LOS ANGELES – The rush to find “the next Ronda Rousey” started roughly around the time Rousey was kicked in the head and knocked out by Holly Holm back in November 2015.
The search is a bit of a fool’s game, because even if a new women’s MMA star someday comes along and soars to greater heights than Rousey reached, no one will ever duplicate Rousey’s role as a trailblazing pioneer. Today’s standouts are already better than she was and the stars of tomorrow will be better than the current crop, but they’re all following in her footsteps.
Which was why it was a bit on the cringeworthy side when Mackenzie Dern earned the “next Ronda” tag leading up to her UFC debut. The 25-year-old Dern (6-0), a two-time World Jiu-Jitsu Championships gold medalist, had just five pro mixed martial arts bouts under her belt when she made her debut with a split-decision win over Ashley Yoder at UFC 222, but the combination of her world-class grappling pedigree and marketable charisma led many to draw the conclusion.
And while Dern, who returns to action at UFC 224 on May 12 when she meets Amanda Cooper in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was flattered by the comparison, she recognizes that there was only one competitor who could be first.
“Everything she did was so great,” Dern said of Rousey. “Everything she did for MMA, for women, was so great and I hope I can do that too, even do more than what she’s done. But, at the same time, I know that she came into MMA at a very, it was very new, the women’s MMA. So of course she’s going to face different obstacles. And I can imagine for her to break the barrier was a big obstacle. I don’t have to break that barrier.”
But while Dern can’t claim Rousey’s mantle as the breakthrough star in women’s MMA, she astutely notes that as the sport progresses, the talent improves, the rosters get deeper, the competition gets more dangerous.
That’s true on both the men’s and women’s side of the sport: Royce Gracie used his jiu-jitsu to tremendous success in the earliest days of the UFC before the competition caught up. The same happened to Rousey, who stayed a one-trick judo pony as the likes of Holm and Amanda Nunes surpassed her.
Dern sees herself as a fighter who, while acknowledging she’s a work in progress, could be the one who takes things to the next level when she puts it all together.
“Of course I would like to submit the fight in 15 seconds, go and connect and submit,” Dern said, referring to Rousey’s quick wins during her rise. “But it’s not that easy anymore. They see me as a world champion in jiu-jitsu, like Royce Gracie. Jiu-jitsu in MMA, if you’re good in jiu-jitsu, people pay attention to that, instead of judo. Judo, people in MMA didn’t respect judo so much, you didn’t see too many judo fighters in MMA. So for me they train more, the whole camp, just to not engage and everything, you know?”
Indeed, the opposition is already starting to get mouthy about the sort of promotional push Dern is receiving from the UFC at such an early stage in her career. Cooper (3-3) has trash-talked Dern’s performance in her win over Yoder, criticizing her striking and her wrestling. While Dern didn’t look great in the standup, she doubled down on her jiu-jitsu in the final round to seal the win.
And Dern says Cooper’s words only make her all the more determined to submit Cooper, who’s had all three of her career losses come by way of tapout. Especially given that Dern, who was raised in Arizona but is of Brazilian roots, will be fighting in her family’s homeland.
“This fight I want to submit [her], like fast,” Dern said. “The last fight with Ashley, I wanted to like stay standing up. I wanted to get the submission, but I didn’t have a rush to finish fast. But for Amanda, I want to submit fast. I’ll be in Brazil, I’m a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, I want to like show jiu-jitsu. So, I’m going to finish as fast as possible this fight.”
That sort of determination – and ability to take her opponent’s hate and turn it into fuel for motivation – is another trait she happens to share with Rousey, who never passed up on an excuse to place a chip on her own shoulder.
“Like Ronda, I think I’m aggressive like her, that’s my style,” Dern said. “But I have to be smart. I need to learn to fight, exchange. I try to punch them, to build and defend my takedowns better. I feel a little pressure like that, it’s a little not fair, you know? People are like, ‘don’t try to be a striker.’ Of course I’d like a knockout on my record one day, but I want to be a striker, I want to submit, but it’s a different game now than when [Rousey] came in. So I think people are seeing that. I think people are seeing my style, they see my system, they see my heart that I have as a fighter.
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