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The Mackenzie Dern march continues with much to like, but so many questions

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Before everything went haywire during fight week, Mackenzie Dern and Amanda Cooper shared a collective moment of confusion. They were squaring off for a media photo opportunity, the routine kind of face-off that happens a couple of times in the lead-up to an important bout. But for some reason, something as simple as a handshake became fraught with challenge. Dern reached her hand out and Cooper either didn’t see it or ignored it, before finally recognizing the gesture and accepting the handshake.

After they faced the media, Dern again extended her hand, and Cooper turned away at that exact moment, effectively (and perhaps accidentally?) dissing her in the process.

Nothing about that moment is especially significant in the grand scheme of things, except that it perfectly encapsulates Dern’s MMA career thus far: misunderstandings and strange signals, with little harm done to the end result.

After beating Cooper on Saturday at UFC 224, Dern is now 7-0 as a professional. On the surface, everything is fine. You can’t argue with the results, after all, and where it matters, Dern is perfect. But in the background, there is much to question.

Prior to this fight, Dern revealed that she was “invited to leave” her previous gym in Arizona, the MMA Lab. To hear her tell, it it was not a big deal, just that she wants to “be able to be on the beach and relax and miss to be on the mats and want to be on the mats.” If we’re being honest, the translation here is that she doesn’t want to train as hard as her coach at the MMA Lab, John Crouch, wanted her to.

Coaches are not in the business of shipping their top prospects elsewhere for no reason. Most of them live to work with true talents.

So, off she went to California, into a situation she ostensibly prefers, only to proceed to show up in Brazil and miss weight by seven (7!) pounds. For a purported strawweight, that equates to six percent of her bodyweight. And Her excuse for the gaffe? Switching camps disrupted her weight cut.

It takes more than a bit of gall to suggest you wanted more relaxation in your life and then blame that same leisurely life for your laxness. That’s playing jiu-jitsu with reason itself.

This is not to say that fighters don’t deserve some downtime in their lives. Of course they do. But downtime cannot come at the expense of progress, or in exchange for effort. With Dern, we don’t know the cost of the transaction, but the circumstantial evidence certainly leads to suspicion.

The camp issue is one thing. The weight miss is another. Worse on that front, it’s not a first. As both her supporters and detractors likely know, she missed weight once in 2016, once in 2017, and completed the trifecta this week.

But with Dern, nothing is quite so simple. There is one silver lining here, and that is that Dern became the first UFC fighter in the modern era to miss weight by more than seven pounds and still win. Generally speaking, it seems that fighters who miss weight so badly endure some physical and psychological struggles along the way that impact them even in the cage. Dern is at least mentally strong enough to power through her self-created weight fiasco, and that speaks to something worth keeping an eye on.

And that’s the frustration with her: as a prospect, there is plenty to like. In her short time in the cage on Saturday, Dern flashed improved striking defense and technique, dropping Cooper with an overhand right before finishing her with a rear naked choke in just 2:27. Her world championship-level jiu-jitsu is a clear and obvious weapon, but the addition of a potent striking arsenal would set her apart.

If only ... if only Dern can figure out all of the other stuff. For all intents and purposes, Dern is still essentially an MMA newcomer. Seven fights in less than two years is the beginning of her arc. At this stage, it’s possible to outclass opposition on talent alone. But at the highest levels, things will not be so simple.

Perhaps we are being too hard on her, that we are asking too much of a 25-year-old who is still figuring out a new sport, but the nature of MMA demands that we ask these questions, things like:

  • Is she better off as a flyweight?
  • Has she found a coach and team that will truly push her?
  • Can she follow a more disciplined approach?
  • Does she really, truly want this?

All of this is not to be too hard on Dern. Her spotless record is its own defense. It is more a projection of where she is headed. Coming into UFC 224, she was not officially ranked, but that moment is coming soon. And when it does, there are only a couple of steps up the ladder. Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade may seem like a long way off, but in reality, they could be just down the hall and around a corner. And rest assured, they did not get to their lofty perches by training at their leisure and giving in to bouts of indiscipline.

Dern can go far and fast, but her trajectory and speed is mostly within her control. She is skilled and gifted, and the fight world would like to see where exactly the bounds of her talent lie. After a spectacular fight night, Dern has earned the right to celebrate, but hopefully she also takes time to recall the bumpy week or two before then. To reach the top, she needs to answer a few hard questions, even if it’s only to herself.

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