In only her second UFC fight, Mackenzie Dern will occupy a spot on the main card of a pay-per-view and a lot of that has to do with the hype surrounding the 25-year old Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom.
With a mantle filled with grappling trophies, Dern came into her very first fight in mixed martial arts with a ton of eyeballs on her performance and every matchup since then has been bathed in the spotlight.
Her UFC debut was a featured preliminary bout on a pay-per-view card and now just two months later, Dern makes her return against Amanda Cooper on the main card at UFC 224.
Even before she got to the UFC, Dern was being compared to the likes of Ronda Rousey or Miesha Tate as the next big thing in women’s mixed martial arts, but she always shunned those comparisons.
In her eyes, she’s not the next anybody — she’s the first Mackenzie Dern and that’s all she’s ever going to try to be.
That’s why Dern has been able to handle the expectations for her career because she tunes out the compliments as much as she shields herself from criticism. It’s all because she has to forge her own path in the sport and that’s where she knows she’ll find the most success.
“I think if you let the critics get to you or even the compliments — they tell you to only look at the good things but even the good things, I can’t let that go to my head,” Dern said when speaking to MMAWeekly ahead of UFC 224. “I need to keep my feet always on the ground. I just try to listen to the people in my close, close circle. It’s crazy how just from my first to my seventh fight, I made my circle very tight that’s around me. I think that’s what’s going to take me all the way to the title fight and help me keep evolving as a fighter, as a person, to keep me on the right track, to keep the circle of people around me very small.
“All the compliments, I listen to it but I don’t try to take it too serious and all the critics, too. Of course it gets to my ears, I hear about it but I don’t take it serious. Only when my coaches or my family says it. That’s it. Right now, it’s going good.”
Of course, UFC president Dana White has long warned fighters nearing superstardom to look closely at the people who surround them as they become targets for people looking to ride their coattails of success.
From the sound of things, Dern has already whittled down the amount of people she allows access to her life and that has helped her stay humble in the face of fame.
Perhaps the most important factor that Dern has going for her now is that she truly believes she belongs among the elite fighters as part of the UFC roster. She’s not proclaiming that she’s the best in the world or that a title fight is somehow looming on the horizon but Dern knows she has the skills to get there one day.
“After my debut, even walking to the cage and then going the three rounds, I felt like I was really meant to be there,” Dern said. “Going into this fight, I feel everything that comes along with it, the media, the pressure, the fans, everything, it feels right. I’m doing good.”
Nothing seems to rattle Dern these days, although even she’s not immune to the sheer excitement that fills her voice when talking about the special guest who will be occupying a seat in the front row for her fight on Saturday night.
“My dad will be there that night. I’m just so excited,” Dern said. “I don’t feel the pressure. I just feel excited.”