The Ultimate Fighter
The fight game is full of stories that make you stop and appreciate just how above and beyond the call of duty that person went in order to compete. Last October, it was Mackenzie Dern’s turn, as she stepped into the Octagon to face Amanda Ribas just four months after giving birth to her daughter, Moa.
Dern didn’t win that fight, suffering her first pro loss via decision in Tampa, but it really didn’t matter, did it? Just the act of fighting so soon after such a life-changing event earned Dern praise from all sides. But to the 27-year-old strawweight prospect, it was all about the fight and getting back to work, and it wasn’t the first time she came back from a long layoff earlier than expected to compete, recalling her return from 2013 knee surgery to take a silver medal in the 2014 Pan American championships and then a gold in the Worlds.
“The doctor said I was cleared, but it was earlier than recommended for high-level competition,” said Dern. “So, I came back early in jiu-jitsu just to get the ring rust out of the way and I felt like that really helped me. When I came back, I fought in the Pan American championships and I got second, but I felt good, and it was good for me to get the confidence back with my knee. And then I felt I was ready, and I came back and I won the Worlds a couple months later. Of course I wanted to win (the Pan Ams) and I did everything I could to win, but I felt like it was important for me to get that out of the way and not have my first competition back be such a big tournament like the world championships.”
So after Dern and her husband, pro surfer Wesley Santos, welcomed Moa into the world, Dern didn’t want to be sidelined too long, having already been out since her May 2018 submission win over Amanda Cooper.
“I took that same idea and I felt like that was the best for me with the UFC,” she said. “I could have waited longer, but if ring rust really exists, I wanted to get it out of the way now and not let it get too bad. And it was easy with my daughter being younger. She wasn't running around and everything; she just stayed in her car seat or with my husband and it wasn't so difficult. So we got the fight in and I did my best to prepare and I never felt more prepared, but you just have to be in there and fight and I felt good. I was happy with my performance.”
As for Moa, she’s nine months old now and is getting around just fine.
“She's walking,” said the proud mama. “I turn the corner and she's already right behind me. (Laughs) I say, ‘How did you get here so fast?’”
Moa also has her first gi, and considering that Dern was on the jiu-jitsu mats with her dad, BJJ great Wellington “Megaton” Dias, at three and competing at six, odds are pretty good that the youngest member of the family will be rolling soon enough.
“I don't know if she's going to want to compete, but she'll definitely do it, for sure,” said Dern. “I think it's impossible for her to not do it. She's around it all the time at the gym and at the house. My dad visits here all the time, and there are jiu-jitsu tournaments, so for sure she'll do it. And especially for self-defense - I want her to know how to defend herself if anything happens.”
Dern remembers those early days on the mat, though it was more as a spectator than a participant, as Dias would bring his daughter to the gym, sit her in the corner with her blanket and a Disney movie playing on the TV and then teach class.
“I remember watching the movie but always looking over because I'd hear him, 'Okay, pass the guard, now,' or 'Armbar,'” she laughs. “His voice is so loud, so I'd be watching my movie and always paying attention to what he was teaching because his voice was louder than my movie. And I think that's why it came so natural to me because he was never like, 'Come here,' and then teach me something. I started to roll, then I started doing things that I was just around all the time.”
By six, she was in her first jiu-jitsu tournament. And she lost her first match.
“It was really rare when I was six years old to have other girls around,” Dern said. “And my first fight in jiu-jitsu was against a girl and we were standing up and my dad told me to do a takedown, and I looked at him. And when I did that, the girl took me down and won the fight. The kids' fights were only three minutes long and she beat me by points and I cried. I went over to my dad and I was so sad. But I was so excited to get back and to fight again.”
Dern didn’t lose much after that, and over the years, she not only became a black belt in jiu-jitsu, but a high-level one with a laundry list of medals, championships and accolades. And despite all this, she never forgot where she came from.
“Everyone liked my dad, and I remember watching my dad compete a lot when I was little,” she said. “I always saw him winning, and losing too, and I felt a little bit of pressure, like, ‘Okay, I've got to make my dad proud.’ Around seven, eight years old, I noticed that my dad was really good.”
Dern laughs, and she knows that soon enough, Moa is going to find out that mom isn’t just mom, but someone pretty special in the jiu-jitsu and MMA communities. And when she is of age to start training, the “gentle art” is clearly a gift Dern wants to give her.
“I think jiu-jitsu keeps you humble,” said Dern, who is scheduled to return to the Octagon later this month in Nebraska against Ariane Carnelossi. “Of course, there's self-defense and the whole idea behind it that the smaller person can defend themselves or beat the bigger and stronger person. Those are great things that I really want for my daughter, but really it’s the part about being humble. In MMA, maybe we fight two or three times a year and it's just one person to prepare for each time. In jiu-jitsu we fight three times a month, and sometimes in one tournament you lose your weight class then you fight in the Absolute, so we have so many fights and it's impossible to win everything. Of course, no one likes to lose, but with a loss, you see what you need to change and correct, and maybe on the same day I have another chance to correct my mistakes and win. So it keeps you humble and keeps your feet on the ground. Jiu-jitsu gave me such a good base and foundation to be the competitor and athlete that I am today.”
But what about the million-dollar question, and a loaded one at that? In a family of grappling stars, will Moa ultimately the best of the bunch?
“Oh, for sure,” Dern laughs. “I see the kids already when I go to tournaments, and they're so advanced. They already have their sponsors on their gis and I'm seeing what they're doing. We're gonna get in there with the most advanced stuff.”
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