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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 61’s Mackenzie Dern

Submission ace, Mackenzie Dern, will battle striking specialist, Xiaonan Yan, this Saturday (Oct. 1, 2022) at UFC Vegas 61 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Dern’s overall mixed martial arts (MMA) game isn’t exactly coming together smoothly. She’s still not terribly good at hiding her takedowns behind her strikers, often either wrestling or striking with a clear break between the two. Yet, it doesn’t always seem to matter, because Dern is uniquely dangerous at 115 pounds. Sure, there are women who punch harder and can finish fights quickly, but Dern’s grappling is so nasty that the smallest opportunity can easily take the fight into her wheelhouse if it doesn’t produce a finish outright.

Let’s take a closer look at her skill set:

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Dern’s striking has genuinely improved since her UFC debut, back when she had a powerful overhand and nothing else. Jason Parillo is doing good work in cleaning up her form, but Dern still doesn’t do a great job in actively using her kickboxing to close the distance or set up takedowns — typically the most important aspects for a grappler.

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.

UFC 256: Dern v Jandiroba Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In a more recent bout versus Nina 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. That right hand also kept Tecia Torres on notice, even if Dern lost most striking exchanges and relied on her grappling to win.

As a result of her inexperience, Dern really struggles against more dedicated range tacticians. Marina Rodriguez repeatedly denied takedown attempts and clinch entries with footwork, simply keeping away from Dern. When Dern was unable to get her hands on Rodriguez, she was quite vulnerable to Rodriguez’s fast jab and chopping kicks.


Dern’s wrestling seems to be moving in the right direction even if it isn’t yet a strength. 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).

UFC Fight Night: Nunes v Dern Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

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).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

As mentioned above, Dern’s wrestling is still just okay. However, she’s grown more accustomed to using her jiu-jitsu to force her opponents to the ground in a non-wrestling manner. Against Tecia Torres, for example, a guard pull has never looked so dangerous.

UFC 273: Dern v Torres Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

When Dern jumped guard against Torres, “Tiny Tornado” opted to remain standing and let Dern wear her own legs out — not a bad strategy generally! However, Dern was able to chain together submission attempts while suspended in air. She began crawling her legs high to start, looking to pass by a shoulder and begin a triangle. When Torres postured up in response, Dern did a sit up and started fishing for the guillotine.

Torres kept strong posture to stop the guillotine, but Dern was able to instead thread her arm though and attack the kimura. Suddenly, Torres was in real danger, and it’s a testament to her strength and flexibility that her shoulder didn’t go. Instead, she fell to the ground, later fought off a kneebar, and wound up on bottom.

That’s certainly one way to gain top position!

Dern put on a world-class display of grappling against Nunes. 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.

UFC Fight Night: Dern v Markos Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

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.


Dern is a genuine Brazilian jiu-jitsu master, and her pedigree on the mat means she’s never out of the fight. Once again, she faces a sharper kickboxer with the takedown defense to keep this standing, so Dern will have to get creative to make her jiu-jitsu impactful.

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.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 61 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (on ESPN+) at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 61: “Dern vs. Yan” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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