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Fight between ex-coach and husband made Mackenzie Dern rethink inner circle

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Mackenzie Dern is putting the drama behind her.

In the midst of a successful 2020 campaign inside the cage so far, Dern found herself embroiled in a personal disagreement with a coach that both parties went public with this past September. Dern’s husband Wesley Santos got into a physical altercation with now former coach Juan Gomez and both parties gave their side of the story to MMA Fighting, with Dern stating that she wasn’t sure exactly what provoked the incident and Gomez admitting that there were long-lingering issues between he and Santos.

Regardless of the exact reason for the dispute, Dern parted ways with Gomez and the Black House team, and she now finds herself under the tutelage of coach Jason Parillo at RVCA. Ahead of her fight with Virna Jandiroba on Saturday at UFC 256, Dern spoke about how the experience with Gomez forced her to rethink who she can trust.

“I felt like so bad that I spent, like, one year and a half believing some things and going through some things that now I see, ‘Man, that’s not normal for coaching and for fighters to go through,’” Dern said at Thursday’s UFC 256 virtual media day. “It’s really crazy, and it definitely gave me a different vision on my camps and my life in general and my career, who I want near me to stay close, and who you open up to. It’s really dangerous, what we do is dangerous.

“We get punched in the face, you can break your nose, you can ruin your career by knee surgeries or things like that, so it’s not to just give in the hands of people for ego or things like that. You need to be with real professionals and you need to feel good. A happy fighter, a happy athlete, that’s the best camp, when you’re happy with what you’re doing and not having a different battle in your mind, and then a battle in the fight and then a battle in the family with the coaches, that’s not normal. It definitely made me think two times and now I see so much evolution and everything in my career.”

Dern’s career was trending upward before she recently changed teams, something she’s already done a couple of times in her brief MMA career. The 27-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu star spent the early part of her pro fighting career with The Lab in Arizona before taking her winding path to Parillo’s team.

An existing friendship with RVCA founder Pat Tenore helped pave the way for Dern to end up at her current home base.

“I had heard of [Parillo] before,” Dern said. “Pat, the owner of RVCA, he’s known me since I was a little baby from jiu-jitsu. I knew it was more of a private gym, the RVCA, so I wasn’t sure if Coach Parillo would want to train me. I know that he’s trained such great fighters, Cris [Cyborg], B.J. Penn, who is a jiu-jitsu guy. So I really like that B.J. was jiu-jitsu and coach was able to work with him to become champion.

“But I was kind of nervous – ‘Man, I hope that coach will want to work with me.’ I left The Lab and then I left this last gym, so maybe he’s gonna think that I’m a problem fighter. He said, ‘OK, come in.’ I’m so happy he did. There’s a reason why he’s one of the best in the world; it really does make a big difference.”

In her first fight training with Parillo, Dern picked up her most significant MMA win in September, when she needed less than four minutes to submit longtime UFC veteran Randa Markos. She’s won four of five UFC fights with three of those victories coming by first-round submission, and she appears to be hitting her stride inside the octagon.

Going from a more individually focused, less directly competitive setting has contributed greatly to Dern’s growth.

“The Lab was more like a team, so they had a lot of people in the UFC with big names,” Dern said. “It was really just normal and everyone was pushing me good. Black House is a little more of a team too, but I think I do better at private gyms.

“The RVCA is perfect because I can just go do my thing, train. I see Chito Vera there, I see [Michael] Bisping, Luke [Rockhold], and everyone’s kind of doing their own thing and you can watch and really see what these world champions are doing. I see Chito’s in the gym, I need to be in the gym too because that’s where I want to be. I see Luke’s in the gym, I need to go to the gym. It really pushes you to have these high-level fighters, but without that mix of everyone trying to kill you. I think the private gym is more the way to go for my style.”