live up to the lineage.
“I was never one to just save myself for the world championships, I worked hard all the time,” Dern said. “I didn’t care if it was the championship, or a small tournament in Texas. My dad helped me and I worked hard to show him what I had learned every time.”
She lived in Glendale and Arizona her entire life, minus the time she spent in Brazil competing in jiu-jitsu championships, and speaks English and Portuguese.
“Minus the years 16 to 19 when I lived in Brazil, I have always lived in Arizona and trained here,” she said.
Courted by the UFC
Members of the UFC knew they wanted Dern, but it was a chance encounter that got her to become an actual fighter.
“I was competing in a jiu-jitsu tournament, where a UFC expo was, and I took a picture with Shawn Shelby’s (UFC matchmaker) daughter, who was also competing,” Dern said. “He asked me if I had ever thought about MMA and I actually told him I had more to accomplish in the world of jiu-jitsu.”
Dern said she started training with The MMA Lab in Glendale to improve her jiu-jitsu and got a feel for the exciting sport.
Nearly a year later, the UFC came looking again and told her she should take some fights in lower-level leagues and see if she wanted to fight.
“I had never done any amateur fights before and they were there for me and allowed me to take a couple fights to try it out,” Dern said.
She fought four times in Legacy Fighting Championships, winning all; two by submission and two by decision. She then battled Kaline Medeiros in Invicta, where she scored an arm bar submission in the third round.
“There was kind of an agreement that I could try it and, if I didn’t want to continue, that would be okay with them,” Dern said. “When I started training at (MMA Lab), I never thought I would step into the ring for a fight; it was just going to help improve my jiu-jitsu.”
Now, after a 5-0 start to her career, she is ready to step up to what is considered the major leagues of MMA.
“The UFC is the top of the mountain and I am ready to step in there and show them what I can do,” Dern said. “I am aggressive, but I think MMA is way different than jiu-jitsu and I don’t just want to come in and show off my jiu-jitsu skills, I want to finish fights.”
While Dern said her walking weight is around 122, she is fighting in the strawweight division (115), which is considered the top division in woman’s MMA. Current strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, along with former champ, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Claudia Gadelha all battle in the division and are considered top fighters in the MMA.
Dern said while a title fight may be sooner at a different weight class, 115 pounds is what she has always competed at.
“I know people have told me that if I go up to flyweight (125) or bantamweight (135), it would get me a title shot quicker,” Dern said. “But I want to fight the top fighters and this is my competition weight and where I feel most comfortable.”
UFC debut March 2
The UFC seems to understand it has a potential future star on its hands in Dern and now she will make her long-awaited debut March 2 against Ashley Yoder.
Yoder (5-3) is coming off back-to-back losses in the UFC and is known for taking fights to the mat and using her wrestling.
“The only thing I have noticed is that she is a southpaw and I have never fought a southpaw,” Dern said. “So, that is my only concern, but I am ready to take her to the mat and to stand and battle if I need to.”
Dern, who is considered one of the greatest female Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners of all time, is ready for the challenge.
“Since the beginning, I have been training to not take a punch and this is going to be a big test for me,” she said.
After five MMA fights, Dern said her dad, who was against her move to the UFC, still has not seen her fight and she is unsure if he will be in Las Vegas.
“I know that he doesn’t want to see his little girl get punched in the face,” Dern said. “He has not been to any of my fights and since I have won my first five without him there, I am a little superstitious about it. But if he comes, it will be a great thing for me.”