Mackenzie Dern is without question one of the most decorated female Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners of all time. After making her transition to mixed martial arts in July of 2016, Dern would go on to win five fights in a row before announcing that she had signed with the UFC. She has said publicly that she fully believes she is ready for the UFC and expects to be successful with the promotion. With a championship pedigree, world-class submission skills, and elite training from John Crouch of the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, it would seem that Dern has all the building blocks in place for a great UFC career. The problem? How do you build up a fighter who already has the highest expectations amongst fans, promoters, and themselves?
Last weekend at UFC 222, Dern made her UFC debut taking home a split decision victory over Ashley Yoder. While she was victorious, her performance was met with criticism as she displayed poor striking technique and an inability to get the fight to the mat. After the fight, Dern made it clear she had intended to keep the fight standing to show that she is a mixed martial artist and not just a one-dimensional athlete. However, to anyone watching the fight, it was clear that she wanted to take her opponent down but it was not as easy as she had hoped. She did eventually get the fight to the mat but was unable to secure the submission win. Instead, she gave up a split decision in a fight, that by all accounts, she was supposed to dominate. With Yoder coming off of two straight losses, it seems clear that the UFC front office wants to keep Dern undefeated and ready to climb the ranks. However, this type of manipulation has spelled trouble for other promotable young stars in the UFC.
Take Paige VanZant for example. There was only moderate hype surrounding VanZant as she came into the UFC. Thanks to an incredible performance in her first UFC bout, she was clearly tabbed a priority. She went straight from the non-televised undercard on UFC Fight Pass to the main card of a nationally televised event on FOX. This might seem minor to some but keep in mind VanZant was only 4-1 going into her second UFC bout. To put that in perspective, her opponent was 10-5 and the other 6 people on the main card had well over 100 fights between them. VanZant won the fight in an upset and went from an unranked contender to the twelfth ranked strawweight in the UFC. With that one win, expectations skyrocketed and a very talented young athlete was slowly forced into matchups she was not ready for. Her situation was caused by the perfect storm of excellent performances, a highly marketable athlete, and a brand new division. Currently, VanZant sits on the shelf recovering from a broken arm and coming off of two straight losses. Instead of allowing her to grow with the promotion, the UFC brass pushed her into a headlining role at just 21 years old, all with less than ten fights in her career. Yes, the competitor in VanZant obviously wanted the opportunity. No one would ever questions her desire to succeed or to fight. However, matchmakers know the difference between value and skill set and it is their job to find a balance between the two, not to exploit the former.
This brings us back to Dern. With her value already so high, she has a target on her back, two targets actually. One target is for the UFC front office that clearly sees dollar signs when they look at her. She is young, attractive, and already garnering lots of attention after only having fought once for the promotion. The other target is for the fighters in the strawweight division that see opportunity when they look at a matchup against the jiu jitsu ace. If Dern manages to jump the rankings as quickly as VanZant, she will be forced into a matchup that will likely see her deficiencies exploited. Strawweight is the most talent rich division the UFC has for female fighters and at the top of the rankings sit some of the worlds best pound for pound fighters. Dern is not ready for those types of matchups. That being said, she seems hell bent on competing at strawweight, even though she has missed weight for 2 of her 5 fights at this weight class. That’s something UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby might consider before he sends Dern back into the cage.
Marketability is massively important in the fight game, there is no arguing that. Some of the world’s best fighters struggled mightily to gain support for title runs, top matchups, and even main card slots. That doesn’t mean that marketability should ever trump athletic ability. Mackenzie Dern has amazing accolades in grappling and her early success in MMA is noteworthy. That being said, she still has a long way to go before she is considered one of the best fighters in the UFC strawweight division. Here’s to hoping her road to the top isn’t full of short cuts.