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Mackenzie Dern stands in her corner prior to her women's strawweight bout against Virna Jandiroba of Brazil during the UFC 256 event at UFC APEX on December 12, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Mackenzie Dern Is After Records And The Belt

Heading Into Her First UFC Main Event, Mackenzie Dern Is Motivated To Shine Against Marina Rodriguez.

When UFC athletes arrive in town for fight week, one of their first obligations is to autograph a stack of event posters. Although the posters usually only feature the main event and co-main event fighters, all 20-something athletes on the fight card put their John Hancock on the collectible placards. This week, for the first time since entering the UFC in 2019, Mackenzie Den can sign the Sharpie right across her own face, as she takes on Marina Rodriguez this Saturday at UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Rodriguez.

“I’m so happy for the first main event. All the times I was signing the posters thinking one day my face will be here. So now I’m excited for this opportunity. It’s going to be really important to see what kind of numbers we bring in. Everything for my career is really important on this fight. Probably future contender, the next in line. So I’m really excited that all eyes will be on me for this fight. I’m thankful for the UFC to believe in this, to gamble on this right now. I’m definitely not going to let them - and the crowd - down.”

Dern has never been guilty of letting the crowd down. She’s on a four-fight win streak, three of which warranted Performance of the Night bonuses. On the strength of her jiu-jitsu mastery, main events were nearly a forgone conclusion when she entered the UFC back in 2018.

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“I’m expecting a big war with Marina, of course because she’s Brazilian and has a lot of heart. I know she trains so hard. She’s on a good roll right now. She had a great fight with Michelle Waterson, with Amanda Ribas. She’s good at being the underdog; she comes in and throws everyone out of the way like, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ I know this is going to be a great fight. But I’m good under pressure, too. When people expect things, I’ll go in and show them even more. I don’t know if it will go all five rounds, but we’ll be ready to do a show for five rounds if it does.”

We caught up with Dern in Los Angeles, where she was wrapping up fight camp at RVCA Sport Training Center after working extensively with famed boxing coach Jason Parillo.

“I’ve been doing my camps here for the last year. I’m very happy. I’m in a great phase of my life and my career, it’s really going good.”

Most fighters say such things about most camps, but Dern is nearly glowing as she says it. Her expanded confidence is palpable.

“He’s such a great coach,” she said of Parillo. “He’s nominated best coach this year, so I’m really excited to be working with him. It’s crazy to see how in the dark I was with my striking. Now I’m starting to see MMA the same way I see jiu-jitsu. [In jiu-jitsu] I put my game, my style first. Push the pace. Set up submission. Now I’m understanding I can do that in striking, too. In boxing, you see where the people are going; you can make them go where you want to go. It’s not a bar fight.”

Mackenzie Dern Secures An Arm Bar Submission On Nunes | UFC Fight Night: Vettori Vs Holland
Mackenzie Dern Secures An Arm Bar Submission On Nunes | UFC Fight Night: Vettori Vs Holland

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Parillo is a former professional boxer who has helped several notable UFC fighters in their quest for gold, including BJ Penn, Michael Bisping, Rafael Dos Anjos, Vitor Belfort and Luke Rockhold, to name a few. In Dern, he has another potential title contender in the works.

“Parillo is really making me get a better base and be in better opportunities to take it to the ground if I want to take it to the ground or striking if I want to do striking. I give a lot of credit to Coach Parillo for taking me to this next phase and next level of my career.”

“My jiu-jitsu is coming way cleaner, way more beautiful than before because my striking is better. So now I think getting the girls are really kind of respecting my striking - or at least thinking about it a little bit more - and that opens way more opportunities for me to really let go on my jiu-jitsu.”

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If true, that statement should send shivers down the spines of the strawweight division. In fact, if the UFC were strictly a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament, Dern would likely already have become champion years ago. The daughter of grappling legend Wellington "Megaton" Dias, she’s been rolling on the mats since she was scarcely out of diapers. The result has been one of the purest, most beautiful demonstrations of the discipline in the entire game.

“Now I’m really more confident. My jiu-jitsu is way ahead of the girls [in my division]. They have to train jiu-jitsu for 25 years to be the same as me. Of course, they can have good defense with punching and the cage. When they are defending A and B, I have planned C, D, E, F and G. For sure, with my striking getting better, I have way more opportunities to play my jiu-jitsu game out.”

The knock on Dern when she entered the promotion is that she lacked the standup game of her peers, but if her time with Parillo proves to sculpt her game into a fully-rounded one - as it appears to be doing - Dern’s full potential could be shortly realized.

“We’re close,” she says. “We’re so close to the belt. I don’t want to be a champion and not take the most advantage of everything I can. This is my job. I’m training hard, have put a lot of investment into the training, and I want to be a great champion, not just one more. We’re thinking about everything. It’s like a whole future plan, not just the now. We’re prepared to fight anybody, but definitely we want to show that Mackenzie brings numbers - if she fights Marina, if she fights Zhang Weili, if she fights Rose - Mackenzie has that good card to use.”

Mackenzie Dern celebrates after her submission victory over Randa Markos of Iraq in their strawweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Mackenzie Dern celebrates after her submission victory over Randa Markos of Iraq in their strawweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Sweet victory, September 19, 2020 (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Despite her continually improving standup game, Dern is still a grappler at heart. If she had her druthers, her fights would continue to end as they often do; in a flawlessly executed submission. It’s her bread and butter, and she’s not here to fix what isn’t broken. She’s currently tied with flyweight Gillian Roberstson for the most submissions in women’s UFC history, and she’d like to not only be alone in first place, but also put some distance between herself and the competition.

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“I’m not going to lie, it’s definitely more motivating to see I’m tied with the most submissions in the women’s divisions. So I want to break some records. It’s pushing me to be remembered in the history of women’s MMA…to make myself different from the other girls. I would like one knockout eventually, but when I feel like I’m so close to being the number one in submissions, it’s pushing me to get more submissions faster.”