The offer to fight in Rio de Janeiro for her UFC debut was on the table. It made sense, as Mackenzie Dern — an all-time great Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and daughter of legend Wellington “Megaton” Dias — considers the country a second home. But stepping into the Octagon for the first time, in that setting, with that spotlight? It was simply too much too fast.
“I wanted to fight there, but to have to debut there? It was a lot of pressure,” Dern, one of the sport’s top prospects, said this week.
She instead had her first career UFC bout with Ashley Yoder at UFC 222 in Las Vegas in March. Dern appeared outmatched while standing; however, her ground game — as expected — allowed her to come away with a narrow split-decision victory.
The experience now in the rear-view mirror, Dern immediately reached out to the UFC about setting up a fight on next weekend’s UFC 224 card. The matchmakers obliged.
“As soon as I finished the [March 3] fight, I asked, ‘Please … I’m not injured, I want to fight in Brazil.’ Now I don’t have to think of the debut. That’s one responsibility that’s out of the way, and I can just focus on the pressure of fighting in Brazil.”
Thousands of fans will scream her name at the Jeunesse Arena, however, one in particular will stand out: her father. He has not seen any of Dern’s six MMA fights in person. That will change next Saturday night in his hometown.
“I’m excited for him. I think he’s going to get so nervous,” Dern said of Dias, a sixth-degree black belt and 10-time world BJJ champion. “I’ve wanted him to come to my fights, but he’s never come. Everything happens for a reason. It’s going to be a really big moment. It’s going to push me to fight even better.”
While Dern will no doubt feel the love in the Octagon, her opponent, Amanda Cooper, is expected to face a hostile environment. Brazilian fans like to chant “uh vai morrer” — translated roughly to “you’re gonna die” — at fighters not from the country.
Cooper doesn’t appear rattled. She posted on social media that she plans “to derail the hype train on May 12” and has spoken negatively about Dern’s overall skill set. This includes, somewhat surprisingly, her grappling game.
Speaking to media this week in Los Angeles, Dern laughed those comments off. She called the fight against Cooper “a good matchup for me … way easier than Ashley [Yoder].” Dern said, “I think most people will be surprised by the punches. I’m a jiu-jitsu girl but I’m not scared to punch. I want to submit fast. The last fight with Ashley, I wanted to stand up. … I wanted to get the submission but didn’t want to rush to finish fast. But Amanda I want to finish fast.”
Improvement could come in the form of a new training camp. Dern was previously with the MMA Lab in Arizona but recently changed camps to work with Leo Vieira at Checkmat and Black House MMA in Southern California.
“It’s not 100 percent, but for this camp I’ve been working with them,” she said. “I’m feeling so good.”
Next Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro could be Dern’s toughest test to date. The spotlight placed on her — a BJJ world champion, with a BJJ world-champion father, fighting in the UFC in the BJJ capital of the world — will be brighter than ever. And it’s exactly how she wants it.