Mackenzie Dern has been marked for stardom ever since she made the move from jiu-jitsu to MMA and will move one step closer to champion status with a win on Saturday.
Standing across from her in the UFC Vegas 39 main event is fellow strawweight contender Marina Rodriguez, who hasn’t had quite the same hype as Dern, but has delivered in the cage time and time again with wins over the likes of Michelle Waterson, Amanda Ribas, and Tecia Torres. Rodriguez’s lone loss is a split call against Carla Esparza, and if Rodriguez had pulled out the decision there, she might already be in line to compete for a UFC title.
As it stands, even with a win both women still have to navigate the 115-pound minefield that includes Esparza and Joanna Jedrzejczyk potentially standing in the way of a meeting with the Rose Namajunas-Zhang Weili rematch winner in November. Dern has the edge in name recognition over Rodriguez, and should she pull off another spectacular submission and follow up with a strong post-fight promo, you can bet that the UFC will have no problem pushing her to the front of the line.
In other main card action, a disgruntled Randy Brown takes on Jared Gooden in a catchweight bout after Gooden missed the welterweight limit by three pounds, flyweight veteran Tim Elliott looks to stop the streaking Matheus Nicolau, Sabina Mazo faces Mariya Agapova in a battle of flyweight prospects, and Chris Gutierrez meets Felipe Colares in what should be a fan-friendly bantamweight scrap.
What: UFC Vegas 39
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Mackenzie Dern (4) vs. Marina Rodriguez (5)
Count me as one of those overeager folks on the Mackenzie Dern hype train.
Maybe I’m trying too hard to anoint someone as the next Demian Maia (I just miss seeing him fight so much), but Dern having an A-plus skill that few women in the world can match makes her a problem for anyone in the strawweight division. That skill being her grappling, of course, which made her a star in the competitive jiu-jitsu world before she turned 25. If Dern’s takedowns have improved, Marina Rodriguez could be in for a short night.
Where one would be concerned with Dern is her gas tank. If she doesn’t get Rodriguez down early or if Rodriguez is able to defend well enough in the first couple of rounds to let Dern tire herself out, then the last three rounds of the fight should favor Rodriguez. She’s the superior striker, and she has one five-round fight under her belt, which will be invaluable should she find herself in more main events in the future. We don’t know if Dern can go a hard 25 minutes yet.
Picking Dern is based primarily on having faith that she will put Rodriguez on her backside at some point in Round 1 or 2 and that she’ll find the finish once there. This is Dern’s toughest test to date, and while I’m going with her to get the submission, this could easily be an impressive decision victory for Rodriguez and another teachable moment for Dern.
Randy Brown vs. Jared Gooden
Randy Brown finds himself in a tough situation.
Not only is he fighting an opponent with one-punch knockout power, but Jared Gooden also badly missed weight for the fight and he has more to gain with a win here. Brown’s past three wins came against Alex Oliveira, Warlley Alves, and Bryan Barberena, so it’s strange to see him have to take a step back in competition here.
Brown won’t overlook Gooden, so he should have no issue staying on the winning track. He has great speed and size, is creative on the feet, and he has a nose for the finish. Brown has to be aggressive with Gooden, a fighter who thrives when he’s able to set the tempo.
Give me Brown hurting Gooden on the feet and finishing with a choke when Gooden shoots in to try and slow down the action.
Tim Elliott (15) vs. Matheus Nicolau (T9)
Tim Elliott is the perfect matchup for Matheus Nicolau at this stage of the Brazilian’s career. It’s going to be sink or swim on Saturday night for Nicolau and if he’s not prepared for the relentless grappling pressure that Elliott brings then he could end up as the next victim of Elliott’s awkward and inimitable style.
As much respect as I have for Elliott’s motor, Nicolau is also an outstanding grappler in his own right. We could be in for some entertaining scrambles, but just as likely I see Nicolau having an answer for every trick Elliott has on the mat. Even if it takes the younger fighter a round to figure Elliott out, once he does, he’ll show why he’s one of the most overlooked talents at 125 pounds.
Nicolau has the advantage in striking, not that it matters much as this will primarily be a ground fight. We’ve seen Elliott’s aggression get him in trouble at times and that’s what I see happening here as Nicolau will eventually catch him with a submission.
Sabina Mazo vs. Mariya Agapova
We learned a lot about Mariya Agapova the last time we saw her, which was 14 months ago. Unfortunately, much of it wasn’t good. As physically gifted and talented as the Kazakh fighter clearly is, she fell into a predictable trap in which she emptied her gas tank going for a fast finish and was left with nothing after the opening round. On the positive side, this seems like a fixable habit.
Sabina Mazo doesn’t have as much course correcting to do. Yes, she had a three-fight win streak snapped in February, but it was against a far more experienced fighter in Alexis Davis and at a weight class that she isn’t meant to be competing in right now. Prior to that, the rangy Colombian was starting to put together all the tools that made her one of the hottest prospects coming out of the Legacy Fighting Alliance.
In this battle of 24-year-olds, I like Mazo if only because she’s faced and defeated better competition. Agapova is a step behind on the developmental curve, enough so that I think Mazo not only gets the win here, but does so in style with the kind of head kick knockout that that put her on the UFC’s radar in the first place.
Chris Gutierrez vs. Felipe Colares
Love this fight and glad it got bumped up to the main card after the Phil Hawes-Deron Winn-Chris Curtis scramble.
On the surface, this is a striker vs. grappler matchup, but Felipe Colares has shown a willingness to trade on the feet, which could play right into Chris Gutierrez’s game plan. While Colares does have raw power and uses his length well, he also throws mostly single strikes and gets sloppy when he ups his output.
Gutierrez is the opposite. Once he lands a good shot, all his subsequent strikes become quicker and crisper. He turns it on as well as anyone at 135 pounds and Colares’ less distinguished striking won’t be enough to stop Gutierrez if this becomes a firefight.
All Gutierrez has to do is keep this one on the feet and he should cruise to a victory.