After an unfortunate series of three decision losses, strawweight Angela Hill flipped a switch last summer.
That switch came against Loopy Godinez at UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Cruz, where Hill was tasked with halting Godinez’s rise into the Top 15. Hill passed with flying colors. After an initial flurry from Godinez in the fight, Hill kept her foot on the gas, out-striking Godinez throughout the final two rounds.
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Hill doubled down with another impressive performance later in the year, dominating another up and comer, Emily Ducote. Hill landed over 50 percent of her significant strikes thrown, outlanding Ducote 182-71 over three rounds.
“Feeling comfortable with the camps that I’ve been putting in [and] with the time I’ve been putting in,” Hill acknowledged as the keys to her recent success. “I’ve had a huge focus on grappling over the last two to three years. I just feel a lot more comfortable when [me and my grappling coaches] clash. That’s half of MMA. When two people clash, if you feel uncomfortable there then you’re going to be in for a stressful fight. Being able to embrace that part of the fight and being able to know what to do as soon as I touch my opponent has really paid off. You could see it in the Loopy fight, especially. It was a fight a lot of people expected me to lose; I think I was the biggest underdog that I’ve ever been in my career. Every time we locked up, I just felt chill, I was riding the wave, I was hunting submissions, I was getting my own takedowns. That was a fight that proved to me that [I’m] as good as the good grapplers in the UFC, if not better.”
These performances earned Hill a shot to break into the 115-pound division’s Top 10 against submission artist and No. 8 ranked contender Mackenzie Dern. The two were originally scheduled to meet at UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Almeida in Charlotte, North Carolina, until a main event vacancy became available the following week.
Hill and Dern were scrapped from UFC Charlotte and put into the main event spotlight for UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Hill at the UFC APEX. Despite needing to adapt to competing in a five-round fight on only a couple weeks’ notice, Hill saw numerous positives to accepting this challenge with Dern and was happy to see that her hard work hadn’t gone unnoticed.
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“When Mick [Maynard] hit me up, he hit me with one of those, ‘You up,’ texts right after UFC 288,” Hill joked. “I was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ It was either good news or bad news. I took it as good news. It’s really cool to be put on that main event pedestal, to be able to sign posters with my face on it. I got to do that once during COVID and it was kind of like they lost the fight and needed me to step up that time, too, but it kind of lets me know that I’m doing the right things. I’m an exciting fighter, I’m always a crowd pleaser and [the UFC] knows that, if anything, it’ll be a great fight to cap off the night.
“It’s still pretty surreal. I haven’t actually signed [the posters] yet…but it’s me. It’s me versus Mackenzie, we’re the main event and I think it made fight week a little more special, a little more intense just with all the media you have to do, all the extra attention. It made me want to celebrate the fact that we’re doing this. It just makes me feel special. It makes me feel like the time that I’ve put into this job, into this career, is paying off.”
When analyzing this matchup, Hill noticed quite a few holes in Dern’s skill set. Known for her exceptional grappling and submission capabilities, Hill believes Dern’s elite skill stops there. While acknowledging that it’s possible Dern could get her down to the mat, Hill doesn’t see Dern having a Plan B if she can’t find a submission and will become desperate just to accumulate control time.
“I think Mackenzie Dern has all her stats stacked up in one area,” Hill said. “She is a submission artist, she’s not really a technical grappler. She is just hunting for submissions trying to finish the fight and that’s scary, but it’s kind of like being a knockout artist. If you know how to avoid those big punches, if you know how to slip and move and not get connected on, they don’t really have a game plan after that. So that’s what I’m expecting; her to go hard with her gameplan of dragging me down and putting me in her space, whether she has to shoot a double leg for the first time, whether she has to pull guard, she’s going to try everything it takes to get me down there. I have to be ready for it, I have to be ready for that desperation, especially when the technical stuff doesn’t work.”
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Hill saw this in Dern’s two previous main event bouts, where she lost via decision to Yan Xionan and Marina Rodriguez. According to Hill, Dern puts a lot of energy into winning some of the rounds but struggles to adapt in the later rounds when she’s unable to put her opponents away.
In response, Hill’s worked diligently to improve two major parts of her game since her last loss to Virna Jandiroba at UFC Fight Night: Blachowicz vs Rakic in May 2022: cardio and grappling. Since it’s nearly impossible to never be taken down, especially when competing against elite, ranked UFC contenders, Hill puts herself in dangerous positions in training to gain comfortability in them and to orchestrate game plans to get out of them safely and efficiently. In addition to her normal training, Hill tests her evolving grappling in jiu-jitsu competitions during downtime between fights.
“I feel like that’s where my confidence is coming from, watching those two fights and knowing that this is also a five-round fight,” Hill said regarding Dern’s two prior main event defeats. “I think one of those fights may have gone to her if it was a three-round fight just because she goes hard for the rounds that she wins. She goes hard, she gets the takedown and then it’s hard to get her off of you. I feel like I’ll be able to get out of that stuff. I think my last loss against Virna [Jandiroba], it was a really good way to tell me what I needed to work on. After that, I did grappling competitions, I really focused on just getting out of the positions I was getting stuck in, and now I feel super scrambly; I feel like a wet bar of soap, I’m hard to hold onto. As soon as I get out, I’m back on it, I’m back hitting you, I’m back making you feel uncomfortable. I think that’s what she’s going to feel. If she gets it to the ground, she’s going to stand up and want to take a breath and I’m not going to let her.”
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Like Hill’s previous two opponents, Dern carries a lot of hype behind her and brings a large fan base and audience to Saturday’s main event. Fighting top dog after top dog, Hill’s UFC journey hasn’t been an easy one. But throughout all the highs and lows, Hill garnered as much experience as she could to develop her game, and feels that at this stage of her career, she has the tool set and confidence to steal anyone’s hype away from them and make it her own.
“The most exciting thing about this matchup is her hype,” Hill said. “The fact that she has a lot of fans, she’s had a lot of hype. I feel like she’s been given a lot of favorable matchups, too, and I’ve had the complete opposite career, where I was thrown to the wolves immediately. I got cut, I had to work my way through Invicta to get back and then immediately again, a fight with [Jessica] Andrade. I’ve never had an easy fight in the UFC. I might’ve made my last two look easy, but they were both coming in with a lot of hype, too, because of the people that they beat before me.
“I feel like I’m finally through all the hardships and through all the ups and downs in my career. I’m finally at a point where I can take somebody’s hype train. I’m finally at a point where I can be like, ‘This is what hard work looks like,’ especially when you just refuse to give up.”
During Hill’s fight week interview with UFC.com, she mentioned how she hopes to do something no fighter has been able to do in Dern’s seven-year mixed martial arts career: finish her by submission.
“I want a submission,” Hill said. “I worked really hard on submitting Mackenzie Dern, but my biggest goal is to punch her in the face as hard as possible, hit my angles, stay safe [and] just don’t hesitate. I think that was the biggest problem in my last loss; I hesitated against Virna and she was able to take me down and sit on me. I feel like if I don’t hesitate, even if the takedowns happen, I’ll be able to move and I’ll be able to react. So that’s really the goal: don’t hesitate, and then the win is just going to fall into my hands.”
UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Hill took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 20, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!
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