If this Saturday’s UFC 256 bout between Virna Jandiroba and Mackenzie Dern were plotted like an old western movie, the two steely-eyed combatants would stare each other down on main street while the townsfolk cowered in fear, uttering cliches like “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
So similarly skilled. So equally matched. So uniquely dangerous. But only one will ride off into the sunset.
“I’ve been saying that this fight is a fight that I would pay to watch,” agrees Jandiroba. “I’d buy a ticket to watch. We’re both high-level grapplers. It’s going to be like second-nature to both of us to go and fight on the ground. It’s going to be very good to watch.”
The old west motif is a fun image to think about, but the analogy falls apart pretty quickly when you talk to either of the strawweights in question. Among the most affable and easygoing on the roster, their personalities belie their lethality. It’s less of the rival outlaw vibe and more of the mutual admiration society vibe.
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Case in point is Jandiroba. Always upbeat and quick with the kind word, her gentle demeanor stands at odds with her 16-1 professional record. Littered with a long trail of flawless submission victories, her career to date boasts the honors of Invicta FC Champion, World BJJ champion, Pan-American BJJ champion and Mercosul BJJ Champion. There’s an obvious championship she’d like to add to that collection, and getting past Dern is the next step in that quest.
“I think I can use my (longer) experience in MMA in this fight. I think I’m going to be counting on that. I don’t necessarily think there’s levels in jiu-jitsu. I can’t say I’m better than her. But she’s different. She has a very loose game. She likes to play off her back and I have a more old-school game. It’s just different styles of jiu-jitsu. We’re going to see on Saturday.”
Dern was already a star in the MMA ecosystem when she arrived in the UFC back in 2018. Her profile has only skyrocketed since then. Conversely, Jandiroba is still mostly recognized in her native Brazil and only among hardcore MMA fans in North America, despite her decorated career. Besting Dern at her own game on the pay-per-view stage would go a long way in changing that awareness. For her part, Jandiroba is ready, but not over eager.
“Right now I’m thinking about Mackenzie, but a win over her could bring me a top 10, maybe even a top five contender. But I’m really patient and taking it one step at a time. I was a world champion in Invicta, and I’m here to show I can be a world champion in the UFC.”
Every fighter says some version of that sentiment, but it seems completely within the bounds of reality for Jandiroba. Her lone pro loss was her UFC debut, a decision that went to former strawweight champion Carla Esparza. It wasn’t the splash she had hoped to make, but with Esparza knocking on the door of a shot to get her belt back, Jandiroba doesn’t dwell on that April 2019 night in Sunrise, Florida.
“I think when I lost that fight, it was definitely a shock. Professionally, it was a reality check that I needed to change a lot of things.”
The changes were evident, and she followed up that loss with back-to-back submission clinics over Mallory Martin and veteran Felice Herrig, despite the unique challenges 2020 has offered Jandiroba and her peers.
“It has been hard. Obviously in our sport it’s practically impossible to have social distance, so my last camp for Felice (Herrig) had a total of four people, just all in the same house, everyone together. Now we’re able to bring a few more people in, but it has been tough.”
Tough, certainly. But if she can distinguish her skill set from Dern’s on the world stage, the sky will be the limit for the “Carcara.”