Mandy Polk first debuted for RFA late last year. By then, she had already been introduced to the work of Mackenzie Dern, the prodigious jiu-jitsu champion who had begun making her gradual transition to mixed martial arts. Polk always had great respect for Dern’s jiu-jitsu accolades, and from the moment she heard that Dern planned to start fighting professionally, Polk fancied the matchup as an interesting challenge — one she’d like to someday face, even though at the time, promotional boundaries made the prospect unlikely. Dern had an exclusive deal with Legacy FC, and that wasn’t likely to change.
But once Polk landed under the RFA banner, a sliver of hope opened anew for the 32-year-old. RFA and Legacy FC had signed a deal to merge into the ultimate developmental league beginning in 2017, renamed Legacy Fighting Alliance, and with both women expected to be in the same fold, Polk’s pursuit of Dern suddenly didn’t seem so unrealistic.
So she pushed for the opportunity, and after a year filled with stops and starts as other matchups failed to come to fruition, Polk finally got her wish. She’ll meet Dern this Friday in a 125-pound contest at LFA 24.
“When I found out that she was coming to pro MMA, it was just something that I wanted to do,” Polk told MMA Fighting. “I don’t know why. I really enjoyed watching her compete in BJJ — I really enjoyed it and was definitely on her side there, and it’ll take forever for me to get a black belt. But you always eye someone who’s at the top of the mountain, like, ‘Okay, maybe I could be there one day.’ So due to that fact, I already thought about [the fight], but I tried to be realistic. But then once this came up as something I could realistically do, I was like, ‘Well I have to do it!’”
The fight seemed like a natural fit for Polk to pitch to matchmakers, considering that Dern bounced between the strawweight and flyweight divisions and Polk had become accustomed to “doing catchweights or meeting people wherever,” in large part due to her expertise as a professional fitness competitor with the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB). Polk has competed as a fitness pro since she was 17, even working as a contest preparation consultant as a full-time job before starting MMA, so weight management is basically second nature for the Tennessee native.
Nicknamed “MissDemeanor,” Polk said she first made her transition to MMA six years ago, having grown bored with the monotony of the fitness contest lifestyle and having dined on nightly viewings of the WEC. She’s since racked up five wins across eight amateur and professional fights, meaning she’ll carry an experience edge over Dern into Friday night. But although her 24-year-old opponent is still early in her fighting career, Polk has been impressed by what she’s seen from Dern so far.
“When [wanting to face Dern] first came up, she didn’t have very many fights, so it was impossible to say what kind of holes she would have in her game,” Polk said. “And I also know that she’s at a good gym where they really develop people fully within mixed martial arts, so I wasn’t expecting a cakewalk in Mackenzie whatsoever, or all these holes necessarily.
“But she did all kickboxing in her last fight. She won a decision via stand-up, so yeah, I’m impressed. That’s a huge growth for a new fighter. That’s nothing to sneeze at, at all. So without being too much of a fangirl here, I’m definitely impressed with what she was able to accomplish in that amount of time.”
Just three fights into her MMA career, Dern has already shown flashes of the jiu-jitsu brilliance that made her one of the most highly-touted female prospects in the sport. Dern’s sophomore appearance in Legacy FC was a memorable affair that saw Dern submit Montana Stewart with a sequence that landed on many ‘Submission of the Year’ lists — a simultaneous omoplata/rear-naked choke that invoked memories of Japanese trailblazer Masakazu Imanari.
Stewart is now a quarterfinalist on The Ultimate Fighter 26, where she’s competing for the inaugural UFC flyweight title. So needless to say, Polk knows she has a tall task awaiting her at LFA 24.
“I’ve had coaches remind me not to take her down,” Polk said, laughing. “So, I mean, I’m not afraid. Maybe I should be. But I feel fine about it. I’ve trained really hard. All I can do is be confident in my training at this point, and I know that I have done all that I can do to be ready everywhere.
“I’ve never taken easy fights,” she added. “And I like to take fights where I am going to have to become the kind of person who can win that fight by the end of the preparation. I like to take fights that’ll make me better.”
Ultimately, the opportunity couldn’t come at a better time for Polk. Her 2017 campaign has been a busy one — one centered around change and new experiences that has forced her to grow both inside the cage and out. She even helped stop a robbery back in the summer, taking a punch to the face in a street altercation that led to the apprehension of a wanted criminal. So now, after first speculating about a meeting with Dern what feels like ages ago, she sees no better way to end her year than by fulfilling her long-held challenge to herself and stunning the MMA world.
“I will say this, 2017 was a really big rebuilding year for me,” Polk said. “I got new management, I’m at a new gym with a full-time coach. How we match-up is going to be different than how I’ve matched up against any opponent ever before. I’ve always taken good fights, I’ve taken hard fights. I haven’t ever devoted myself to MMA fully in this capacity like I have this year, so that’s why it’s hard to say how we’ll match-up, for me, because I haven’t had a fight since these new changes.
“I will say that my stand-up has come a long way. I know she’s trained stand-up really hard herself. My wrestling is really strong right now, it’s feeling really good. I’ve worked on that a lot lately. I’m going to bring some power, but she’s got power too. It’ll just be interesting to see how it unfolds from the feet to the floor, what all is going to happen along the way. I don’t know and neither do you — and that’s why people have to watch.”