What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, Mackenzie Dern, who stands 1.57m tall and weighs 55kg, created headlines in the jiu-jitsu world by stunning nine-time world champion Gabrielle Garcia (1.88m) at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Championships en route to gold in the Absolute Class.
Having returned to the UAE capital where she successfully retained her weight title last week, the 23-year-old will be looking to make another impact when she competes in her mixed martial arts debut for Legacy FC in July.
She caught up with Sport360 to explain her decision to compete in MMA, her thoughts of a possible rematch with Garcia and why she rates UFC superstar Ronda Rousey so highly.
You’ve had quite a strong career in jiujitsu. How long have you been considering a move into MMA?
I’ve been training in MMA for two years now and I didn’t want to make the decision until I was familiar with combat sport. I wanted to accomplish some things in jiu-jitsu but after I accomplished those, then I wanted to make the transition. It all depended on how I did. If I didn’t get the world titles, then maybe I wouldn’t have made the transition now.
If I don’t like competing in MMA, I can always come back to jiu-jitsu. But, I don’t want to have a long MMA career. One day I want to have kids and get married and have a life, too. If I could win one world title in submission grappling, ADCC and MMA that would be so cool.
Do you think the MMA training has helped you become a better jiu-jitsu fighter?
Since I’ve been training for MMA for two years now, I’ve accomplished all my goals. I think my MMA training helped me a lot in becoming better in jiu-jitsu. It was extra training but it’s all different.
What’s the reason for going straight into the professional category in MMA rather than starting in amateur?
It’s to do with my jiu-jitsu background. If I was to begin at amateur level, it would be hard to find an opponent because everyone is trying to build their record. Potential opponents may Google me and find that I’m a world champion in jiu-jitsu and then wouldn’t want to fight me.
A lot of MMA fighters have made the transition but have failed on the striking element. How will you ensure you don’t fall into the same trap?
I’m training a lot and I feel like I’m getting a lot better. I’m a jiu-jitsu girl and when I’m in a fight, I’m not going to try and stand up. No matter how good I feel, I will always look to get down on the ground – that is where I know my strength is. I’ll always try to get to the ground and I don’t think I can be someone who strikes. If I get one knockout, I will be happy.
You’ve been training with Benson Henderson, how much of an influence has he had on your development?
He’s so good. Besides being a team-mate, he’s a good friend of mine. He motivates me a lot and sends me videos to watch so that I can learn new techniques. I like his style so much and I really want to be like him. He’s so humble. Everything that he has accomplished in UFC and MMA, and what training he has done to accomplish those things, makes it very motivating for me. If the training worked for him, then that’s what I need to do. It’s better to have someone who knows what it takes to become a champion by your side.
Who do you look up to in MMA?
Definitely Fabricio Werdum – who has three world titles. That’s where I got my inspiration because that’s what I want to achieve as well.
I also like Holly Holm. I like the way she kicks. I wish I can kick like that. It’s really nice because she came from a boxing background and that’s similar to me. I also like Joanna Jedrzejczyk because she is so fast.
Ronda Rousey has done a lot for women’s MMA and has opened the doors for us. All the girls are so tough but at the same time, I respect them. But for me, it’s about focusing on me and not worry too much about them.
You mentioned that Ronda Rousey paved the way for women in MMA. Is she someone who deserves a lot of credit?
Before her, there was no one else who caught the attention of Dana White. She was the girl who did it. Since they have put her in UFC, look at the opportunities all the other girls have. The girls train just as hard as the guys. No woman could pay for a house from doing MMA. I don’t necessarily agree with her style or the way she acts. But what she’s done for MMA is something I’m grateful for.
Gabrielle Garcia has made her debut in MMA, did you get a chance to see her bout and what were your thoughts?
I think it’s great to see her there. We don’t talk to each other and we’re not friends. She comes from jiu-jitsu and of course I wanted someone from the sport to win. I was surprised that she would go to the ground sooner but took a knock-out. It definitely motivates me that I can do it as well. At the same time, hopefully I can motivate girls too.
Would you ever like to compete against her in MMA?
Definitely not. She’s too big and one of her punches would hurt my face badly. Definitely, I would love to compete against her in jiujitsu. Some people think I was lucky (to win in Abu Dhabi) but I want to show people that I can beat her again. I know I can beat her, but obviously I can lose. She’s the one who needs to prove something that she can beat me. She has nothing else to prove, but people talk and I would love to show it wasn’t just luck.
UFC is the big one. Is that the one you have your eyes on?
Yes, for sure. Hopefully by next year I could be introduced in that competition. I’m totally focused on MMA but jiu-jitsu is still in my heart. Just to be in UFC, it would be good. I want to create a legacy and don’t want people to forget my name. My goal is to be a champion in UFC.
Tayane Araujo and Erberth De Mesquita had another reason to celebrate after the Brazilians claimed the top accolades at the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Awards on Sunday night.
At a glittering ceremony at the Fairmont Hotel, Araujo was named best black/brown belt Female Player of the Year, while De Mesquita clinched the male award in the black belt.
Organised by the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation, their achievements were recognised after an outstanding season.
Araujo, 21, won gold at the London and Rio competitions of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Tour. De Mesquita competed in all four legs of that event – winning six titles in weight and absolute categories.
It capped a remarkable 24 hours for the duo after Araujo claimed double gold (absolute and +70kg) at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Championship, while her compatriot won his 94kg division.
“It’s a very special moment for me and it’s of huge importance after the season that I had,” said Araujo.
De Mesquita, added: “I feel so happy to win this top award. It really means a lot to me. I really do have to thank the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation. It’s really difficult to find a federation that really values the athletes.”
Nasser Omar Al Buraiki was awarded the best National Male Player after winning gold in Abu Dhabi, Rio, London and Tokyo.
“I’m happy I won this and it’s a big honour for me. I will work harder to get it again next season.”
Award winners also included Shefaa Moosa Hassan (female national player), Nicholas Meregali (brown belt male) and UAE-based Marcos Oliveira (male black belt master 1).
The UAE’s Mohammed Al Qubaisi added yet another gold to his collection by winning the Masters Brown 77kg title at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship on Friday.
In a tournament that the 31-year-old has happy memories of – after triumphing in 2009, 2010 and last year – Al Qubaisi repeated the feat with his fourth title at the IPIC Arena. The 31-year-old overcame Frenchman Sebastien Garnier 2-0 before defeating Brazilian Marco Filho 4-2 in the final.
“I am so happy because it was very tough for me, it is a strong category,” he said. “It is my first medal in the brown belt and I am glad. Last year I won in the purple belt. Hopefully, after my Open weight fight, my coach will put me in the black belt division.”
There was good news for Nasser Omar Al Buraiki, who won the White Belt Open Division, although not in the manner he would have liked. The 25-year-old was awarded gold after champion, Kazakhstan’s Olzhas Nurtakanov, was disqualified after officials learned he was actually a blue belt competitor.
The victory saw Al Buraiki add to his medal collection after triumphing in four Grand Slams this season, but he was far from pleased.
“We have come here to compete fairly,” he said. “Why did he cheat? If he’s in the blue belt, he should compete in that division. Why change the belt? He doesn’t deserve to win anything. It’s quite disappointing to win in this manner.”
Meanwhile, there will be a new champion in the +94kg Black Belt division after Marcus Almeida, who was set to return to action after nearly a year following a leg injury, made a late withdrawal.
The search for an elusive gold for the UAE’s top-ranked Faisal Al Ketbi continues as he was beaten in the 94kg division. The 29-year-old overcame Brazilian Isaac Dull before exiting in the next round.
After losing her Absolute crown in the semi-final, Mackenzie Dern is on course to retain her 55kg Black Belt title. The 23-year-old American defeated Brazilian duo Ana Alencar and Ariadne De Ol- iveira to book her place in the final against Marina Ribeiro.
Among the highlights in Saturday’s schedule is the men’s Black Belt Absolute final. Having beaten Ricardo Evangelista in Thursday’s semi-final, Jose Junior has set his sights on winning gold when he takes on Felipe Pena.
“This is the first time I have made it to the Open final and it is the biggest achievement of my career,” said the 30-year-old. “I was always motivated and kept working hard. Never did I let my ambition take a beating and that’s what jiu-jitsu is all about. It is what we teach our youngsters.
“I have never fought Pena before but I do know him. It is going to be a great contest and Inshallah I will try. There will be plenty of crowd support and that should help.”