Of all the unforeseen Fight Week surprises heading into UFC 224, Jacare Souza’s sudden ability to grow hair is right up there. Few of us could have predicted such a strange turn of events back in January when he beat Derek Brunson on the FOX flagship with his dome all aglint. The other surprises have included Vitor Belfort’s neighborly robes, the burgeoning creativity of John Lineker’s barber, and Amanda Cooper — a 3-3 fighter who enters her fight tonight with Mackenzie Dern with her blood burbling mad.
All it took was Mackenzie Dern to show up a seven pounds over the one-pound allowance at strawweight for her to emerge as an intrigue. Before Cooper addressed Dern’s extremely “disrespectful” act with FOX’s Megan Olivi she was just an interloper in Brazil, a rando who was susceptible to submission holds. Now Cooper is something more. She’s comeuppance for Dern. She’s there to punish the spoiled grappling ace who’s had her UFC experience catered thus far on a silver platter and, worse, has a father named Wellington.
Suddenly Cooper is “ABC,” the underdog with the cause. And Dern is the aloof MMA hobbyist who came in shrugging at 123 pounds for a fight supposed to be contested at 115. It’s as easy as ABC versus 123. You rarely stumble upon such caring poeticals, but if the UFC is proficient in anything it’s in lucking into drama on the fly.
What’s fun about the Dern-Cooper fight is that it wasn’t much of anything else until now. Dern was being rushed back into action after a decent-but-not-great showing against Ashley Yoder at UFC 222, and Cooper was the live body they tapped (no pun intended) to stand in for her. Yet in the idea of rooting interests, Dern was — and is — the feature attraction. She has been groomed for the UFC through stints in LFA and Invicta, not to mention her medal runs in the ADCC (etc.). It was always a matter of when for Dern — when would she would come to the UFC and begin taking arms home as souvenirs. Cooper is only on the main card of a pay-per-view because of Dern, and everyone knows that.
But with fighting being an emotional game, not just for the fighters but for the vicarious public, attitudes can change. Cooper said all along that fighting Dern was a dream of hers, an obsession actually, yet there was little reason to take any of that too seriously. Cooper was being given a chance to blow up Dern’s hype train, which induces a certain kind of caring, but that was all; if she were to beat Dern now there would be a fleeting “told you so” vibe from those who love to point out that they live in a world of delusionists.
Not exactly great stakes.
What deepens the stakes is when the thing gets personal, some bad blood gets transferred, and pretty soon Cooper is spurning every handshake attempt from the game’s darling-in-training. What’s fantastically entertaining is when the chip on somebody’s shoulder becomes the story, and that defiance leads to agreeing to a catchweight with no hesitation. Cooper is letting it be known that she doesn’t appreciate being from the other side of the promotional tracks, nor that the Chosen One couldn’t be professional enough to treat the thing seriously.
With lucid blue eyes darting this way and that, she cut a promo made of hellfire in just 90 seconds.
“As soon as I heard that Mackenzie wasn’t going to make weight, I almost started crying,” she told Olivi. “I’m like, whatever I have to do to make weight, whatever I have to do to get this fight, I am not going home with some money. I’m going home as a winner. And that was all that mattered to me, was I’m going to take this fight and it’s going to be everything that I called. I’m going to beat this girl.”
“I’m already expecting a broken Mackenzie Dern,” she said. “She couldn’t make the weight, she missed her flight getting here, like that is not a professional. I’m going to stuff her shots. I’m going to punch her in the face. And I’m going to break her more than she’s already broken.”
If you couldn’t whip up some enthusiasm for Dern’s quick-turnaround fight, perhaps it’s easier when the opponent morphs into the very human embodiment of motivation on its eve. It still remains to be seen if she can beat Dern, but who knew that Amanda Cooper had it in her to stir up those kinds of emotions? And all it took was Dern showing up seven pounds over, a hot microphone, and an alignment between her cause and the public’s outrage over Dern’s unprofessionalism.
Boom: Instant heat. Desire is out to destroy entitlement. ABC, 123.
Surprise, surprise, surprise.