Not only did Xiaonan’s fight against Mackenzie Dern on Saturday serve as her first UFC main event, but it was also a pivotal crossroads for her career — the Chinese contender entered the contest reeling from back-to-back losses for her first time ever.
Fortunately for Xiaonan, the hours she spent on the mats at Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male gym paid off, as she fended off a blitzkrieg of attacks from one of the best jiu-jitsu artists in the sport and survived scary sequences in the second and fifth rounds to eke out a majority decision over Dern and reestablish herself as a threat in the 115-pound division.
“The Mackenzie fight was very important, because I didn’t want the third loss [in a row] on my record, so of course there was some extra pressure on me before the fight,” Xiaonan said through a translator Monday on The MMA Hour.
“During the fifth round, I could feel that I won the first four rounds. So in the fifth round, even [when] I was in the bottom position, I was struggling with her, but my mindset was, ‘No matter, no tap. If I can survive through the fifth round, I win. Even if I broke my arm, no problem. I just need to survive through the fifth round.’
“I just told [Dern afterward] that her jiu-jitsu is absolutely another level,” Xiaonan continued. “There were several moments I could feel the threat during the fight. And I just told her that we are all from the same management team, so we can train together in the future, so if she needs me to help her on striking or her helping myself on grappling, yeah, we can just train together.”
Heading into the bout, Xiaonan was MMA Fighting’s No. 7 ranked strawweight in the world, while Dern sat one spot above at No. 6. But the win puts Xiaonan back in elite company, and with the two women who’ve defeated her in the UFC — Carla Esparza and Marina Rodriguez — currently locked into a title defense against Zhang Weili and a No. 1 contender fight against Amanda Lemos, respectively, Xiaonan already has her sights set on a different name for her next move, one who could vault the 33-year-old into title contention.
“I will discuss with my coaches and my management team to see who is next, but there is always a name I want to fight, other than that I want to fight for the belt,” Xiaonan said. “The name is Rose Namajunas, because everybody recognizes she’s probably the best fighter in our division. So yeah, I want her. ... I like this matchup.”
Namajunas is currently ranked as MMA Fighting’s No. 2 strawweight in the world following her anticlimactic title loss to Esparza at UFC 274, which ended her second title reign.
The next defense of the UFC belt is set for Nov. 12 at UFC 281 when Esparza meets Xiaonan’s countrywoman Zhang, and Xiaonan has confidence the title will change hands once again.
”I think Weili can win that fight versus Carla Esparza, because Weili is strong, stronger than Carla,” Xiaonan said. “So it’s going to be very hard for Carla to try to take Weili down.”
If that result happens and Xiaonan gets her wish to face Namajunas, China’s two top strawweights could be on a collision course to meet with gold on the line.
That’s music to Xiaonan’s ears.
“It’s not an issue, me fighting Weili, because just like I said me and Mackenzie [are friendly], we are only opponents in the 25 minutes. Other than that, we are friends,” Xiaonan said. “Same as Weili. Yeah, we can fight just in the five rounds, 25 minutes we fight against each other. Other than that, outside of the cage, we are friends.”