PHOENIX — Mackenzie Dern couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming than the one she had on Friday night.
Despite being known for her mat wizardry, the 24-year-old jiu-jitsu phenom bested opponent Mandy Polk primarily with her striking, downing her veteran foe with a flurry of looping hooks before slapping on a nasty rear-naked choke to score a first-round submission win at LFA 24.
Dern, a highly-regarded MMA prospect who moved to 4-0 with the win, has now looked like an improved fighter in each one of her four professional outings, but the Arizona native still found plenty in her performance to be critical of despite nearly seizing the first knockout of her fighting career.
“I was happy, but the first thing — I saw some pictures, like some punches, and my head was down. So there’s still, of course, tons of things I see that I can get better on,” Dern told MMA Fighting. “Lots of things. Even the takedowns, I almost tried too much to go for the takedowns. So even little things like that, I always can get better.
“But I think the biggest thing is just the weight,” Dern added, “trying to figure out which weight class I want to do and trying to go to the next level.”
Weight has been the biggest question to follow Dern’s MMA career thus far.
After failing to make the strawweight limit in each of her last two fights, Friday night represented Dern’s first foray into the flyweight waters, and she said she felt good and strong at 125 pounds.
But at 5’3”, Dern knows she’ll be on the smaller end of the flyweight scale once she reaches the higher levels of the division. So after finding some success with her striking against a larger opponent like Polk, Dern said she was motivated to give 115 pounds another shot to see how her power translated to the straweight class.
“Now that I felt that maybe my hands are pretty strong, I think I’m a little more confident (in saying), okay, let’s do this, let’s go to 115,” Dern said.
“It makes me feel like I’ll be strong — even stronger — at 115. For sure, I think 125, me and my manager were talking — 125 is more shallow for girls. It’s a new division, so it’s (wide open). But I think 115, I’ll be a good size, I’ll be strong and everything. I just need to figure out this weight cut.”
That being said, Dern is still less than two years into her MMA transition, and she feels as if she is growing more comfortable in the cage with each passing fight.
“I feel good,” Dern said. “The biggest thing for me is to have a good camp before. As long as I can make sure I don’t have too many distractions before my fights and have a good gameplan, and all of that stuff, I feel comfortable going in there.
“Right now the strategy still is to use my jiu-jitsu, but I think that by the time I go to the UFC, that’s not going to be the strategy anymore. Like, it’s going to be per person, every person is going to be something different. The girls are going to be not so scared of my jiu-jitsu, so I’m going to have to [gameplan]. And now, it’s still not like that. I think at our level we’re still like, ‘Man, just do your thing. You’re good, believe in yourself.’ That’s what our strategy is most of the time. So I’m getting more comfortable, but I’m feeling more and more ready to go to the next level and try to push myself.”
Dern’s credentials already put her in rarified air among MMA prospects.
She is considered one of the best female grapplers of her generation and was the No. 1 ranked female jiu-jitsu player on the planet at the time she began her MMA transition. She has made it no secret that she hopes to be competing in the UFC by the end of 2018, but for now, Dern’s career is still in its embryonic stages, so it’s all about improving with every fight.
And with that being said, after sitting out seven months between wins, Dern hopes to land a quick turnaround to continue her momentum after emerging unscathed at LFA 24.
“I definitely want to get one more (fight) in before the end of the year,” Dern said. “Definitely. That’s my goal. So we’ll see. We’re definitely looking and seeing what’s next, but I’d like maybe the beginning of December, that would be good for me.”