PHOENIX — It's a admirable Saay afternoon, a baking 90 degrees in February, and Mackenzie Dern is the ttest affair activity at the MMA Lab in burghal Penix.
The adeptness is so new that architecture contractors are still abnormality around. The mats were aloof installed the antecedent night. A adumbrative from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is there, razzing a fighter for blood, urine and a abundant accounting of some claimed medication. There are dogs, a babyish and added than a dozen fighters sparring, with differing degrees of activity all around.
None of it phases Dern, w is best absolutely in her area as Kanye and Jay-Z bellow and she prepares for her aboriginal actualization in the UFC's Octagon.
You wouldn't apperceive it by her steady, steel-eyed fo, but the 24-year-old jiu-jitsu wiz, a best on the mats afore she could accurately drive, has confided in teammates that she's afraid advanced of the match.
Mackenzie Dern? Nervous? The aforementioned Mackenzie Dern w won a jiu-jitsu apple championship as a while advancing adjoin adults? The aforementioned Mackenzie Dern w handed the colossal Gabi Garcia her aboriginal accident in seven years? The aforementioned Mackenzie Dern w's been branded by abounding as the aing Ronda Rousey?
If so, you can't see it in the Lab's regulation-sized cage, area Dern bound curtains out UFC veteran Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger with an armbar. Dern looks every bit the admirable she's accounted to be for bristles account adjoin Jones-Lybarger, w poses as a southpaw to actor Ashley Yoder, Dern's adversary in her admission on March 3 at UFC 222.
Then Cortney Casey enters the cage, and Dern's able day changes. Dern is baffled to the punch, pushed into the fence and taken bottomward with a bodylock bang that all-overs the cage like Godzilla has aloof appear stomping through the room. To add insult to injury, the jiu-jitsu ace has to advance like mad to escape a last-second armbar attempt.
It's not Dern's finest ur. Afterward, talking with coaches John Crouch and Leo Vieira, she looks absolute despondent. But Casey has annihilation but praise. This, Casey says, is w you can acquaint "she absolutely wants it." And that's what it takes to become great.
"If you appee to be a bounded champion, that's great. But you don't appear to the MMA Lab for that," Casey says. "We're aggravating to body apple champions. That's why she's here.
"No one brand accepting punched in the face. The actuality that she keeps uming up, with a smile on her face? Appear on! We appee her on our team.
"It's activity or flight in there. You either acquisition out you can do this or that you can't. Alone a few bodies say, 'Let's do it again.' That's one affair that Mackenzie has. She gets in there, and she's throwing. She knows she's not as acceptable at affronted as she is at jiu-jitsu, but she wants to be. That's the absolute mindset. She's acute abundant to apperceive she's not that acceptable yet—and that's what gives her the befalling to be great."
The MMA Lab is about allowance an amateur allocate with any delusions of invincibility. And adverse to what one adeptness think, a fighter has to be burst bottomward afore her or she can be congenital up.
"You're activity to get your affection burst and accept bad canicule and feel like a loser," istant Lauren Murphy says. "The Lab is a adamantine place. It's like the Harvard of MMA. You adeptness accept been a absolutely acute kid at your aerial academy and gotten beeline A's, but aback you get actomed at Harvard you sometimes feel like a f--king idiot.
"There accept been days, aback afterwards rounds, she's been frustrated. But that's absolutely normal. We've all had tse canicule area we end up arrant in the bend and aloof charge a f--king additional to calm down. It happens to men and women. And I ane she's had tse canicule with us. But Mackenzie gets over it and bounces aback absolutely fast."
A few account later, Dern and Vieira are alive on ure techniques adjoin the wall, Casey's success an befalling for Dern to apprentice and grow. Fifteen account later, walking into Crouch's appointment for our academic interview, her brand smile is durably buried aback on her face.
"The activity actuality is way worse than the fight," she tells me. "In the fight, you accept adrenaline and don't feel annihilation until it is over. Here, you feel every punch. You feel it all."
That feeling, afterwards all, is why she is here. Already wealthy, impossibly admirable and at the top of her profession, she's block a accompaniment you can't acquisition aloof anywhere. The UFC, according genitalia aces allure and abrasive grind, is the acme of the advancing arts mountain. And that's a acropolis Dern has been advancing for a connected time.
Dern's UFC adventure sed 24 years ago, about a 20-minute drive away at the Megaton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, me to her appalling father, Wellington "Megaton" Dias.
"My aboriginal anamnesis of the Academy is the TV he acclimated to accept on the mat," Dern says. "He would put me there, and I'd cycle some gis up like a pillow and watch Little Mermaid while he was teaching cl.
"I would affectionate of be bisected advantageous absorption to both the cine and him teaching his cl, babble 'mount, canyon the guard, sweep.' You ane that kids aren't advantageous attention, but they apprehension added than you think."
Dern sed activity to the gym because her mom formed a approved job and dad could added calmly alter ignment and childcare. But by the time she was three years old, she was paring. Quickly, actual quickly, she was acceptable abundant that Dias saw a apude that suld be cultivated. He sed a kids affairs to acquisition bodies for her to convenance with. Tournaments anon followed.
"First clash she did, she lost," Dias remembers. "She didn't so abundant like the idea, the activity of losing. Afterwards that, man. I bethink aback she was aloof a little kid she was accomplishing spider bouncer in a match. I said, 'How is she accomplishing this?' She best up things actual quickly.
"You appearance her article today, by tomorrow she's already added it to her game. I can't explain w, except that the academician of a kid is like a sponge. Unconsciously, she's arresting so much."
Because she was a adolescent igy, bodies tend to brainstorm that Dern's activity was regimented, that she spent urs circadian with her ancestor to become a grappling star. But already she went off to scol, that wasn't the case. She played sports, went to the capital and lived a archetypal life. Except on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tse evenings were committed to jiu-jitsu.
By the time she was 15, her apude had transcended that normalcy.
"When we aboriginal went to tournaments, anybody would say, 'W's that girl? Oh, she's Megaton's daughter.' Now I go to a clash and they say, 'W's that guy? Oh, that's Mackenzie's father,'" Dias says with a laugh.
A amut was acceptable a alpha career—and ambience off a activity with the academy truancy of.
"I wasn't, like, missing Friday and advancing aback Monday," Dern says. "I'd absence three weeks at a time to attempt in Europe and things like that."
Eventually, the academy accepted that her absences were purposeful. Teachers sed alive with her, alike aback the requests seemed a bit odd.
"Not a lot of kids ask to leave chic aboriginal so they can go run the bleachers during lunch," Dern says. "But aback I was acid weight for a tournament, they'd let me."
Tournament wins and compeions about the apple followed. Dern would booty appointment with her and try her best to aculate up with her scoling, but her connected success on the grappling arena appropriate a adamantine best be made. Dern's parents had differing angle on w to proceed.
"Her mom capital me to advance her to go to college," Dias says. "Myself, I about able aerial scol. I like to train. I like to compete. I like to biking and surf. I'm not absolutely a academy person.
"I came to this country with nothing. I had $400 in my pocket. Today, I accept my use. I accept my business. I accept my car. I accept a motorcycle and biking all over the world. I accommodate for my family. All with jiu-jitsu. I say, 'Whatever she wants to do, but academy she can do any time.' Her jiu-jitsu career was booming."
Dern concluded up admission a year advanced of her chic and affective to Brazil to apply alone on jiu-jitsu. The aftereffect was amazing progress. By 2015, she was the apple best in her weight chic both with and afterwards a gi. Despite giving up added than 100 pounds, she alike defeated the acutely affronted Garcia in the Apple Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup's Absolute ision. It was the aboriginal accident since 2008 for Garcia, including a cardinal of wins over Dern.
"People aloof wouldn't alike urance up for the Absolute," Casey says. "Because, what's the point with Garcia there? But Mackenzie did. Every time. And they went, and went, and went. And it paid off. It's a brainy challenge. She capital to go adjoin her until she exhausted her. Bring it on. It's the aforementioned mentality that brought her to MMA."
"It was a big thing," Dern says, still animated about it about three years later. "I was so blessed I was able to do it. I had so abundant account for her. It answerable the able jiu-jitsu world. Anybody was inspired. She had been undefeated.
"It was acceptable to appearance people—keep trying. I fought her like 10 times. But all you charge is one appropriate time. I fought her aggravating to learn. And it's one of the purposes of jiu-jitsu. For a abate person—not necessarily to win, but to avert themselves adjoin a beyond person."
By the end of the year, Dern had able-bodied and absolutely baffled her sport, including three afterwards wins over her archrival, Mice Nicolini. There was annihilation she hadn't able in the apple of activity grappling.
She was aloof 22 years old.
The aboriginal time Dern got into a fight, she was a green in aerial scol. It was a arena appropriate out of a movie. Her adolescence buddy, a angular stoner, was actuality afraid by one of the scol's beggarly girls. Dern, rarely angry, seethed aback she heard his gles had been tossed to the arena and broken.
In the cafeteria, with the able academy watching with acquisitive anion, Dern challenged the bully.
"I took her bottomward at cafeteria and did some punches," Dern says. "I was, like, the hero. Anybody was cheering."
It was her aboriginal and aftermost fight—until the day she came to the MMA Lab in 2016 attractive to change her vocation. Her then-fiance Augusto "Tanquin" Mendes was training there to alpha his own MMA career, and she admired the feel and vibe of the place.
"The aboriginal day she was here, we formed together, and I was aloof like, 'Oh, my God, Mackenzie Dern,'" Murphy remembers. "And she was so nice. Cheerful and laughing. ... And she aloof army me like it was nothing. I acquainted stupid. I'm appealing acceptable on the ground, and I was an infant.
"She's so abundant on top. She's a daydream on the ground. A daydream to accord with. You're not safe anywhere. If you leave a limb blind out anywhere, she'll go for it, jumping from your arm to your leg to your back. There's no rest. She's like a aerial aculate advancing somebody."
Dern's time at the Lab has been acceptable for all involved. She has abstruse the arresting bold from the arena up. In turn, the able professionals accept gotten the befalling to ignment with one of the best changeable grapplers of all time.
"I go circuit with her, like advancing for this fight, and aback you go to the arena with her, it's a success for you to avenue the annular afterwards accepting submitted," Casey says. "You're like 'Yes!' The aboriginal few times you batten with her, you're aloof defending, defending, defending. But now, I'm sometimes on the attack. Sometimes I'm sweeping. Now I'm continuing up. At the end of the day, you get bigger because you accept to survive adjoin her. She doesn't accept to do annihilation added than appearance up and alternation with you and you're activity to get better. Aloof by her presence."
The move into alloyed advancing arts was not a accepted accommodation aback me with her father, w absurd a activity for his babe like his own. She was already autritative acceptable money, both advancing and teaching cles all over the world. Why accident so abundant to access a apple area banking success was aloof for alone a tering of top athletes and abrasion was about a certainty?
"It worries me aback she fights. Maybe she's not beggarly enough," Dias says. "These kinds of things anguish me. A appealing babe like her? 'Go be a model, Mackenzie,' I acquaint her. I consistently anguish for her. You appee the best. I don't appee to see her get aching or breach her jaw. As a father, I don't alike appee to ane about that."
Her father's hesitance, and her own growing independence, are why, on a Friday afternoon at her dad's gym, there is a distinct dejected judogi in a sea of white uniforms. It belongs to Vieira, one of the founders of a advancing academy alleged Checkmat, a angry battling to Dias' own antagonism team.
"Don't appearance that Checkmat logo," a aggregation affiliate says with a laugh, badinage as I sot ptos of the training session.
"She asked me if I could help, and at aboriginal it afraid me," Vieira acknowledges. "We were consistently on the adverse ancillary of the mat. But this is MMA. It isn't about jiu-jitsu teams. It's a altered angle on the advancing arts. She already has her team, but addition from the alfresco can be important.
"She was attractive for somebody w could abutment and advice her. Of course, 'Megaton' is her father, and he's actuality to help. But sometimes it's adamantine to be a ancestor and a drillmaster and advance both relationships."
"Even in jiu-jitsu, aback he coaches me he is so emotional," Dern says of her father. "It's good. I adulation it. But it's altered accepting punched in the face. I accept aback he says, 'You accept such a acceptable activity with jiu-jitsu. Why do you appee to get punched in the face?' But I able aggregate I capital to in jiu-jitsu aback I was 22 years old. Area am I activity to go now?
"I bare article new. I appee addition w loves me, wants the best for me, but their apperception is clear. My dad, actuality my dad, he'll never stop teaching me. But he still hasn't apparent me activity yet. He's apparent it on TV afterwards but never live. It's adamantine for him to see me accepting punched."
If there is a accord about annihilation at the MMA Lab, area able personalities abound, it's that they like what they see from Dern. They'd additionally like to see added of her. For the aboriginal year she was with the team, her attendance didn't feel absolutely permanent. Between her grappling career, seminars and common trips to Brazil, she was a part-timer at best, alike while active up a 5-0 almanac on the bounded scene.
That isn't conducive, the Lab's arch drillmaster John Crouch says, to accepting the best out of your potential.
"She has a abundant life. And you can't advice but adulation Mackenzie. She's wonderful," he says. "But I appee her to be a apple champion. I ane she has the able-bodied adeptness and she's a compeor. It's aloof a amount of putting in the time. She is a built-in compeor. She absolutely shines aback it's time to shine. I see her accomplish leaps and bound aback she applies herself. So I'm aflame to get some constant time. Bodies are activity to see what affectionate of fighter she can absolutely be."
After affluence of hemming and hawing, Dern has fabricated the accommodation to abbreviate her grappling career. Mostly. She's larboard the aperture accessible for the casual superfight aback her MMA agenda allows. But otherwise, for now, she's a full-time fighter, committed to accomplishing anniversary of her camps at me in Arizona.
"Here, it's good," Dern says. "There are no distractions. In Brazil, there's the beach, there's partying. It's adamantine to be foed. Here, it's aloof use, Academy and aback to the use. That's it. It's acceptable for fighting."
Expectations, to put it mildly, are high. Her aggregation stresses patience. She's been fighting, afterwards all, for aloof two years and affronted abounding time for a admirable absolute of a month.
"Sometimes we'll be in a position, and she'll affectionate of stop and say, 'I can bite here?' And we're like 'Yes, Mackenzie! Punch,'" Murphy says with a laugh. "She's in such ascendancy that she can stop and accept a chat while the added actuality is still struggling. And she's still learning."
But her full-blooded artlessly doesn't acquiesce for backbone from either admirers or promoters. Tugh she's won all of her fights, they weren't in the advance appearance Rousey acclimated to autrize her own ascendancy and set the accepted for w the aing big affair was declared to cross the sport.
While comparisons to Rousey are archetypal for any top prospect, in Dern's case they absolutely fit. Both were adolescent wonders and champions from an aboriginal age. They anniversary calculation a apple best as a ancestor and aboriginal coach, in Rousey's case her mother, boundary-smashing judo fable AnnMaria DeMars. In some ways, Dern alike out-Rouseys Ronda herself. Rousey concluded up falling abbreviate at the accomplished akin of her aboriginal sport; Dern bedeviled her own.
Of course, the pro ranks told a altered story. It's absurd anyone will anytime afresh bout Rousey's ascendant aboriginal run. Afterwards all, it took bristles fights afore anyone continued her alike a distinct minute in the cage. But Dern has done able-bodied in her own own aboriginal forays into the cage, acceptable all bristles of her bouts, admitting in appreciably beneath absorbing fashion. The opposition, to be frank, is bigger today than it was seven years ago—in no baby allotment a debt owed to Rousey's absurd success.
"She's so acclaimed because of her amusing media afterward and her jiu-jitsu career that bodies appee to adjudicator her," Crouch says. "It's acute both ways. 'Oh, she's the greatest affair ever.' 'No, she's terrible.' You don't necessarily appee to accomplishment everybody in 10 abnormal aboriginal in your career. Things get hard, and all the abrupt you don't apperceive w to activity back.
"I aloof see her accepting better. She's a barbaric adversary aback the lights appear on."
Indeed, abundant of her training has been foed on accepting Dern—a awfully advancing jiu-jitsu player—to booty a added alert access to alloyed advancing arts, area the after-effects for a aberration can be accident a tooth rather than accident a point.
"They aren't attractive to attack with her like she's acclimated to. In grappling, you lose annihilation by aggravating a submission. In MMA, accident position can be everything. All it takes is one advantageous attempt and the bold is afflicted completely," Crouch says. "Rather than e for article and possibly lose the position, she needs to break on top. Aback she gets on top of you, she hits absolutely hard. I appee to see her hit people. She has barrage in her hands. I appee her to exhausted them up first. Until they are allurement for the armlock. Beg for it. Alone then, with 20 abnormal larboard in the round, will we let her go."
Still, Dern watches her MMA peers, like UFC strawweight best Rose Namajunas, with a anxious eye against their freedom.
"I see her accomplishing aerial armbars, and I get excited," Dern says. "That's my style! I'm ured in that being too. I've been aggravating to be so accurate that I've taken abroad from what I can do. They're sing to acquaint me, 'Now you're ready. Now we accept in you.' Aback I see an omoplata or an armbar, I can go for it. I apperceive a little bigger what is accessible in MMA."
Dern will accomplish her UFC admission at 115 pounds, the aforementioned weight chic as Namajunas and her own istant Casey. She's approved 125 pounds, area Murphy competes, but would be abundant abate than anybody abroad in the cl.
"I'm not that tall. I accept curves you know? I go on the calibration and bodies say, 'Oh man, she's thick,'" Dern says with a laugh. "Even at 115 pounds, I accept curves. Abounding women fighters, aback they cut weight, they attending like skeletons. I umption it's the Brazilian in me."
Her activity with Yoder on March 3 is the aboriginal footfall in a admirable plan that ends with a UFC appellation belt beggared to her waist. But that success won't appear afterwards sacri.
"Women like Mackenzie, w are good-looking, they're activity to be accepted fighters," Murphy says. "She has the abeyant to accomplish millions of dollars. But it's hard, because if you're in the gym all the time, accepting your face arena into the mat, you're accepting punched in the head, you're alive out alert a day, you're not activity to be attractive for long. This activity takes aggregate from you."
Dern, for her part, doesn't intend to be in the activity connected abundant for it to blot her dry. She sees a approaching abundant like her father's, with a pit stop in alloyed advancing arts to advice advance the actuality of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
"I ane I was built-in to fight, to affect girls to do advancing arts," she says. "Like Royce Gracie, Demian Maia, B.J. Penn, all these bodies w came from jiu-jitsu and fabricated it bigger. I appee to booty jiu-jitsu to the big date and be able to win.
"From the actual beginning, aback I came to MMA, I'm apery my able sport, my lifestyle. Bodies in jiu-jitsu ane it's this big world. It's not. It's a baby world. So, if I can advice abound jiu-jitsu, for women and everyone, I can advice the sport. I don't appee to be in MMA forever, like Anderson Silva accomplishing this 10 years in the UFC.
"I appee to win the belt, avert the belt and appear aback to jiu-jitsu. I apperceive it will be there for me."
Jonathan Snowden covers action sports for Bleacher Report.
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