Mackenzie Dern was just one week away from her first UFC main event when disaster struck.
In her final sparring session before preparing to fly to Las Vegas, the decorated grappler turned mixed martial artist suffered a debilitating knee injury that caused her immediate, agonizing pain. In all likelihood, she probably should have immediately notified the UFC that she was injured and needed to pull out of her fight against Marina Rodriguez. But instead, she was conflicted due to the magnitude of the moment.
“For sure, if it was just a three-round fight on the prelims, or even if it was on the main card but not a potential title contender fight, for sure I would have asked to be pulled out or [seen] if they would reschedule it or something like that,” Dern told MMA Fighting. “It’s never me to pull out, but more I’m seeing that’s OK to do that. You need to think more about yourself, not just putting on a show. I’m asking for a fight, and finally the UFC gives me a fight, and then I feel pressure that I need to pull through in the fight.”
According to Dern, she wasn’t sure about reaction she’d receive if she withdrew or possibly asked the promotion to push back the fight to a later date. To add to that, the main event for the following UFC card had also undergone a late change.
“I remember thinking, this is my first main event, I don’t want to pull out,” Dern said. “Maybe they’ll just reschedule it or maybe not? Maybe they’ll give Marina a different person and then I’ll lose the opportunity. I could win. I still felt like I could win no matter what.
“Then I saw that Holly Holm had pulled out of her fight with Norma [Dumont] the week after me, so it was just my first time being in that situation where I was actually thinking of pulling out of the fight, and it was a really important time for me with my first main event.”
When it came to dealing with the injury during the fight, Dern said her knee wasn’t necessarily compromised, but there was no denying the mental strain it caused.
“The week of the fight, I wasn’t really able to move, I wasn’t able to train,” Dern explained. “I was just kind of trying to recover and not show anything. Trying to see if my knee would not be swollen and if I could calm down to try and get back to regular movement. I come out and the first couple of moves she does, she does that kick where she kind of steps on your knee a little bit. Not too much to hurt it, but to keep distance, but all of a sudden you’re thinking.
“In the fight, when you’re thinking, you’re late. You’re already one second late. You need to be ahead. You always need to be ahead, ahead, ahead. I think unconsciously it affected me a little bit, but not too much movement or pain or anything like that. More just thinking about my knee, thinking about my movement. Thinking I need to explode and get to her, but not being confident about putting weight on my knee. I think definitely my mindset is what caught me, and I feel like if I would have just stayed concentrated and thought about beating her instead of thinking about me, I would have been able to bring more to the fight, but that’s experience.”
Ultimately, Dern lost a unanimous decision to Rodriguez. She did manage to earn her first “Fight of the Night” bonus as a reward.
Dern initially tried to avoid surgery, but two weeks after the fight ended, she felt her knee lock up again and wasn’t able to move her leg at all. It was then that she had to concede that going under the knife was the only way her knee would be repaired from the damage already done.
“I tore my meniscus,” she revealed. “I tried physical therapy because one of the doctors they wanted to try to repair it with [surgery], but I don’t want stitches because they said that’s three months without weight bearing [on the leg]. So I was like no, I’m going to try to do physical therapy. So after the fight, I stayed two weeks without training. I went to Madison Square Garden, I watched Zhang Weili and Rose [Namajunas] live. I was kind of getting pumped. I think I’m good to go back to training.
“My first training back, it flipped over, the flap on the meniscus so my knee locked and I couldn’t unlock it. This was probably the first surgery that I was happy to do because then I could actually walk again. I wasn’t able to walk, I wasn’t able to do anything. I wish I would have done the surgery just right after my fight instead of waiting the two weeks to see if it would get better and that way maybe I could have come back faster.”
The injury happened on the same knee where Dern had ACL reconstruction back in 2012. She said her leg nowfeels better than ever after surgery. She doesn’t necessarily regret taking the fight with Rodriguez, even if it resulted in a loss, but she also learned a valuable lesson about the choices she makes with her career.
“If it happens now, I don’t think I would feel too bad about saying hey, I got injured,” Dern said. “Especially seeing Holly Holm and high-level athletes and champions do that all the time, too.”
At UFC 273 ,where she faces Tecia Torres on the main card, Dern is looks at the matchup as a chance at redemption. Not only is she healthy again, but she likes the fact that Torres presents the same kind of problems as Rodriguez.
“I’m kind of excited to fight Tecia now [that it’s] kind of similar in style,” Dern said. “She gets a lot of decisions. She has good cardio. She goes most of the rounds. She kind of gets in, makes her points and then moves. Gets in, makes her points and then moves. A lot of footwork but I’ll have the reach in this fight so I’m looking forward to working on my footwork and also, too, just to get her close to me for her to make her points but that’s kind of my moment to get her to the ground.
“I feel like Tecia’s a good fight for me to recover the mistakes I made against Marina.”