LAS VEGAS — For many years, Mackenzie Dern has dreamed of facing an opponent who is aggressive and who comes out looking to take her head off. Dern is one of the most accomplished grapplers ever in mixed martial arts, though she’s been spending a lot of time with coach Jason Parillo working on her stand-up.
But as she’s faced strikers in her UFC career, during which she’s gone 7-2, she’s discovered one thing: Few of them are actually interested in getting in her face and engaging.
“I’m a ground girl, a ground player, grappler and I always go into the line of fire,” said Dern, who fights Yan Xiaonan on Saturday at Apex in a show that is closed to both media and public for undisclosed reasons. “As a grappler, technically, we shouldn’t like to get hit because that’s completely different than what we do. We’re the gentle art. We do armbars and chokes. We don’t get punched in the face. Most of the grapplers don’t enjoy getting punched in the face, but I put myself in that line and I know I have a chance to get hit a lot [so I can] get to the ground.
“I thought the strikers would be confident in their striking and would want to overwhelm the grappler. ‘OK, the grappler doesn’t like to get hit; let me land some good punches on them and they’re going to be away.’ All the girls I’ve fought, most of them, they hit and run, like point fighting. It’s a good strategic [move]. But Yan, she’s an aggressive striker. She goes forward. So I’m kind of getting what I asked for.”
Dern isn’t a masochist and a person who enjoys getting punched and kicked in the face. But she believes that an aggressive striker will play to her strengths and allow her to get fights to the ground.
Her submission game is deadly, though she’s only finished four of her nine UFC fights. That’s not a bad rate for most people, but Dern isn’t most and she’s not satisfied with her results when the fights get to the ground.
So she’s worked diligently on her ground game in order to end fights and not let them get to decision, where she is suddenly at the mercy of unpredictable judging.
“With all of my credentials in jiu-jitsu, these girls shouldn’t be getting out of there alive,” Dern said. “Not literally alive, you know, but with a win. If I get to the ground, I should be finishing. With Tecia [Torres in my last fight], I had a Kimura, a toehold, a leglock. I should be finishing that, not doing a whole bunch of things and in the end not doing anything.
“I trained really hard to make sure that if I get to the ground, I’m going to finish this fight. So I’m confident. I think I’ll be able to get it to the ground and get the win.”
Dern is ranked fifth in the strawweight division, with Yan sixth and a win would move her closer to title contention. But she hasn’t beaten anyone ranked among the UFC’s top four yet and isn’t going to push for the title shot.
She wants to build and be prepared as possible for the title opportunity when it finally comes, because for most fighters, the opportunity only comes once.
Assuming she defeats Yan, she has a plan that she believes will prepare her the best way for a potential title fight. She pointed out that her teammate, Marlon “Chito” Vera has already fought three former champions (Dominick Cruz, Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo) on his way up the rankings.
It’s something she thinks would benefit her.
“If I have a dominant performance, that would be a next good step for me,” she said of facing an ex-champion. “I don’t exactly want to fight for the belt. I’m not going to be the person to say, ‘No, no. I don’t want a title fight.’ If they offer it, maybe we’ll take it. For me, if I had a choice, I’d like to do one more fight and against a former champion. I don’t know, maybe Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade or maybe even the loser of Zhang Weili and Carla Esparza. I think that would be a good test for me. And if I beat a former champion, go and fight the real champion.”