The MMA Lab’s head striking coach, Eddie Cha, discusses Mackenzie Dern’s recent successful UFC debut.
Mackenzie Dern made her highly-anticipated UFC debut earlier this month at UFC 222. The strawweight prospect headlined the preliminary card against Ashley Yoder, winning a close split decision.
Dern was one of the larger talking points heading into the event, headlined by one of the best female MMA fighters on the planet, Cris Cyborg — a consistent narrative for the jiu-jitsu ace’s MMA career, with some fans and pundits even calling her the next Ronda Rousey. And with that kind of interest, she was always going to have have high expectations placed on her.
Dern was one of the largest favorites on the card, but Yoder didn’t back down. And given the odds, it was a closer contest than expected; Dern was unable to pull off her signature submission win, and even lost a round. She used lots of striking in the bout, and – still green on her feet – was briefly dropped by Yoder in the second round. The fight was up in the air up until the final moments, when Dern finally got Yoder down and finished in a dominant position.
Dern’s head striking coach at The MMA Lab, Eddie Cha, was impressed by what he saw at UFC 222, especially considering it was her first fight in the big leagues. Cha was in Dern’s corner.
“I thought she did well for her first fight in the UFC,” Cha told BloodyElbow.com. “We didn’t get to work as much as we wanted to, but I thought she had a great performance.
“[Dern] was more aggressive, she landed more punches, she had the cage control, and things like that.”
Cha said there were a few things that made the Yoder fight tougher than previous matchups.
“She did good defending the left kicks, she threw the right hands, which we wanted to do,” he said. “We wanted to pivot off to the left side a little bit more. But again, it was her first time fighting in the UFC, it was her first time fighting a southpaw, first time fighting someone as tall as Ashley was. Those are a lot of variables that aren’t easy for her.”
Some fans may think Dern under-performed in her debut. But, as her coach pointed out, people expect so much from her without realizing she’s been a pro fighter for less than two years. She won’t perform like a veteran or win in impressive fashion every single time; she’s still in the learning stage, and she will be for a while – and that’s okay.
“Expectations are high, and she’s always gonna be criticized because of that,” Cha said, “but I thought she did a great job.”
“She’s only gonna get better from here on out. She’s still young, she’s growing. She’s in her early 20s. This is all relatively new to her. She’s putting in the work.”
Dern managed to take Yoder down only once throughout the entire bout. The lack of her grappling offense was the biggest surprise in her UFC 222 fight for most people. Cha believes striking more than grappling in her early fights isn’t such a bad thing, because it will help her develop her skills and enlarge her tool bag.
“In order to improve striking for anybody, it just takes a lot of time,” Cha said. “You have to increase your fight IQ, you gotta develop your hands, you gotta be a little bit knowledgeable on which way to circle and develop the timing of it like anything else.”
Dern is a very aggressive fighter. She shows confidence in her striking. According to Cha, that’s a good thing, even though it may lead to her taking unnecessary damage – like in the Yoder fight, where she got knocked down.
“There’s some things you can teach, and some things you can’t,” he said. “Her biting down and putting her chin down and actually throwing, it’s pretty rare, especially early in your career. I think that’s definitely a plus.”
Cha added that she’s going to improve the most when she doesn’t have a fight coming up.
“She’s getting better,“ he said. “She’s got great kicks, she’s got power in her hands. She learns super fast; anything that she does, she picks it up really quick. She’s been in martial arts her whole life, so she’s gonna get better in every fight. She just has to prove it in the offseason when there are no fights.”
According to Cha, Dern has not ‘fallen in love’ with her hands, but is instead content to fight wherever – if her opponent defends her takedowns and wants to strike, Dern will strike with her. If her opponent gives her an opening on the mat, she will gladly take it. Cha said that’s an advantage for Dern.
“We weren’t saying, ‘We’re just going to take her down and try to submit her,’ or, ‘We’re gonna try to stand and bang with her to prove a point,’” Cha said. “She does a really good job of just asserting what they give her.”
As a 24-year-old who’s widely considered the best female grappler on the planet, there is a lot of buzz surrounding Dern. Ever since stepping into the MMA cage for the first time in 2016, the countdown until her UFC debut was on. People wanted to see Dern in the big show. And they knew it would happen soon enough. It was an expectation.
Despite all that, Cha doesn’t think Dern felt much pressure prior to the Yoder fight in Las Vegas.
“She was relaxed. I think she’s used to the media,” he said. “I thought there was a tremendous amount of pressure on her – she headlined the FOX (preliminary) card, in all the interviews they were comparing her to the next Ronda Rousey. I don’t know if that’s necessarily fair to her, but she handled it really well, and she came out with the W, which is the most important thing.”
Even though Dern is still clearly raw in the striking department, Cha believes March 3 was the right time for her to make the jump to the UFC.
“She picked up a lot of experience in those five fights,” Cha said. “We have a lot of fighters — Augusto Mendes, I believe he was 5-0 when he signed with the UFC, as well. And there was quite a few other guys, too. It’s just a matter if you feel like you’re ready. We have the best ground girl in the world, so that definitely helps. I think she was ready.”
Some people came to the conclusion after UFC 222 that Dern needs to improve her wrestling before her striking. Takedowns would lead to more of her expert grappling and would allow Dern to be more dominant in most fights. But Cha doesn’t think one is more important than the other. Moving forward, Dern will need to work on both her striking and wrestling if she wants to be an elite strawweight, Cha said.
“It’s easy to say, ‘She has the best ground game in the world, let’s work on wrestling so we can take her to the ground,’” Cha said. “But eventually, she’s gonna find somebody that she’s not gonna be able to take down, and then she’s gonna be forced to strike. So I think she needs to work on all facets of her game, and that’s exactly what she’s doing. It’s just due time. It takes time to grow. I think she’s on track of doing it the right way.”
Cha stressed the importance of being good in every area of MMA to succeed.
“That’s what’s so hard about this sport; you have to be well-rounded,” he said. “You gotta be ready for everything.”