For nearly three full rounds Saturday at UFC 222, it was hard to justify the hype around Mackenzie Dern.
The hot prospect had her hands full with Ashley Yoder, whose southpaw stance frustrated Dern throughout their women's strawweight fight at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Yoder's athleticism and conditioning also allowed her to keep the bout standing and avoid Dern's vaunted Brazilian jiu-jitsu game.
With time ticking away in the final stanza, however, Dern finally fully committed on a takedown attempt and put Yoder on the mat. Once there, she moved effortlessly to her opponent's back and applied a rear-naked choke that might well have finished the fight if she'd had more time to work.
As it stood, Dern finished the bout latched like an anaconda around Yoder's back, and the display earned her a split-decision victory (28-29, 29-28, 29-28) in her Octagon debut.
"I'm very hard on myself, so I really wanted to get the submission," Dern said at the post-fight press conference, via Sherdog.com's Tristen Critchfield. "I'm a jiu-jitsu girl, so I'm disappointed unless I get it. But I am also much more than just jiu-jitsu, so going out and fighting a lot of stand-up was fun, and I'm glad I got to show that side of my game."
Now comes the hard part: living up to the considerable expectations that preceded her arrival in the UFC.
If the Yoder bout proved anything, it's that it's going to be a slow burn with Dern. Here's hoping she gets the chance to take things at her own pace.
The 24-year-old is the daughter of decorated BJJ ace Wellington "Megaton" Dias and was a bona fide submission grappling prodigy by the time she was 14 years old. After winning jiu-jitsu world championships at every belt level—including a run of golds in both gi and no-gi competition—her transition to MMA in the summer of 2016 garnered significant media attention.
A 5-0 record on the independent circuit scored her a UFC contract and even enticed a few comparisons to former women's bantamweight champion and pay-per-view powerhouse Ronda Rousey.
You could say the bar was set pretty high for the Phoenix native before she even set foot on the big stage.
Now that her initial appearance is finished, we can say emphatically that Dern isn't the next Rousey, but she showed enough potential to keep us interested in whatever happens next. The most important factor in her evolution as an MMA fighter will be whether she can mature at her own pace or if matchmakers rush her into the spotlight.
Say this for Dern: When things are clicking, she has an exciting style.
Though she was largely overmatched in the striking game by Yoder, it didn't stop Dern from routinely wading into the fray with her own powerful punching combinations.
She never solved the riddle of Yoder's left-handed style, but Dern was the aggressor for much of the fight. Coupled with the ever-present threat of her world-class submissions, that devil-may-care attitude makes her eminently watchable.
Granted, there was a lot to be skeptical of, as well. Dern's takedowns were nonexistent for the first 14-plus minutes of the fight, meaning she didn't get the chance to show her best skills until the closing moments. She also wasn't able to utilize the clinch to her advantage and got briefly dropped by a Yoder left hand that landed behind her ear in the second round.
But she won—which was the only must-have on Day 1—and Dern is still young enough to build significantly on her tremendous grappling base.
She lacks the pervasive killer instinct of Rousey, the obvious athleticism of Holly Holm or the fearsome power of Cris "Cyborg" Justino, but Dern has something worth paying attention to.
She's likely not going to become the UFC's next megastar, and it seems a long shot she'll even become a champion. But her enthusiasm for competition is infectious, and the unique combination of her youth and popularity makes her the sort of fighter the UFC should want to cultivate.
If anything, she just needs more time to round out her striking game and takedowns. Against UFC competition, she will need to not only be able to hold her own with stand-up fighters much better than Yoder, but also be able to dictate the terms of where a fight takes place.
Otherwise, her deadly BJJ skills will sit unused like a Formula 1 car you can't take out of the garage.
There may also be questions about which weight division becomes Dern's home. Twice during her rise to the UFC, she competed in catchweight affairs (at 118 pounds and 120 pounds, respectively) and fought once at flyweight (125 pounds).
This week, she kept onlookers in suspense by being the last UFC 222 fighter to hit the scales during Friday morning's official weigh-in. Dern ultimately made the upper reaches of the strawweight limit at 116 pounds, but it remains to be seen where she will stick.
The UFC's new women's flyweight division is still finding its legs, with recently crowned champion Nicco Montano at the helm. A healthy crop of contenders are also there, including UFC stalwarts such as Valentina Shevchenko, Lauren Murphy, Alexis Davis and Liz Carmouche.
You could make the case Dern's size makes her a more natural flyweight than strawweight, but she won't get a break in her level of competition if she moves up.
By advancing to the UFC so fast and at such a young age, she's starting far behind top-level fighters such as 115-pound champion Rose Namajunas and former champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Because of it, her handlers are going to need the patience and restraint to bring her along slowly.
That could be easier said than done, though. Neither strawweight nor flyweight is a deep division. If Dern puts together a few consecutive wins, the UFC might find itself in the unenviable position of needing to leverage her marketability in every way it can.
Hopefully, that doesn't result with Dern getting rushed into deep water, where she would surely take a beating from the UFC's elite.
That would be a waste, considering the obvious promise of her grappling pedigree.