Simply put, the UFC needs stars.
The company already has quality fighters and fights. It excellently run events, too. However, it lacks the thing that defines almost every major sport in the world. Stars.
Mackenzie Dern seems to be a fighter that most pundits in and around the sport have tabbed as someone capable of becoming a star.
When developing a prospect, you want to have them face an ascending level of opposition. Their opponent should help them develop their timing, comfort, decision-making skills, overall awareness and skill set in a live environment. If they are given manageable threats, then it will allow them to highlight holes or lack of development without losing. If they do lose, then they still gain experience without being exposed to excessive risk. In layman’s terms, you don’t want to beat the elite talent out of a fighter, nor do you want to mentally ruin them by putting them in against someone too tough. This brings us to Dern’s opponents in the UFC.
The first one was Ashley Yoder, an undeveloped striker whose best asset in MMA is her overall grappling. Yoder doesn’t hold any real pedigree in wrestling, though. She’s a proven fighter — she had been defeated only once up until she reached the UFC — but one who hit a now three-fight skid as the level of skill and, more importantly, athleticism became more of a factor. In addition to her loss to Dern, Yoder faced setbacks against Angela Hill and Justine Kish.
This match-up made sense for Dern, because Yoder didn’t have the skills or physical tools to really punish or put her out. Yoder didn’t have the physical or technical skills to take her down, control her and bust her up without being submitted. Yoder was also incapable of going hold for hold with Dern without the risk of being finished.
Yoder had enough skill to test Dern’s resolve, as well as the jiu-jitsu ace’s progression in her ability to transition between ranges, and to be efficient, effective and consistent on the feet in terms of defense, counters and offense. Most importantly, we needed to see if Dern’s wrestling setups, entries, establishment of position and finishing techniques were up to par. After all, even if Dern is a world-class talent on the ground, it means nothing if she can’t get the fight to the ground.
We found out a lot about Dern from the Yoder fight. The technical progression she had shown on the feet was more of a result of athleticism, aggression and volume, and not so much a preternatural awareness on the feet. In Yoder, Dern faced an opponent comfortable with aggression, physicality and volume, so in the spots where Dern normally overwhelmed an opponent or turned them defensive, she was instead met with sharp leads and counters. This highlighted how porous her defense is by halting her forward pressure. Then, it compounded things by forcing her to reset. Dern was unable to stay in the pocket or back up without being touched often and hard by Yoder.
Dern has work to do on the feet after being touched up and dropped by a fighter who is, at best, a third- or fourth-tier striker who has only experienced success due to the threat of her grappling. As the better grappler, Dern faced no such threat against Yoder, but she was unable to land with consistency or real power throughout the length of the bout. She showed heart, aggression and activity, but she was fairly predictable offensively and a non-factor defensively. Luckily, Dern was facing a fighter with little craft and even less explosiveness.
On the ground, Dern’s otherworldly skills translated perfectly in regards to control, positions, transitions and finishing. The minute the fight was on the ground, she secured the back and was a threat to finish from that point on until the end of the fight.
Dern ineffectiveness in getting the fight to that spot is a concern. She caught numerous kicks, forced her way into numerous clinches, got multiple bodylocks, and attempted a series of trips and throws. In most instances, she was stymied, reversed or allowed Yoder to escape. Yoder is no All-American wrestler, or even a decent high school one. Yet, Yoder was able to neutralize all but one of Dern’s takedown attempts. Dern was able to win the fight based on control, aggression and winning the grappling exchanges, but we’d be having a very different discussion about the grappling virtuoso if not for that one late takedown.
With Dern’s March victory over Yoder at UFC 222 now in the rearview mirror, the 25-year-old has been tasked with a UFC 224 bout against Amanda Bobby Cooper, the runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter 25 and a .500 fighter both in career record and her UFC mark.
Cooper is a middling fighter who has the same amount of fights as Dern. However, Cooper has emerged with decidedly different results. She is actually a less-experienced foe for Dern than Yoder, and she has faced much less accomplished opposition. The reason Cooper has been chosen for Dern is because she has the pedigree establishing a certain level of experience and fighting skills while not showing the cage IQ, overall athleticism or skill to suggest that she is too much for Dern. More importantly — and tantalizingly so — is the fact that Cooper has three losses, all by submission, on her resume.
Cooper is a fighter with good — but not great — skills on the feet, in wrestling and on the ground. She isn’t devastating in overall athleticism, nor in individual aspects like power, explosiveness or strength. She has been tapped by every legitimate grappler she has faced. However, Cooper is more accomplished and effective on the feet than most of Dern’s previous opponents. She’s coming off a fairly impressive win over Angela Magana, and she was the runner-up on TUF. To sum it up, Cooper is an experienced and effective fighter who, while not necessarily a step up from Yoder overall, is a different look for Dern.
Cooper is an experienced combat athlete who has spent extensive time developing her ground game to supplement her prior experience growing up boxing. She is multi-dimensional — something Yoder was not — and has the physical and technical tools to shine a very bright light on the lack of refinement and patience in the stand-up of Dern. Cooper works at a good pace and is much better off the counter than the lead. She has good kicking power and prowess, and she has shown the ability to throw combinations to attack both the head and body. Her footwork isn’t sublime, but she is more than capable of coming in on and exiting off of angles, which allows her to get opponents out of position for counters when they attempt to pressure, clinch or go for the takedown. She also uses footwork to bait opponents and create the opportunity for reactive takedowns, much as she did against Anna Elmose at UFC Fight Night 99.
Dern masks her offensive and defensive inefficiencies with forward pressure and volume, but she is rather reckless and vulnerable when she does so. She isn’t too much better when she attempts to be more cautious, as the reduction of pace only further highlights her lack of defensive tactics and techniques. This would lend credence to the fact that Cooper should be able to out-maneuver Dern on the feet and disrupt her offense with a combination of movement and deft counters.
Dern far exceeds Cooper on the ground, but Cooper has shown the ability to create scrambles to escape or to be opportunistic in looking for submissions or reversals. Cooper won’t force a ground fight, but she won’t be afraid if she is dragged into one. She is more than willing to take Dern down to engage on the ground under terms more favorable to her.
Between her overall striking, defensive/offensive wrestling, athleticism and faith in her ground game; Cooper has all the tools necessary to extend Dern, outwork her and survive in the danger zones long enough to win a decision. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad game plan. It has worked for opponents against the two other female UFC fighters in Dern’s camp — Cortney Casey and Lauren Murphy — whose lack of overall footwork, offensive execution, creativity and defense has led them to be defeated in a similar fashion. In those losses by Casey and Murphy, the two supposedly better grapplers were out-slicked on the feet, taken down and chipped up on the ground. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Cooper to repeat this pattern against Dern.
If you want an example of what potshotting, movement, feints, footwork and good timing can do to Dern, then watch her Legacy Fighting Alliance 6 outing against Katherine Roy. It was a win for Dern, but definitely not an easy one. Cooper is more than capable of building off of the foundation set by Roy.
As experienced as Cooper is, the TUF alum has a few key flaws that line up perfectly for Dern and what we know of her as a fighter.
Cooper is a boxer by nature and has the accompanying footwork, shot placement and counter abilities necessary to outclass and outhustle many women in division. However, Cooper is not a knockout artist. She gets by on attrition more so than the power of any one strike.
Cooper’s footwork tends to break down under duress. When an opponent won’t hesitate to come after her, her ability to get away from the pressure drops off dramatically. Dern can get to Cooper on the feet. Furthermore, Dern can control where she goes and how she gets there by applying large amounts of pressure. Cooper has to throw early and often to have any sort of noticeable effect, which just guarantees more and more opportunities for Dern to get her hands on Cooper, get her down and submit her.
While she delivers a high volume, Cooper doesn’t throw punch-kick combinations often. This habit makes her offense somewhat predictable. She is so cautious with long weapons, such as jabs and kicks, and uses them so sparingly. It allows her opponents to work at a range where they can get their hands on her to get clinches or attempt takedowns. Cooper’s tendency to reach and not set the table for her offense with jabs and/or feints tends to multiply the opportunities an opponent has to pressure, counter or take her down. Without the power, variety or footwork to keep Dern off of her, it almost guarantees that Cooper will end up in a position similar to Yoder, where she is forced against the fence and has to defend against strikes and takedowns. Worse yet, Cooper might start panicking, wrestle and thereby hasten her demise by engaging in an extended grappling exchange. If there is anything we know about Dern, it’s that she applies a ton of pressure and is outstanding on the ground.
This is a dangerous fight for Dern. As athletic, tough and aggressive as she is, the large majority of her opposition has lacked the class or familiarity with upper-tier talents to provide much more than rounds. Yoder was the first to not just fight Dern, but to noticeably and effectively fight back. Cooper is no world-beater, nor is she a seasoned veteran, but she brings a different set of skills, a different personality, a different level of athleticism, and she’s tough as all get out.
This isn’t a fight the UFC or Dern’s camp expects her to lose. It’s a fight that’s been made to help Dern’s progression as a fighter. However, Dern is still inexperienced against second- and third-tier opposition and has rarely had to face adversity from fighters capable of exploiting the limitations of her skills and her approach to fighting. Cooper is more than capable of defeating Dern, but her prior performances, lack of fully fleshed-out skills and sometimes suspect cage IQ say that it’s another fight’s worth of experience for Dern. Unless some massive refinements have been made in Cooper’s skills and strategy, it will be another win for Dern as well.