PHOENIX — It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon, a scorching 90 degrees in February, and Mackenzie Dern is the hottest thing going at the MMA Lab in suburban Phoenix.
The facility is so new that building contractors are still wandering around. The mats were just installed the previous night. A representative from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is there, razzing a fighter for blood, urine and a detailed accounting of some personal medication. There are dogs, a baby and more than a dozen fighters sparring, with differing degrees of enthusiasm all around.
None of it phases Dern, who is most definitely in her zone as Kanye and Jay-Z blare and she prepares for her first appearance in the UFC's Octagon.
You wouldn't know it by her steady, steel-eyed focus, but the 24-year-old jiu-jitsu wiz, a champion on the mats before she could legally drive, has confided in teammates that she's nervous ahead of the match.
Mackenzie Dern? Nervous? The same Mackenzie Dern who won a jiu-jitsu world championship as a teenager while competing against adults? The same Mackenzie Dern who handed the colossal Gabi Garcia her first loss in seven years? The same Mackenzie Dern who's been branded by many as the next Ronda Rousey?
If so, you can't see it in the Lab's regulation-sized cage, where Dern quickly taps out UFC veteran Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger with an armbar. Dern looks every bit the world-beater she's reputed to be for five minutes against Jones-Lybarger, who poses as a southpaw to mimic Ashley Yoder, Dern's opponent in her debut on March 3 at UFC 222.
Then Cortney Casey enters the cage, and Dern's whole day changes. Dern is beaten to the punch, pushed into the fence and taken down with a bodylock slam that shakes the cage like Godzilla has just come stomping through the room. To add insult to injury, the jiu-jitsu ace has to struggle like mad to escape a last-second armbar attempt.
It's not Dern's finest hour. Afterward, talking with coaches John Crouch and Leo Vieira, she looks downright despondent. But Casey has nothing but praise. This, Casey says, is how you can tell "she definitely wants it." And that's what it takes to become great.
"If you want to be a local champion, that's great. But you don't come to the MMA Lab for that," Casey says. "We're trying to build world champions. That's why she's here.
"No one likes getting punched in the face. The fact that she keeps showing up, with a smile on her face? Come on! We want her on our team.
"It's fight or flight in there. You either find out you can do this or that you can't. Only a few people say, 'Let's do it again.' That's one thing that Mackenzie has. She gets in there, and she's throwing. She knows she's not as good at fighting as she is at jiu-jitsu, but she wants to be. That's the perfect mindset. She's smart enough to know she's not that good yet—and that's what gives her the opportunity to be great."
The MMA Lab is about helping an athlete dispense with any delusions of invincibility. And contrary to what one might think, a fighter has to be broken down before her or she can be built up.
"You're going to get your heart broken and have bad days and feel like a loser," teammate Lauren Murphy says. "The Lab is a hard place. It's like the Harvard of MMA. You might have been a really smart kid at your high school and gotten straight A's, but when you get accepted at Harvard you sometimes feel like a f--king idiot.
"There have been days, when after rounds, she's been frustrated. But that's really normal. We've all had those days where we end up crying in the corner and just need a f--king second to calm down. It happens to men and women. And I think she's had those days with us. But Mackenzie gets over it and bounces back really fast."
A few minutes later, Dern and Vieira are working on clinch techniques against the wall, Casey's success an opportunity for Dern to learn and grow. Fifteen minutes later, walking into Crouch's office for our formal interview, her trademark smile is firmly planted back on her face.
"The sparring here is way worse than the fight," she tells me. "In the fight, you have adrenaline and don't feel anything until it is over. Here, you feel every punch. You feel it all."
That feeling, after all, is why she is here. Already wealthy, impossibly beautiful and at the top of her profession, she's chasing a state you can't find just anywhere. The UFC, equal parts fabulous glamour and gritty grind, is the pinnacle of the martial arts mountain. And that's a hill Dern has been climbing for a long time.
Dern's UFC journey started 24 years ago, about a 20-minute drive away at the Megaton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, home to her formidable father, Wellington "Megaton" Dias.
"My first memory of the Academy is the TV he used to have on the mat," Dern says. "He would put me there, and I'd roll some gis up like a pillow and watch Little Mermaid while he was teaching class.
"I would kind of be half paying attention to both the movie and him teaching his class, yelling 'mount, pass the guard, sweep.' You think that kids aren't paying attention, but they notice more than you think."
Dern started going to the gym because her mom worked a regular job and dad could more easily juggle work and childcare. But by the time she was three years old, she was participating. Quickly, very quickly, she was good enough that Dias saw a talent that should be cultivated. He started a kids program to find people for her to practice with. Tournaments soon followed.
"First tournament she did, she lost," Dias remembers. "She didn't so much like the idea, the feeling of losing. After that, man. I remember when she was just a little kid she was doing spider guard in a match. I said, 'How is she doing this?' She picked up things very quickly.
"You show her something today, by tomorrow she's already added it to her game. I can't explain how, except that the brain of a kid is like a sponge. Unconsciously, she's absorbing so much."
Because she was a child prodigy, people tend to imagine that Dern's life was regimented, that she spent hours daily with her father to become a grappling star. But once she went off to school, that wasn't the case. She played sports, went to the mall and lived a typical life. Except on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Those evenings were dedicated to jiu-jitsu.
By the time she was 15, her talent had transcended that normalcy.
"When we first went to tournaments, everyone would say, 'Who's that girl? Oh, she's Megaton's daughter.' Now I go to a tournament and they say, 'Who's that guy? Oh, that's Mackenzie's father,'" Dias says with a laugh.
A hobby was becoming a burgeoning career—and setting off a battle with the school truancy office.
"I wasn't, like, missing Friday and coming back Monday," Dern says. "I'd miss three weeks at a time to compete in Europe and things like that."
Eventually, the school understood that her absences were purposeful. Teachers started working with her, even when the requests seemed a bit odd.
"Not a lot of kids ask to leave class early so they can go run the bleachers during lunch," Dern says. "But when I was cutting weight for a tournament, they'd let me."
Tournament wins and competitions around the world followed. Dern would take homework with her and try her best to keep up with her schooling, but her continued success on the grappling scene required a hard choice be made. Dern's parents had differing views on how to proceed.
"Her mom wanted me to push her to go to college," Dias says. "Myself, I barely finished high school. I like to train. I like to compete. I like to travel and surf. I'm not really a school person.
"I came to this country with nothing. I had $400 in my pocket. Today, I have my house. I have my business. I have my car. I have a motorcycle and travel all over the world. I provide for my family. All with jiu-jitsu. I say, 'Whatever she wants to do, but college she can do any time.' Her jiu-jitsu career was booming."
Dern ended up graduating a year ahead of her class and moving to Brazil to concentrate solely on jiu-jitsu. The result was staggering progress. By 2015, she was the world champion in her weight class both with and without a gi. Despite giving up more than 100 pounds, she even defeated the seemingly unbeatable Garcia in the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup's Absolute division. It was the first loss since 2008 for Garcia, including a number of wins over Dern.
"People just wouldn't even sign up for the Absolute," Casey says. "Because, what's the point with Garcia there? But Mackenzie did. Every time. And they went, and went, and went. And it paid off. It's a mental challenge. She wanted to go against her until she beat her. Bring it on. It's the same mentality that brought her to MMA."
"It was a big thing," Dern says, still grinning about it almost three years later. "I was so happy I was able to do it. I had so much respect for her. It charged the whole jiu-jitsu world. Everyone was inspired. She had been undefeated.
"It was good to show people—keep trying. I fought her like 10 times. But all you need is one special time. I fought her trying to learn. And it's one of the purposes of jiu-jitsu. For a smaller person—not necessarily to win, but to defend themselves against a larger person."
By the end of the year, Dern had well and truly conquered her sport, including three consecutive wins over her archrival, Michelle Nicolini. There was nothing she hadn't accomplished in the world of sport grappling.
She was just 22 years old.
The first time Dern got into a fight, she was a sophomore in high school. It was a scene right out of a movie. Her childhood buddy, a skinny stoner, was being bullied by one of the school's mean girls. Dern, rarely angry, seethed when she heard his glasses had been tossed to the ground and broken.
In the cafeteria, with the whole school watching with eager anticipation, Dern challenged the bully.
"I took her down at lunch and did some punches," Dern says. "I was, like, the hero. Everyone was cheering."
It was her first and last fight—until the day she came to the MMA Lab in 2016 looking to change her vocation. Her then-fiance Augusto "Tanquinho" Mendes was training there to start his own MMA career, and she liked the feel and vibe of the place.
"The first day she was here, we rolled together, and I was just like, 'Oh, my God, Mackenzie Dern,'" Murphy remembers. "And she was so nice. Cheerful and laughing. ... And she just mounted me like it was nothing. I felt stupid. I'm pretty good on the ground, and I was an infant.
"She's so heavy on top. She's a nightmare on the ground. A nightmare to deal with. You're not safe anywhere. If you leave a limb hanging out anywhere, she'll go for it, jumping from your arm to your leg to your back. There's no rest. She's like a flying squirrel attacking somebody."
Dern's time at the Lab has been good for all involved. She has learned the striking game from the ground up. In turn, the experienced professionals have gotten the opportunity to work with one of the best female grapplers of all time.
"I go rounds with her, like preparing for this fight, and when you go to the ground with her, it's a success for you to exit the round without getting submitted," Casey says. "You're like 'Yes!' The first few times you spar with her, you're just defending, defending, defending. But now, I'm sometimes on the attack. Sometimes I'm sweeping. Now I'm standing up. At the end of the day, you get better because you have to survive against her. She doesn't have to do anything more than show up and train with you and you're going to get better. Just by her presence."
The move into mixed martial arts was not a popular decision back home with her father, who imagined a life for his daughter like his own. She was already making good money, both competing and teaching classes all over the world. Why risk so much to enter a world where financial success was reserved for only a handful of top athletes and injury was almost a certainty?
"It worries me when she fights. Maybe she's not mean enough," Dias says. "These kinds of things worry me. A pretty girl like her? 'Go be a model, Mackenzie,' I tell her. I always worry for her. You want the best. I don't want to see her get hurt or break her jaw. As a father, I don't even want to think about that."
Her father's hesitance, and her own growing independence, are why, on a Friday afternoon at her dad's gym, there is a single blue judogi in a sea of white uniforms. It belongs to Vieira, one of the founders of a competing school called Checkmat, a fierce rival to Dias' own competition team.
"Don't show that Checkmat logo," a team member says with a laugh, kidding as I shoot photos of the training session.
"She asked me if I could help, and at first it surprised me," Vieira acknowledges. "We were always on the opposite side of the mat. But this is MMA. It isn't about jiu-jitsu teams. It's a different perspective on the martial arts. She already has her team, but someone from the outside can be important.
"She was looking for somebody who could support and help her. Of course, 'Megaton' is her father, and he's here to help. But sometimes it's hard to be a father and a coach and maintain both relationships."
"Even in jiu-jitsu, when he coaches me he is so emotional," Dern says of her father. "It's good. I love it. But it's different getting punched in the face. I understand when he says, 'You have such a good life with jiu-jitsu. Why do you want to get punched in the face?' But I accomplished everything I wanted to in jiu-jitsu when I was 22 years old. Where am I going to go now?
"I needed something new. I want someone who loves me, wants the best for me, but their mind is clear. My dad, being my dad, he'll never stop teaching me. But he still hasn't seen me fight yet. He's seen it on TV later but never live. It's hard for him to see me getting punched."
If there is a consensus about anything at the MMA Lab, where strong personalities abound, it's that they like what they see from Dern. They'd also like to see more of her. For the first year she was with the team, her presence didn't feel exactly permanent. Between her grappling career, seminars and frequent trips to Brazil, she was a part-timer at best, even while running up a 5-0 record on the regional scene.
That isn't conducive, the Lab's head coach John Crouch says, to getting the most out of your potential.
"She has a great life. And you can't help but love Mackenzie. She's wonderful," he says. "But I want her to be a world champion. I think she has the athletic ability and she's a competitor. It's just a matter of putting in the time. She is a born competitor. She really shines when it's time to shine. I see her make leaps and bounds when she applies herself. So I'm excited to get some consistent time. People are going to see what kind of fighter she can really be."
After plenty of hemming and hawing, Dern has made the decision to curtail her grappling career. Mostly. She's left the door open for the occasional superfight when her MMA schedule allows. But otherwise, for now, she's a full-time fighter, committed to doing each of her camps at home in Arizona.
"Here, it's good," Dern says. "There are no distractions. In Brazil, there's the beach, there's partying. It's hard to be focused. Here, it's just house, Academy and back to the house. That's it. It's good for fighting."
Expectations, to put it mildly, are high. Her team stresses patience. She's been fighting, after all, for just two years and fighting full time for a grand total of a month.
"Sometimes we'll be in a position, and she'll kind of stop and say, 'I can punch here?' And we're like 'Yes, Mackenzie! Punch,'" Murphy says with a laugh. "She's in such control that she can stop and have a conversation while the other person is still struggling. And she's still learning."
But her pedigree simply doesn't allow for patience from either fans or promoters. Though she's won all of her fights, they weren't in the blitzkrieg fashion Rousey used to establish her own dominance and set the standard for how the next big thing was supposed to navigate the sport.
While comparisons to Rousey are typical for any top prospect, in Dern's case they actually fit. Both were child wonders and champions from an early age. They each count a world champion as a parent and first coach, in Rousey's case her mother, boundary-smashing judo legend AnnMaria DeMars. In some ways, Dern even out-Rouseys Ronda herself. Rousey ended up falling short at the highest level of her first sport; Dern dominated her own.
Of course, the pro ranks told a different story. It's unlikely anyone will ever again match Rousey's dominant early run. After all, it took five fights before anyone extended her even a single minute in the cage. But Dern has done well in her own own early forays into the cage, winning all five of her bouts, albeit in considerably less impressive fashion. The opposition, to be frank, is better today than it was seven years ago—in no small part a debt owed to Rousey's incredible success.
"She's so well-known because of her social media following and her jiu-jitsu career that people want to judge her," Crouch says. "It's extreme both ways. 'Oh, she's the greatest thing ever.' 'No, she's terrible.' You don't necessarily want to finish everybody in 10 seconds early in your career. Things get hard, and all the sudden you don't know how to fight back.
"I just see her getting better. She's a ferocious competitor when the lights come on."
Indeed, much of her training has been focused on getting Dern—a notoriously aggressive jiu-jitsu player—to take a more cautious approach to mixed martial arts, where the consequences for a mistake can be losing a tooth rather than losing a point.
"They aren't looking to grapple with her like she's used to. In grappling, you lose nothing by trying a submission. In MMA, losing position can be everything. All it takes is one fortunate shot and the game is changed completely," Crouch says. "Rather than dive for something and possibly lose the position, she needs to stay on top. When she gets on top of you, she hits really hard. I want to see her hit people. She has thunder in her hands. I want her to beat them up first. Until they are begging for the armlock. Beg for it. Only then, with 20 seconds left in the round, will we let her go."
Still, Dern watches her MMA peers, like UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, with a jealous eye toward their freedom.
"I see her doing flying armbars, and I get excited," Dern says. "That's my style! I'm confident in that stuff too. I've been trying to be so careful that I've taken away from what I can do. They're starting to tell me, 'Now you're ready. Now we believe in you.' When I see an omoplata or an armbar, I can go for it. I know a little better what is possible in MMA."
Dern will make her UFC debut at 115 pounds, the same weight class as Namajunas and her own teammate Casey. She's tried 125 pounds, where Murphy competes, but would be much smaller than everyone else in the class.
"I'm not that tall. I have curves you know? I go on the scale and people say, 'Oh man, she's thick,'" Dern says with a laugh. "Even at 115 pounds, I have curves. Many women fighters, when they cut weight, they look like skeletons. I guess it's the Brazilian in me."
Her fight with Yoder on March 3 is the first step in a grand plan that ends with a UFC title belt strapped to her waist. But that success won't come without sacrifice.
"Women like Mackenzie, who are good-looking, they're going to be popular fighters," Murphy says. "She has the potential to make millions of dollars. But it's hard, because if you're in the gym all the time, getting your face ground into the mat, you're getting punched in the head, you're working out twice a day, you're not going to be good-looking for long. This sport takes everything from you."
Dern, for her part, doesn't intend to be in the sport long enough for it to suck her dry. She sees a future much like her father's, with a pit stop in mixed martial arts to help spread the gospel of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
"I think I was born to fight, to inspire girls to do martial arts," she says. "Like Royce Gracie, Demian Maia, B.J. Penn, all these people who came from jiu-jitsu and made it bigger. I want to take jiu-jitsu to the big stage and be able to win.
"From the very beginning, since I came to MMA, I'm representing my whole sport, my lifestyle. People in jiu-jitsu think it's this big world. It's not. It's a small world. So, if I can help grow jiu-jitsu, for women and everyone, I can help the sport. I don't want to be in MMA forever, like Anderson Silva doing this 10 years in the UFC.
"I want to win the belt, defend the belt and come back to jiu-jitsu. I know it will be there for me."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.