It hasn’t been very long since women have been taken seriously in the male-dominated world of professional fighting. But now, Mackenzie Dern is trying to take it to a different level.
She doesn’t want to simply become a champ, she wants to be “Mom Champ.”
Dern, 28, is the No. 5-ranked contender in the world in the strawweight division (115 pounds) in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). She’s also mom to Moa, her 2-year-old daughter and one of her biggest fans. Winning the title would make Dern the first biological mother to win a UFC belt.
“It definitely inspires me, and it’s why I feel I’m a way better fighter now, more mature, and more focused than before my daughter was born,” said Dern, who lives in Huntington Beach with husband and pro surfer Wesley Santos and trains at RVCA Training Center in Costa Mesa under head coach Jason Parillo. “I became a mom, and just this last fight I felt the difference and why it’s such a big deal.
“You look at the girls in the top five; they eat, sleep, and fight, that’s all they think about. But being a mom, your focus changes. You train and you’re focused, but you still have to teach your child how to be potty-trained and be nice and polite and share her toys with her friends and how to play. There’s so much more responsibility, and that’s what makes being a Mom Champ such a big challenge.”
Dern’s journey to her present position has been a challenge unto itself. But the idea of Mom Champ is something that until recently was completely out of her control, because women’s fighting wasn’t recognized with high regard.
Dana White, president of the UFC, said several years ago that he could not imagine women playing a big role in his multi-billion-dollar company. But he happily admits he was wrong, as women’s mixed martial arts (MMA) has grown immensely in popularity, with the skill level of women’s fighting similarly rising.
Dern grew up facing her own obstacles as a “girl fighter,” splitting time between Glendale, Arizona, and her dad’s home country of Brazil. Dern’s father, Wellington Dias, owns and operates Megaton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) Academy in Phoenix and was a successful BJJ fighter himself, but he wasn’t too keen on seeing his daughter become a fighter.
“A lot of the (male) fighters, they always want boys, so the boys can follow in their footsteps,” Dern said. “From what my dad told me, they had waited until I was born to find out if I was a boy or a girl. And when they found out I was a girl, it was kind of like if she wants to do ballet, or dance, okay, but we don’t want to push her too much (into fighting).
“My dad had to accept, okay, the chances I’m going to be a fighter are not too good.”
Things didn’t quite work out that way, however. Not only is Dias a decorated BJJ practitioner, and a sixth-degree black belt, Dern’s stepmom Luciana Tavares is also a black belt. So naturally, Dern was drawn to jiu-jitsu.
“It was just easier going to my dad’s academy than getting a babysitter,” Dern said. “My dad being so successful is a big part of me being interested in jiu-jitsu and fighting. As kids, we always look up to our parents, they’re our role models. So as a kid, I’m seeing my dad look like a celebrity, when you’re 5 years old and you’re at a jiu-jitsu tournament and everyone talks to your dad, everyone is seeing how good he is and he’s always on the (awards) podium. So for me I felt, like wow, this is so cool. The whole vibe is like, man, I want to be like my dad.”
Like her dad, Dern had great success on the international jiu-jitsu circuit. Dern is a multiple world champion, winning at every level as she progressed to black belt level.
However, there was a slight glitch along the way, when she was at Ironwood High School in Glendale, Arizona.
“I think I had one year when I got a little bit burned out, I think it was my freshman year,” Dern said. “You know, freshman year you get invited to the party and you could go on the wrong track. So I got grounded from a big jiu-jitsu tournament and then that was it. I never got in trouble again. I didn’t want to get grounded again and miss out on a tournament, because it was what I loved to do.”
Dern would have been just fine remaining in the jiu-jitsu world, but Ronda Rousey pioneered the growth of women’s MMA, presenting an interesting opportunity for Dern.
“My dad was always against my transition to MMA,” Dern remembered. “I was thinking I’d never go to MMA, I’m happy doing jiu-jitsu, I have a comfortable life, traveling around the world, teaching seminars, competing, I was doing good in jiu-jitsu, so I didn’t feel any necessity to go to MMA.”
But her curiosity got the best of her. Dern started wrestling, got some encouragement from the guys at her gym and decided she would make the move to MMA. She won her first five pro fights, then signed with the UFC in 2018.
She has gone 6-2 in the UFC, including 4-2 since becoming a mom. That includes a loss in her most recent fight, a five-round decision loss against No. 3-ranked Marina Rodriguez.
“My coach (Parillo), he’s the one that told me,” Dern said. “I lost, it was five rounds and he just put it in perspective for me. You’re in camp and you’re training and you’re focused, and you don’t think about how your life is different from the other fighters (as a mother).
“Not that that’s an excuse, but when you take a step back, look at how much you’ve accomplished, and what you need to fix, how you need to organize your life to fix your mistakes and get to the belt. I have my daughter, so how can I make my camps a little more efficient? It’s definitely inspiring each time I realize how we have our work cut out for us to become a Mom Champ.”
Dern said her biggest role model is her father.
“I’m friends with a lot of the women (in the UFC) and they say, I’ll just have kids later, no rush. But I always knew I would be someone who had kids and still be active, because I grew up watching my dad do that, and that was the biggest show by example. It’s hard with Moa, but I think there’s no better example than when you are the example.”
Other biological moms ranked among the top 10 contenders of their respective weight classes in the UFC are Nina Nunes (No. 6 at 115), Michelle Waterson (No. 9 at 115), Miesha Tate (No. 8 at 135) and Sara McMann (No. 10 at 135).