Mackenzie Dern is marching towards a shot at UFC strawweight gold after winning four straight fights in the past 17 months, capped off by a first-round submission over Nina Nunes in April, but feels compelled to go the extra mile because of her some perceive her looks.
The multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion and ADCC gold medalist, who headlines Saturday night’s UFC Vegas 39 event opposite Marina Rodriguez at UFC APEX, said on the latest episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca that women viewed as “beautiful” are treated differently, but not in a good way.
“You always have to prove yourself,” Dern said. “You see men, if men are pretty in people’s opinion, men make fun of them, ‘He’s not that good.’ But women, no, they say, ‘Let’s all watch her fight because she’s beautiful.’ We go through that, you have to prove yourself even more.”
Dern made the transition from jiu-jitsu to MMA in 2016 and won five straight to sign a deal with the UFC, going 2-0 in the company before the lone setback of her career in 2019. Unbeaten since a defeat to Amanda Ribas, Dern still feels fans should value her and others more the way they do.
“I’m not here putting on razor-thin fights, I’m going there and submitting people in the first round,” Dern said. “Sure, there were fights where I didn’t submit [my opponent], but I had my nose broke, I’ve shown guts, blood and everything. Do you think I wanted to have my nose broken? You see Nick Diaz, who just fought, broke his nose and didn’t want to fight anymore, he was cool, and I don’t judge him. It was fine for him. But you have to be like, wow, you broke your nose and still came back to fight, you’re out there trying to win, that’s not for everyone, you know? People think it’s easy, but it’s not.”
Being a woman in sports create unique situations that men will never have to deal with. Dern, for example, had to pause her MMA career in early 2019 to give birth to her daughter Moa, returning to completion in October of that year. That milestone brought a surprising change in her social media.
“I’m still trying to grow [my fanbase] among women, but I think that’s coming naturally as I represent myself as mother, wife, and fighter,” she said. “But still, I lost 50,000 followers fast when I announced my pregnancy, and 80,000 total until my next fight, but that has definitely changed. The MMA [community] has more men than women so it’s impossible to have more women than men [as followers].”
Dern is nearing a million followers on Instagram as she enters UFC Vegas 39, and has noticed that some people who used to compliment her looks in the past no longer follow her on the platform.
“I was deleting some photos of old sponsors, some old stuff, and thought, ‘Let me see if this person that commented here [was still following me],’ and he wasn’t,” Dern said. “And I started looking at several old photos and many people that commented things like, ‘You’re so hot’ and whatnot, most of them don’t follow me anymore. I was like, ‘phew, I’ve cleaned it up.’
“You see OnlyFans and things like that, I don’t judge those who have it, but it’s not my focus. My focus is to represent women and change that idea that the only women that can sell is women that are seen by people as beautiful because, to me, every woman is beautiful, every woman is pretty and everybody puts on a show.
“There are women that don’t want to start in MMA because they are afraid of becoming too masculine and changing who they are, and other women are afraid of coming [to MMA] because men will only talk about their looks. It’s a tricky process, you don’t like to cross a line with no one, but it will work out if you’re just being yourself. It’s working out for me at least.”
Looks and fighting skills are not the only thing Dern is constantly judged for on social media throughout her entire MMA career, though. Her accent constantly becomes an—as she puts it—“annoying” topic on social media every time the jiu-jitsu star is about to enter the octagon, with some claiming she’s pretending to speak English with a Brazilian accent.
“People don’t educate themselves about the situation,” Dern said. “Just Google it, it’s how much I speak something. My entire life here in the United States, I only speak Portuguese. My husband is Brazilian and our entire relationship is in Portuguese. I speak Portuguese with my daughter, we don’t speak English at home. It’s not like I don’t know how to speak English. I stay three days a week with my birth mother, who’s American, and it flows again. But sometimes I get stuck.
“Sometimes I’m doing an interview and a Brazilian [reporter] will ask me something in Portuguese and ask me to answer it in English, you know? Fighting is my talent. I’m not the fastest person in speaking and whatnot. To me, it’s not easy to turn off one language for the other. I don’t try to speak Portuguese, I dream in Portuguese. Anyway, I don’t even like to explain myself, just Google it, ‘do people lose their native language?’ and they will see it. But whatever, any publicity is good publicity. They wanna see me lose but still watch my fight? That’s fine [laughs].”
Speaking of her relationship with Brazil and United States, Dern explained why she chooses to represent Brazil in sports and is bothered when Brazilian fans don’t view her as a “real” Brazilian.
“I consider myself Brazilian because of who I am, of my heart, of my blood,” Dern said. “I think I represent Brazil a lot more. I’ve never represented the United States in the UFC. But I can’t say I don’t feel it a little bit when I’m fighting another Brazilian, I know there are always some Brazilians saying, ‘Oh, but she’s not a real Brazilian.’ You’re like, damn, looks like they are never happy.
“When a Brazilian leaves Brazil and moves to the United States to have a different life, Brazilians get mad, say ‘You left your country, you want to live in the United States,’ but when an American… To me, I was already born with the Brazilian citizenship because of my father, but being born in the United States and getting the citizenship, I became a Brazilian.
“I do everything in Brazil. Taxes, I have my CPF [social security number], I have everything. I chose Brazil instead of the United States. I don’t do this for others but people don’t see it, they’re like, ‘I’ll cheer for the real Brazilian.’ Man, can you be more real than a person that has the option to represent someplace else and I always choose to represent Brazil, show the changes I want for Brazil. I can’t be ungrateful with everything I’ve got here in the United States. My father came here and has his gym here, I’ve learned jiu-jitsu here in the United States, but I’m Brazilian. That’s it.”