There was a time when being "the next Ronda Rousey" was MMA's ultimate compliment. Once the UFC's dominant champion at bantamweight, Rousey helped catapult the sport right into the heart of the American mainstream with her combination of fierce grappling and pinup looks.
Mackenzie Dern (2-0), who fights Friday night against Katherine Roy on AXS TV, has all the attributes to become Rousey's successor as the queen of women's MMA. Quick with a smile and easy on the eyes, Dern's persistent positivity, indescribable accent (a combination of her dual roots in Brazil and Arizona) and God-given charisma turn heads wherever she goes.
"She's incredible at what she does well," former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich, who has called Dern's early fights as a color commentator for AXS TV, said. " She's friendly, fun to talk to, marketable. Even today during weigh-ins, when most fighters are miserable, she was all smiles and having a good time."
If looks alone could propel a star to success, there would be models lined up around the block at UFC headquarters for their shot at the limelight. But while the 23-year-old Dern's beauty may be the first thing you notice, it's her Brazilian jiu-jitsu that brought her to the dance.
Like Rousey, she was an athletic prodigy, winning competitions from an early age and dominating adults as a teenage blue belt. She moves on the mat like she was born for it—and perhaps she was. Her father, Wellington "Megaton" Dias, was a dominant player in the fledgling jiu-jitsu scene of the 1990s and started bringing his young daughter to the gym when she was just three years old.
"Her dad makes the difference," Miletich said. "When I was young and coming up in this game, 'Megaton' Dias was legendary in jiu-jitsu. Having a guy like that as your dad, going to classes and learning from him, you're going to [be] great at that game."
The results speak for themselves. Dern has won gold in every major grappling competition in existence, from the ADCC World Submission Grappling tournament to the World Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship, dispatching not only every prominent woman in her weight class, but also giants like the gargantuan Gabi Garcia.
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Video! Throwback to a then 21 year old Mackenzie Dern taking on 245 pound Gabi Garcia https://t.co/RWPDUiEnFZ https://t.co/bY1xOHcXck2/25/2017, 6:13:07 PM
"Rolling with her is a really cool experience," said Dern's teammate at the MMA Lab, UFC bantamweight Lauren Murphy. "I always try to give her my best, and she's almost always two steps ahead of me anyway. She's fast and stronger than she looks.
"One thing she's really good at is seeing submissions everywhere, which I know sounds like 'duh,' but it's true. She's not just a leg lock specialist, or only really good from her guard, or only good on top. She's really, really good everywhere, in every position, so there's no safe place or position to be on the ground with her. She moves a lot and transitions well and has a really good gas tank, so if you stop to breathe or think for a second, she catches you."
Being on the mat with Dern has proved to be an overwhelming experience for the top women grapplers in the sport. She tops the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation's rankings and was FloGrappling's 2016 "Black Belt of the Year."
For MMA fighters unused to competing with top professionals, hitting the mat with Dern can be a truly terrifying experience—and her submission win over Montana Stewart with a modified Imanari choke last year did little to ease fears.
"People down there with her realize what a tight game on the ground actually is," Miletich said. "There are gaps and holes in most people's grappling, but they may not know it until they go up against a world-class person for the first time. That's when you realize, 'Holy s--t. I have nothing for this person.' You go from fighting to win to literally trying to survive."
Of course, in 2017, being called the "next Ronda Rousey" can feel like a double-edged sword. After all, Rousey's meteoric rise was followed by an equally spectacular fall. Her overall game could never match her spectacular ground work, something that, with time and enough tape study, opponents started taking advantage of.
Today, Rousey is a cautionary tale, a dominant athlete from one sport who failed to prepare an adequate backup plan to handle adversity in the cage. Dern, like Rousey, could easily rely on athleticism and otherworldly grappling to carry her up the ladder, but Miletich believes it would be a huge mistake to stick solely with what she knows.
"It's always going to come down to whether she can absorb the other parts of the game fully," Miletich said. "Or at least well enough to keep really talented strikers at bay until she can get a takedown. No matter how good you are, you're eventually going to run into someone who can stop what you do best.
"And that's when you need to be well balanced. That's the difference between a good fighter and a world champion who holds on to the belt."
Dern's pursuit of a well-rounded game has led her to John Crouch, a Royce Gracie black belt who has trained top fighters like former UFC champion Benson Henderson at the MMA Lab in her hometown of Glendale, Arizona. In addition to Henderson and male MMA stalwarts, the Lab's Murphy and former UFC fighter Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger have provided Dern plenty of stiff competition as she attempts to navigate her new world.
"I feel like a white belt again," Dern told FloGrappling last year. "I'm still learning how not to be scared of getting punched, to handle it. Also to not just be getting punched all the time, you know, trying to moving my head. It's going really good. I'm having fun."
Dern is still an MMA neophyte, but that fact isn't always obvious as you watch her train and fight. Her progress, Murphy says, is nothing shy of remarkable.
"Her stand-up game is getting better shockingly quick," she said. "She's not afraid to fail and willing to work on the skills she's not great at. It's pretty cool watching her throw combos in sparring that we've all been working on or drill a certain wrestling shot until she gets it right.
"If she continues that, she could most definitely be incredibly successful in MMA. She's tough and she hits hard. She's already a wizard on the ground. Mackenzie has the potential to be a world champion."
Despite her demonstrable excellence, there are some worrisome signs. Dern, who competes at 130 pounds in the grappling world, has twice struggled to make the 115-pound limit in MMA. The 125-pound flyweight class may be her ultimate home, but right now it's a division the UFC doesn't promote.
That leaves Dern with the unenviable task of either being undersized at bantamweight or learning how to shed weight to make strawweight. While Miletich believes the proper solution is more weight classes, he says her refusal to give up jiu-jitsu competitions and bouncing around between multiple weights is also a major factor.
"Every time you have to cut weight it's a mental and physical roller coaster," he said. "Doing it for two combative sports is even harder. She goes up that big hill for a jiu-jitsu competition, comes down, then has to climb right back up another hill for MMA. It's exhausting.
"I had a talk with her and said, 'Maybe it's time to put the jiu-jitsu away. You're a two-time world champion. Why not focus on this MMA thing for a while?' At some point, she's going to have to get this dialed in if she wants to go to the UFC."
While Legacy Fighting Alliance is her current home—and the perfect place to develop her skill sets and solve lingering issues with her weight—there's no doubt Dern has her sights locked in on the UFC.
"The UFC talked to us already," Dern told MMA Junkie last year. "My team and my coaches, we talked with them, and we definitely want to—I want to be there. I'm hoping in 2017 I'll be there. But I don't want to get just thrown into the shark tank. I want to go in there being a shark. I don't want to be the fish for the sharks."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. Dern fights Katherine Roy on Friday at Legacy Fighting Alliance. The entire main card will be televised live on AXS TV at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.