5. Mackenzie Dern's ceiling
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 01: (L-R) Mackenzie Dern punches Yan Xiaonan of China in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 01, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Your heart breaks a bit for [autotag]Mackenzie Dern[/autotag] after seeing just how close she was to staging a brilliant fifth-round comeback against Yan Xiaonan in the UFC headliner. She was clearly down entering the final frame, got a heck of a motivational speech from coach Jason Parillo and did exactly what she needed to do – aside from finishing the fight.
We can sit here all day and debate the judging intricacies and whether Dern (12-3 MMA, 7-3 UFC) should’ve gotten 10-8 scorecards from all three judges to make the result into a unanimous draw rather than a majority decision loss. I can see both sides of the argument, but ultimately that’s not the issue at large here for Dern.
If she could go out every round and do what she did on the mat to Xiaonan in Round 2 and Round 5, she might just be UFC strawweight champion already. But as we saw in this fight, against Marina Rodriguez and against Amanda Ribas, if Dern can’t get the takedowns early and often, she’s at a pretty large disadvantage.
It’s evident that Dern needs to continue to work diligently on rounding out her game, particularly the wrestling. Her striking has evolved enough to be a serviceable element to her game in the octagon, but it’s still based around setting up her world class grappling. But if she can’t take her opponents down, then it’s essentially all for nought.
4. Yan Xiaonan bounces back
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 01: (R-L) Yan Xiaonan of China punches Mackenzie Dern in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 01, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
On the flip side, all credit to [autotag]Yan Xiaonan[/autotag] for rebounding from back-to-back losses with a strong performance against Dern where she showed some solid technique and composure.
Xiaonan (14-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC) is one of the more under appreciated names at 115 pounds, likely because she keeps a low profile and can’t speak English. She’s a force in the cage, though, and had her split decision loss to Rodriguez at UFC 272 in March gone the other way, we’d be looking at her career in a different light right now.
It remains to be seen if Xiaonan ever gets her hands on that UFC title, but I’m confident in saying she’s going to be hanging around the top of this division for a while. The only knock on her at this point is that she’s yet to finish an opponent in seven UFC wins, but if she can rectify that and add a more dangerous element to her game, it’s going to be a big problem for her opponents.
3. A.J. McKee shines in lightweight debut
Flipping to the Bellator side of things, on the surface you could look at [autotag]A.J. McKee'[/autotag]s debut in the lightweight division and say he should’ve finished an overweight and overmatched Spike Carlyle – who is not even ranked in the promotion. However, that’s not giving enough credit to Carlyle, who was absurdly tough in the cage and refused to go away.
McKee (19-1 MMA, 19-1 BMMA) did about everything he could to get the stoppage, from slick submission attempts to heavy punches and ground-and-pound. Sometimes the opponent just won’t quit, however, and as a result McKee was forced to go all three rounds for the clear-cut unanimous decision.
For McKee, a former Bellator featherweight champ, it was probably an invaluable experience. He got to test all elements of his game in a new division, and unless he gets his trilogy bout with Patricio Freire, he seems to want to make this home. And I’m all for it.
The trilogy with Freire seems like the right way to go for Bellator, but if it doesn’t, McKee would be a great fit in the promotions’s planned lightweight grand prix in 2023. He’s already run through one tournament to claim $1 million, and I wouldn’t rule out his chances of doing it again in another division.
2. Give Patricio Freire his respect
It was a bit of a bummer to be sitting cageside as the crowd relentlessly booed and exited the arena down the stretch of [autotag]Patricio Freire[/autotag]’s one-sided featherweight title defense against Adam Borics. Not that the fight – which wasn’t great – didn’t completely warrant it, but it was just another moment when you realize “Pitbull” is never going to be fully appreciated.
The Brazilian truly has done it all for Bellator. Four separate title reigns across two divisions, the most title-fight wins in history (12), the most wins in history (22), tied for the most finishes in history (13), and the list goes on and on.
Still, though, Freire (34-5 MMA, 22-5 BMMA) is nowhere near the star he should be. He doesn’t get the correct amount of acknowledgment, and I have trouble seeing him turning a corner now. Some of that is his own fault, some of it is Bellator and Scott Coker’s fault, and some of it is just the reality of the sport, where there’s only so much oxygen in the room and most of it is gobbled up by UFC.
Unfortunately for him, a ho-hum fight like he had against Borics – and to a lesser extent his rematch with McKee this past April – doesn’t exactly help the cause.
1. Which promotion was the winner?
If you’re a diehard MMA fan, Saturday was pretty perfect in that the UFC main event was over before the Bellator main card started. There was time to consume all the content live, but which company should walk away feeling more pleased with its night?
It depends on perspective. The UFC card was OK in terms of quality and entertainment, but the fact Mark Zuckerberg’s mysterious attendance was the biggest story of the night is both an indictment and a show of strength for the brand. The media was locked out for the card, too, so naturally the event and the fighters competing on it did not get the same level of attention as they would’ve otherwise.
That wasn’t the case for Bellator, which got the SoCal rub and had two lengthy rows full of reporters cageside, myself included. That’s not the mark of a successful event or not, but it’s worth noting.
Ultimately, it comes down to who had the best fight card. Neither was extraordinary, and neither was miserable. Bellator probably had the best fight of the night with McKee vs. Carlyle, and the top in-cage viral moment with Aaron Pico’s shoulder popping out. So I’ll give Bellator the slight nod on this one, but it doesn’t change the fact UFC is still way, way ahead in the overall race.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC Fight Night 211.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for Bellator 286.