Never mind a new chapter: Mackenzie Dern is starting a whole new book in 2023.
Heading into the year off a disappointing loss to Yan Xiaonan and having faced some serious hurdles in her personal and professional life in 2022, the 30-year-old strawweight went into her May clash with Angela Hill surrounded by a new team, eager to get things moving in the right direction and exorcise some of the demons of APEX main events past.
“It was so good — we got the bonus, too, which was so nice,” Dern said on Wednesday, her ever-present smile widening as she reflected on her unanimous decision win over Hill ahead of her clash with Jessica Andrade on this weekend’s UFC 295 pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden. “Angela is a beast — she just had a great performance against one of the teammates of Jessica in Sao Paulo.
“That was good for me — good to see how she did against someone that has the same style of fighting as Jessica, the same team; it gave me a lot of confidence.
“I want to keep it going,” added the energetic 30-year-old. “I was able to set such a good performance that now I don’t want to accept anything less. The goal is to keep getting better and better, raise those standards even more.”
Getting the victory not only allowed Dern to exhale after stumbling in her previous two main event assignments and struggling to build the consistent results she wants, but it also provided her with a great sense of confidence that the changes that have swept through her life in recent years have ultimately landed her in a better place, with the right people around her.
Mackenzie Dern Fight Week Interview | UFC 295
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Mackenzie Dern Fight Week Interview | UFC 295
A couple years after getting married and giving birth to her first child, a daughter named Moa, Dern divorced professional surfer Wesley Santos, with the inevitable legal battles weighing heavily on the loving mother and driven fighter.
On the professional front, she spent much of her last camp working without the guidance of her long-time boxing coach, Jason Parillo, who had prior commitments to former UFC middleweight champ Luke Rockhold. More recently, the gym where she had trained for the last several years, the RVCA facility in Costa Mesa, closed its doors, making her shift to a more personalized, focused team both a choice and a necessity.
“It feels great because you can turn the page,” began Dern, speaking about being on more stable footing and feeling confident personally and professionally once again. “It’s not even turning the page — I feel like I’m starting a whole new book.
“Sometimes it’s kind of scary — the whole re-start and re-build — and you really feel like “I’ve accomplished so much and now I have to start all over again,” but this is a new Mackenzie with new ideas about how I fight, what I want for my brand.
“It’s scary, but it’s good; it’s motivating,” continued the Top 10 strawweight, who heads into Saturday’s main card clash with Andrade positioned two spots behind the Brazilian in the divisional rankings. "I feel like this next phase will hopefully be a good step in my life.”
While her current situation feels very much like a new book being started, there are elements to it that feel like a sequel to her career on the jiu jitsu mats.
Dern has spoken openly in the last year about struggling to adapt her game to the way mixed martial arts bouts are scored and the optics presented to judges during a bout. As she’s progressed through the ranks, adding new tools to her kit, she’s grown more comfortable and aware of both the way and the need to put things together with greater fluidity, while sharpening her understanding of some of the pieces of MMA that were completely foreign to her after transitioning from being a world-class Brazilian jiu jitsu competitor.
“I went through this in my jiu jitsu career,” said Dern, likening her steady progress in MMA to matriculating through the belt levels. “At blue belt, I was really good at doing guard. Purple belt, I did really good at passing and my top game. Brown belt, I started to focus on my submissions, and black belt, you kind of mix it all together and you’re fighting girls that have been 10 years at black belt.
“Lately, I’ve really started understanding the range, because in jiu jitsu, we don’t have range; we’re in your personal space all the time,” she continued, laughing at the very accurate differences between the two sports. “I would land a punch and go forward, instead of keeping my distance, and understanding that my distance is different than my opponent’s distance. I’ve really worked on that a lot, and especially with Jessica because she has that knockout power, so I’m going to have to play a different game. I need to be inside or outside, but I never would have understood that concept before.
“And after each fight, winning or losing, I would just work on (individual disciplines), but now I understand I can’t keep going to each specific martial art; it’s MMA, it’s a sport in itself, and I’m training every day in MMA, with cage work, striking, and learning to blend it all together.”
All of this may sound obvious to some and like Day One ideas — and they are, to an extent — but Dern really only committed herself full time to mixed martial arts in the summer of 2016, and less than two years later, she was making her UFC debut.
Though she is a third-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, she was truly a white belt in the early days of her MMA career and has been working diligently to progress up the ranks ever since.
To be where she’s at — sporting a 13-3 record overall, standing as a fixture in the Top 10 in the talent-rich strawweight division — is a testament to the work she’s put in, her abilities as an athlete, and her willingness to pick herself up each time she’s stumbled.
"It took me 15 years to get to my black belt in jiu jitsu, so in MMA, it’s shorter, but I feel like if I would have understood all of this sooner, maybe I would have gotten to the belt sooner,” said Dern. “But I also know that you have to enjoy the process and the process is what can make you a more dominant champion.”
Saturday night in New York City, she has the opportunity to take another step towards fulfilling that goal of becoming UFC champion as she steps in with Andrade, the former strawweight queen and one of the most accomplished female fighters on the roster.
“Jessica has been in three different divisions, she’s fought tons of different girls — we’re the same age, but she has 10 years experience in the UFC,” laughed the Orange County resident. “And she has the knockout power. And she’s coming (off) three losses — two submissions and one knockout.
“I know she trained hard, I know she’s going to come and try to take off my head; she’s going to try to kill me in this fight. I’m really prepared to fight the best Jessica.”
Dern views this weekend’s main card matchup as her second massive test of the year, and having already aced her first exam against Hill in May, the ambitious grappler believes that another strong effort could signal that she’s ready to challenge for championship gold.
But that part will be decided in the future.
For now, she’s focused on getting to compete in front of a crowd again, making the walk at Madison Square Garden, and stepping in against her toughest opponent to date, focused on meeting the high standards she set for herself last time out.
“It’s a dream of mine to fight at MSG,” began Dern. “I watched Chito Vera when he fought Frankie Edgar, I saw Rose (Namajunas) with Zhang Weili. I’ve witnessed good fights here, and I’ve always been a fan of MSG and New York, so to be back in front of fans at an arena like this, against a former champion — it’s great.
“With Jessica, if I want to cut the line to go to the belt, I think the best way is knocking her out or submitting her,” she added. “It’s high standards now; I don’t want to do any less than my last fight.”
And if all of that should come to pass this weekend, what will be the final scene of the latest book?
“Oh man… I’m probably going to cry, get all emotional,” Dern said, smiling and laughing, as always. “But I might do a dance.”