Submission ace, Mackenzie Dern will throw down with Muay Thai specialist, Marina Rodriguez, this Saturday (Oct. 9, 2021) at UFC Vegas 39 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Despite incredible jiu-jitsu credentials, Dern didn’t really impress all that much in her early UFC run, struggling at the scale and failing to show much in the way of kickboxing. Following a loss to Amanda Ribas and the birth of her child, however, Dern has consistently shown up in shape and made credible improvements, renewing hopes in the black belt’s chance at taking the title. Rodriguez, meanwhile, jumped into the deep end of the Strawweight division pretty much immediately, and there was a definite learning curve. However, she’s since been putting it together more consistently, allowing her kickboxing skill and penchant for violence to shine.
Let’s take a closer look at the skill sets of each athlete:
Marina Rodriguez started her martial arts journey in Muay Thai, and it’s very apparent when she fights. The aggressive Brazilian has all the classic hallmarks of a Muay Thai fighter, and thus far, they’ve worked wonderfully for her against several of Strawweight’s top athletes.
Aggression and combination building are the name of Rodriguez’s game. She does not hang back and jab. Rather, Rodriguez stalks her opponents, blasting them at distance with power kicks or chasing after them with left hooks and right hands.
The difference between Rodriguez and a more garden variety brawler is how she follows those punches up. After firing a hook-cross or cross-hook combination, Rodriguez will judge her opponent’s reaction. If her foe is backing away from the punches, Rodriguez will follow up with a kick, digging into the leg, body, or head with equal zeal.
Alternatively, her opponent may stand her ground. In that case, Rodriguez likes to crash forward into the clinch, where she really excels. When able to secure control of the head via the double-collar or even single-collar tie, Rodriguez does a really nice job of yanking her opponent off-balance before landing the knee. Likely thanks to her physical strength and technique alike, Rodriguez is able to hang onto the head for long periods of time, exhausting her opponents and opening up further knees.
At any point between all the knees, Rodriguez will mix in heavy elbows. Waterson typically pursues her takedowns from the clinch, and Rodriguez commonly punished that habit by using frames to create openings to land knees while preventing her foe from wrestling (GIF). In addition, Rodriguez’s wide swings were forcing Waterson to cover up under fire, and often, Rodriguez would use that positioning to latch onto the double-collar tie and let her knees fly (GIF).
Against Michelle Waterson, Rodriguez did tremendous work in the clinch. Another habit of Muay Thai fighters is to stand their ground and fire back rather than retreat. Such was the case in Rodriguez’s stellar knockout win over Amanda Ribas. As Ribas stepped forward with punches, Rodriguez threw up a counter 3-2, and the right hand sent Ribas face-planting towards the canvas (GIF).
Early in her UFC career, Dern’s hands were ... not great. She had (well, still does) a powerful overhand right, but there was little technique or strategy to her approach beyond swinging recklessly. She’s now training under Jason Parillo, and improvements are definitely being made. I don’t want to give the impression that Dern is suddenly an expert kickboxer, but the progress is genuine.
Dern’s most extensive kickboxing showcase came opposite fellow black belt Virna Jandiroba. Though a great deal of Dern’s success came from enthusiasm and volume in exchanges, she did show off an improved jab, pushing forward with the strike nicely while keeping her chin behind her shoulder. Her kicks also looked a bit sharper and quicker.
In her last bout vs. Nunes, Dern showcased a further increase in aggression and comfort in the pocket, backing the more experienced kickboxer up and landing her heavy right hand a couple times before timing the shot.
Given that one woman is an expert striker while the other is a master grappler, it shouldn’t be a surprise that wrestling is not necessarily a strength for either.
Again, Dern’s wrestling seems to be moving in the right direction. She has a couple favorite techniques/strategies, commonly attacking the high-crotch position and upper body clinch. From the latter, Dern looks to hook the inside thigh and block the leg while pulling her opponent over her hip — the classic Uchi mata for my Judoka readers.
Dern shoots to the high-crotch position often. If she can wrap up both legs, Dern will look to run through a double. It’s not the greatest blast double in the world, but if she times it well, Dern can put her opponent on the canvas (GIF).
More often, Dern attacks just one leg and looks to run the pipe. This is where things get a little dicey. Sometimes, she’s able to dump her opponent. Just as often, Dern loses connection between her shoulder and her opponent’s hip, which makes it fairly easy for her foe to resist, reverse, or simply limp leg away.
Against Nunes, Dern did well to adjust when the dump failed. Rather than hang on too long and wind up losing the position, Dern instead elevated the leg to her armpit while Nunes was still off-balanced. From there, she was able to step through and score an inside trip (GIF).
Rodriguez’s defensive wrestling problems stem from the same attributes that make up her kickboxing strengths: aggression and Muay Thai. On the feet, she tends to stand tall and punch her way forward, too traits that can leave her vulnerable to the double leg shot. Once in the clinch, Rodriguez can be a bit too focused on securing the double-collar tie, which isn’t always the best defense to a takedown — often, underhooks are the safer option.
In general, Rodriguez struggles when forced to chain wrestle, a sign of her grappling inexperience.
Rodriguez has yet to do much in the way of jiu-jitsu, though she has landed some brutal elbows from her back vs. Carla Esparza.
On the other hand, Dern is one of the most accomplished female grapplers of all time. She’s taken home gold medals at ADCC and both the gi and no-gi worlds, and Dern has proven herself lethal on the mat inside the cage too. In the interest of conciseness, this section will focus on Dern’s MMA jiu-jitsu displays.
Dern’s last bout vs. the talented Nina Nunes was really a world-class display of grappling. As soon as she completed the takedown into closed guard, Dern’s dominance on the mat was obvious. To pass, Dern utilized a pair of double threats. After opening Nunes’ guard, she first laced an arm around Nunes’ calf, clearly showing the threat of a leg lock. Meanwhile, she was standing over Nunes and applying pressure, using her other hand to press on the knee and pass into half guard.
Upon scoring half guard, Dern switched her hips and laid across the waist, clearly still threatening to attack the knee. Instead, she switched to a kimura. When Nunes reacted to the kimura threat, Dern dug an underhook and used it to pass directly into mount.
The passing was gorgeous jiu-jitsu, and Dern capped it off with a quick armbar. The setup was simple enough: punch and elbow Nunes hard enough to convince her that covering her face was necessary, than attack the exposed elbow. To break the grip, Dern used a combination of kicking at the far elbow and tugging against the wrist with added pressure on the inner shoulder (GIF).
Double threats also played a major role in Dern’s victory over Randa Markos. Markos bizarrely followed Dern to the mat following a slip on a kick, and Dern quickly demonstrated why that’s an awful idea. Immediately, she started inverting and hooking a leg — threatening leg locks — before throwing up her legs for the triangle when Markos pushed away and postured.
Dern used the triangle to sweep into top position soon afterward. From the three-quarters mount — which is just mount, but one ankle is barely trapped by the bottom athlete is some semblance of a half guard — Dern used her knee (the one with the ankle trapped) to pin one of Markos’ arms. From there, her other knee rose high up on Dern’s body, isolating the shoulder joint and scoring Dern a perpendicular angle to her opponent.
At this angle, Dern was able to step her foot in front of Markos’ face in similar position to a gogoplata. Instead, she fell back, attacked the arm, and bent it unpleasantly when Markos tried to tough it out (GIF).
One fight farther in the past, Dern submitted Hannah Cifers within about 30 seconds of the fight hitting the mat. From her back, Dern used the more recently popular position known as K-guard, swimming an arm underneath one of her opponent’s legs and inverting from the full guard. Dern used this position to transition into the kneebar, which knocked Cifers to her butt.
From there, the submission was locked in.
This is a real clash of styles with definite title implications. Both Dern and Rodriguez are fairly likely to contender for the title at some point in the next couple years, and victory here really increases the odds that such an opportunity comes quickly.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.