The first time I heard about Mackenzie Dern was around the same time the fight game began to change.
It was early 2012, and Ronda Rousey was in the early stages of an unprecedented rise that forever shifted the balance between the ‘x' and ‘y' chromosomes in mainstream mixed martial arts. Female prizefighting was beginning to feel like a legitimately viable career path, more so than ever before, and every few weeks my old jiu-jitsu coach would warn me about the daughter of his professor, the daughter of famed Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Wellington "Megaton" Dias.
She's going to be the next superstar, he would swear, often over and over again. I'm telling you, Shaun, this girl is good. Believe me. She's already smashing all of the black belts at the gym. She's going to be huge.
It became somewhat of a running gag. Class would end and he would rave about the prodigious talents of the 18-year-old girl dominating the mats over at Megaton's, the tiny teenager crushing grapplers of both sexes, many of whom more than doubled her size or experience.
That was before all the titles. That was before the black belt double-gold at Worlds, before the Absolute run that saw her sink the unsinkable titan Gabi Garcia, before the jiu-jitsu world anointed her the best female grappler on the planet. That was before she was Mackenzie Dern. Back then she was just the professor's daughter, a jiu-jitsu wunderkind who grew up in a gi since the age of 3 and graduated high school a year early simply to spend extra time competing. The monster who could easily pass for the girl next door.
It's crazy now to see how right he was.
Today, in the grappling world, Dern is a star. Her 2015 campaign solidified that. Over the course of a ridiculous 12 months, she won nearly every major jiu-jitsu tournament in the world, whether it was gi or no-gi, her 130-pound division or openweight, it mattered little. The culmination of two decades of dedication -- it was the kind of run that makes a lifelong career in jiu-jitsu a reality, opening doors for endless travel and the sort of ephemeral lifestyle that most 23-year-olds only fantasize about.
But rather than resting on her laurels, Dern upped the ante, surprising everyone in late October with an Instagram post of her standing alongside UFC fighters Lauren Murphy and Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger. Her broad smile spoke volumes, and the caption proudly proclaimed: "I'm so lucky to have these girls helping my MMA transition!"
A quiet announcement, but one that instantly felt right for Dern after wrestling with the decision for the past three years.
"It's weird, I was always against doing MMA," she says from the mats of Phoenix's The MMA Lab. "It was mostly my dad. I'm an only child from my dad's side, and daddy's little girl -- growing up he always didn't want me to do MMA. Of course, I think being a dad, he didn't want to see his daughter getting punched in the face. I think he always thought that I could accomplish a very happy life through jiu-jitsu, being a success in jiu-jitsu and doing seminars and traveling the world. And that's true. I'm successful already with jiu-jitsu. I'm already sustained with jiu-jitsu. But for me, it's not even about that. It's about goals and my objectives, and to be more.
"So when I had a great year (in 2015), it was like, okay, I can do this. And I saw Ronda, how much she opened the doors for girls, even outside of MMA. All the success that she had, it was like, man, we can make a living off that too."
Dern hasn't looked back since. Just nine months after committing to the fight game, she debuted on AXS TV and promptly tied Kenia Rosas into all manners of macabre knots, winning her MMA debut with a three-round grappling clinic at Legacy FC 58. Afterward, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson declared that his MMA Lab teammate had a chance to be one of the biggest stars in the sport -- high praise from a man not prone to hyperbole.
"I almost feel like I don't deserve it," admits Dern. "Just because I know so many (fighters) like Jocelyn, Lauren -- I'm around people who work so hard all the time, and I know how much they work. It all came very fast, especially with the MMA part, where, as soon as I decided to make the transition, it blew up. So many people believe in me, and all of these eyes are on me. I kind of have a lot of stuff to live up to now, but I do good under pressure.
"Jiu-jitsu's memory is very short, so if I stopped competing now in jiu-jitsu, five years from now the new generation won't know who I am. I don't want to work so hard -- I've been training since I was 3 years old, so 20 years -- to be forgotten. I want to make a difference and really accomplish something and be remembered. So that's why I'm here, I think that's kind of what my purpose is here. I just know that I have big expectations that people have put on me, so I'm just going to do my best to try and fulfill those."
Those expectations may be Dern's toughest opposition moving forward. For the most part, we in the MMA community, fans and pundits, have a tendency of demanding too much too soon when it comes to the slow build of a pro career. Welterweight showstopper Michael Page was barely two fights into his MMA journey before the online chorus began calling him out as a can crusher who'd get whooped by a real fighter.
Dern heard those criticisms too when her debut against Rosas stretched into a 15-minute decision, despite the fact that all of this was new enough territory that she had to be reminded by her cornermen during the fight that top position is also good for things like elbowing someone's face off rather than just hunting for submissions.
But these sort of things take time, even if patience is rarely afforded to those in the spotlight.
"You can't compensate time," cautions Dern's head striking coach Eddie Cha. "She's definitely a work in progress. It's going to take a little bit of time for her to understand the striking and fight IQ and everything like that. But all the tools are there. Some people can take years and never understand it, but I think she's learning at a phenomenal rate, so she's going to do well. She's only had one fight right now, but she's around good sparring partners, training partners, good mentors like Benson and coach (John) Crouch.
"If you see her spar, when she puts the wrestling and jiu-jitsu together, she can contend with anybody. I really believe that. I think anybody here at the gym who's seen her roll and kind of bang it out with everybody, they'll tell you the same thing. Crouch has been talking about her for years like, you've got to see this girl, you've got to meet this girl.
"That's how everybody kind of talks about her."
(Photo: Bianca Iuliano-Garman, MMA Fighting)
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Dern landed on this path.
She's been walking down it since the beginning, when her father would raise the curtains in her bedroom at 5 a.m. and together they would amble down to the gym for a morning training session before driving her to elementary school.
The Megaton academy was Dern's babysitter in those early days, and she spent most of her childhood surrounded by fighters and grapplers alike who traveled far and wide to learn from her father, a black belt under Royler Gracie who earned his nickname due to the ferocious sound his slams made whenever he hurled opponents down onto the mat.
Dern likes to say that jiu-jitsu is in her blood. From the earliest she can remember, she always knew her answer whenever an adult asked what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wanted to fight jiu-jitsu. Simple and plain. By the age of 6, she competed in her first tournament and lost on points. She cried and cried and cried that day, but then came the next tournament, and the next one, and before long the trophy shelf in her home started growing heavy. By the age of 14, she was competing against teenagers several years her elder and dominating them. Her blue belt arrived at age 16 -- the earliest age allowed by the IBJJF -- and three years later, she was awarded her black belt.
A lifetime of accomplishment for most jiu-jitsu players, and Dern did it well before she could legally drink.
"I think with most young prospects like her, they're still learning," says Murphy, a UFC bantamweight who trains with Dern on a regular basis. "They're still figuring stuff out, so sometimes they'll pass up certain submissions that are there because they don't know they're there. They won't move onto a shot sequence because they don't know it yet. Sometimes they hesitate or second-guess themselves when they're throwing certain combinations. And you just don't see that very much from Mackenzie.
"We have a newer female on the team who has no fights yet and she's just figuring out her center of balance basically. She doesn't have a very good base yet, it's easy to pull her over when we're wrestling and it's easy to get her off her balance. And that is not true with Mackenzie. And I think that's really big. That's something that only comes with time and a lot of practice and experience, and she already has that."
The most difficult challenge now for Dern is learning to manage her time. Though she has dialed things back over recent months, the demands of her jiu-jitsu schedule are still exhaustive between running seminars and traveling the world to compete in major tournaments or superfights. That reality reared its head on Thursday, when Dern missed weight by 2.3 pounds ahead of her sophomore fight at Legacy FC 61 against Montana Stewart (5-2).
Weight cutting to the degree done in MMA is still a new trick for Dern to learn, as she often competed close to her natural weight in jiu-jitsu due to the sport's same-day weigh-ins. It was a beginner's mistake, but it was also a mistake Dern and her coaches know won't be tolerated at the next level.
"After a few more fights, I think she'll start seeing that she's getting close to something," says Cha. "But I think she's so young, too, I don't think she realizes how big she can be. She could be the next big star, especially at that 115-pound division with her ground game and everything else.
"The first thing I look for is coordination and speed and agility, stuff like that. She definitely has that. And her work ethic is championship level, so I'm expecting big things. I think she can be, definitely, one of the top girls in any organization."
"She doesn't slack off on anything," adds Murphy. "She commits 100-percent to her shots and that, to me, is really impressive. There's no hesitation in her, even in the areas that she's not a black belt in.
"For me to even win, like, 20 seconds of a five-minute roll, or to stay on top for 15 seconds longer than I was able to last time, that's when I know I'm improving my game. Because I know in my mind, no girl that I face is going to move like that or know the submissions that she knows. They're not going to get the quick angles that Mackenzie gets from the ground. It almost makes me feel dumb. I'm like, man, I outweigh her probably by at least 15, maybe 20 pounds, and she makes me feel like a baby on the ground sometimes."
Dern admits there are still plenty of times she feels like she is taking five steps back for every two steps forward. She calls herself a white belt in the MMA game, but knows that is to be expected. And really, that exact feeling is what pushes her forward these days, the feeling of growth and learning that was beginning to fade from jiu-jitsu.
For now, she hopes to pattern her game in the same style of a Demian Maia or Jacare Souza, an aggressive submission-orientated attack that can unravel the unaccustomed and has already proven successful for several fighters in her similar mold.
"For me, the biggest pressure is not even what Benson said, or what the MMA fans think of me, if they think I will be a success. For me, out of everything that I feel, I think the biggest pressure is to represent the jiu-jitsu community," Dern says. "I want to make them proud. I don't want to embarrass them.
"So I think now is the perfect time (to learn MMA). I'm young still, and of course I want to have kids one day. Right now, I think the level is still very new (in women's MMA), so it's a great time for me to get in. There's still not that many girls, we're still in the beginning and growing. I think if I were to wait five years, we would have so many different types of girls -- now is the best time for me to get in there and get the experience. Then, hopefully, by the time I'm ready to fight for a title or all of the other girls start coming, I'll already have that."
Dern has made no secret that she hopes to be competing in the UFC next year.
It's a lofty goal, especially for someone so young in the game. But as Murphy points out, "the ambitious athletes are the ones who are successful."
"I hate to use Ronda Rousey as an example," Murphy says. "But women weren't allowed in the UFC when she started fighting, and she was ambitious enough to go after that goal even though everybody told her she was f*cking crazy. Nobody believed in her, and lo and behold, she's the most famous UFC fighter probably who's ever lived. Those ambitious goals are what make champions. So if Mackenzie didn't have that, I would be worried."
So while Dern knows the pressures of the spotlight will only grow larger the longer this road stretches, she remains driven to make this all worth something.
The jiu-jitsu prodigy is back to being a novice, but if you haven't learned by now, defying expectations is what she does best.
"I want to get there," Dern says. "For me, it's my goal. I know I will reach my goal, which is to be the UFC champion, but I've always been like that. I didn't know that I was going to beat Gabi Garcia, but I was always the one who said, no, someone's going to beat her. And we were friends, so it was nothing against her. But man, she was undefeated, she was huge, people would go to fight her defeated already. We'd be in an Absolute bracket and I'd be on the other side, and everyone here wants to make it to the finals just to get second place.
"But I always tried to win. I didn't want to survive. For me, surviving but still losing. You still lost. No one is going to remember if I lost by choke or if I lost by point advantage. I still lost. So always, my whole life, I've been very motivated and I think that's the most important thing. You have to be motivated. As soon as you stop getting motivated, then that's when it's hard to accomplish anything, then you start to not know what you're doing. You're doing it just to do it.
"So for me, I want to be the champion. That's my goal. Now I have to do everything I can to do that."