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UFC Vegas 39 Preview: Can BJJ prodigy Mackenzie Dern secure a breakthrough win?

Delve into the main card action of UFC Vegas 39, topped by Brazilian striker Marina Rodriguez looking to turn away UFC darling Mackenzie Dern.

Mackenzie Dern fighting Nina Nunes at UFC on ABC 2
Mackenzie Dern fighting Nina Nunes at UFC on ABC 2
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

While the card as a whole is certainly subpar for a typical Fight Night Card, the main event for UFC Vegas 39 isn’t to blame in the least. The scrap between Mackenzie Dern and Marina Rodriguez has some serious implications at the top of the strawweight division, perhaps even title implications.

The top of that division has been in a stranglehold by the four most recent champions: Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, and Weili Zhang. Those four have been circling one another seemingly nonstop, all four of them having faced each other — multiple times in some cases. And that’s even with Andrade having left the division, with her last three contests at flyweight. Not even five quality wins in a row from Carla Esparza – including one over Rodriguez — has been enough to break that circle. No doubt that’s in part because Esparza isn’t a favorite of the UFC brass. Given Dern is a favorite, a title fight seems likely for the BJJ prodigy should she emerge victorious. But if Rodriguez emerges the victor, well, I wouldn’t make any favorable bets towards Rodriguez getting the same opportunity.

Check out my prelim preview here or take in an audible preview with Zane Simon and Connor Ruebusch here...

Mackenzie Dern vs. Marina Rodriguez, Women’s Strawweight

I’ve seen many term this fight to be a striker vs. grappler contest... and there’s more truth to that statement than there has been with most other fights termed that way over the last several years.

Dern’s accolades on the mat are very well established. Raised by a father who was a respected and established name in the BJJ community, Dern has been immersed in the art of BJJ in a manner that few can claim since the beginning of her life. Even saying it’s second nature to her doesn’t seem to encapsulate just how easy things seem to come to her when the fight hits the mat. With the lone exception being fellow grappling ace Virna Jandiroba, Dern has submitted three of her last four opponents in the first round, ending the fight very shortly after the fight hit the ground.

There are arguments to be made why Dern was able to win those fights so easily. In two cases, her opponents foolishly went to the ground with her voluntarily. Another opponent, Nina Nunes, didn’t look right after returning from maternity leave, but judge for yourself. And while Jandiroba made the fight close, she’s also a significantly worse athlete than Dern. Dern will be the superior athlete to Rodriguez, but not by a massive margin.

That could be the difference maker in this contest. Dern’s lone career loss came against Amanda Ribas, one of the top athletes in the division. Even if Rodriguez isn’t quite on Ribas’ level either, she is more than respectable in her physical capabilities and is a more disciplined and technical fighter than Ribas, proving that when she KO’d Ribas. Rodriguez’s true wheelhouse is in the clinch, utilizing her Muay thai base to it’s full extent with knees, elbows, punches, etc.

With those parameters, it’s necessary to point out the reasons why one or the other will win. With Dern, there’s a strong feeling the fight will be over as soon as the fight hits the mat. It isn’t a guarantee by any means, but it feels very close to that. Plus, while there doesn’t seem to be any threat of Rodriguez winning by submission, it doesn’t seem inconceivable that Dern could land a haymaker and turn out the lights of Rodriguez. Dern does have power and while she’s still a technical mess on the feet, she is improving.

On the flip side, Dern’s wrestling is an even bigger mess than her striking, even with some signs of improvement in that field as well. Rodriguez isn’t a great wrestler herself, but her own improvements have been more noticeable than Dern’s own progress. Rodriguez should easily be able to outpoint Dern on the feet, provided the fight stays standing. Plus, Rodriguez has plus power for the division. Dern has shown toughness and durability, so I wouldn’t count on a KO, but Rodriguez would most likely win that way than Dern... and I’ve already touched on that possibility.

In the end, I’m favoring Dern for a couple of small reasons. Given Rodriguez is at her best in the clinch, it’s hard to believe the fight won’t go there at some point. Even if Dern can’t get the takedown from there, she can initiate a scramble, or even pull guard. Perhaps more importantly, Dern appears to have completely dedicated herself to the sport after her loss to Ribas. There are reasons to doubt the legitimacy of her recent wins, but the ease in which those wins have come can’t just be because the UFC has been giving her favorable matchups. In a fight this close, it can come down to splitting hairs. When someone as talented as Dern is focused, it’s tough to doubt her. Dern via submission of RD2

Tim Elliott vs. Matheus Nicolau, Flyweight

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the most consequential fight on the card outside of the main event is this contest, but the UFC’s flyweight hate continues. I guess the fact it’s on the main card is progress, but they have a women’s featherweight contest in the main event next week for hell’s sake!

Despite plying his trade at flyweight, Elliott has managed to become a fan favorite on the basis of his constant forward pressure. While he’s usually in pursuit of takedowns – an action that usually turns off fans — his aggressive pursuit of submissions that results in all sorts of scrambles tends to endear him to the fanbase. While the aggression has helped him gain notoriety within the MMA community, it has also resulted in him walking into several submission losses in his UFC run, four to be exact. Of course, Elliott has displayed a more mature version of himself as of late, settling for control over the finish, securing a pair of decision wins in his last couple of appearances.

Whether that approach will work on Nicolau is very much up for debate. Even when he made his UFC debut back in 2015, Nicolau was the quintessential young veteran, showing a discipline far beyond his years. Now that he’s 28, Nicolau’s buttoned down approach is only more refined. There isn’t really an area that Nicolau stands out in, but he’s more than adequate in every major category. If I were to pick one thing in particular, it would have to be his ability to slip and rip as he’s a very dedicated counter striker who takes surprisingly little damage in a division defined by its speed.

There appears to be a hard ceiling for Elliott, a ceiling that Nicolau exceeds. It’s possible this more mature version of Elliott could pull off the upset. After all, while Nicolau’s takedown defense has been solid thus far, it hasn’t been seriously tested by someone like Elliott. However, at 34, with years of making the difficult cut to 125, and a history of slowing down by the time the second round comes around, I can’t trust Elliott to offer something the intelligent Brazilian hasn’t seen and/or prepared for. Nicolau via decision

  • I don’t want to rip on the co-main event between Randy Brown and Jared Gooden too badly given it’s a hell of a fight, but is it a co-main event on any decent UFC card? Hell no. Nonetheless, Gooden is certainly a live dog in this contest given his power, stamina, and durability. In fact, many believe Gooden might already have broken into the rankings if he were to put in a greater effort to avoid his opponent’s return fire, but thems the breaks. It’s not like Brown is a defensive savant himself, which is why so many people are excited about this contest, even if it isn’t a great co-main in terms of quality as opposed to entertainment value. In fact, Brown is similar to Gooden in terms of his athletic talents, perhaps even exceeds them. However, the biggest thing that separates Brown from Gooden in the minds of most is the level of competition Brown has faced. Gooden has faced some solid regional opposition, but Brown has been in there with several of the UFC’s better action fighters and the experience he has picked up from those efforts have been revealing themselves. With his improved ground game and opportunistic nature, Brown finding a finish seems to be the most likely outcome, though any smart bettor will admit the odds are far too wide in his favor. Brown via TKO of RD2
  • Mariya Agapova completely trashed her reputation as a hot prospect when she dropped her sophomore UFC effort to Shana Dobson. Of course, she was only able to obtain that reputation in the first place because of her ample physical talents, so it would be foolish to give up on her after a single boneheaded loss. Given Agapova has taken over a year off since that loss, it appears she’s been able to digest it, indicating she’s taking it as a learning experience. The biggest issue against Dobson was Agapova’s poor energy management, gassing herself even before the first round was over. The gas tank has never been an issue for Sabina Mazo. The lanky striker racks up the volume in a hurry with her slick kick-punch combinations. Mazo’s outside movement isn’t perfect, but it does seem to be continually improving. Plus, moving back down to flyweight, she should be able to fend off the takedowns of the physical Agapova in the way she couldn’t against Alexis Davis. The physical talents indicate this should be more of a tossup, but Mazo shows far more polish at this stage of her career than Agapova does. Mazo via TKO of RD3
  • There’s no denying that Deron Winn is talented. The former collegiate wrestler has the punching power and wrestling to be a contender in the middleweight division. Unfortunately for him, he lacks one major factor that seems likely to doom his climb up the ladder: the height. At 5’6”, Winn is easily the shortest middleweight on the UFC roster and given his problems with even making 185, making welterweight isn’t happening unless something within his disposition changes. Because of his lack of height, he has to work harder than most to close the distance and tends to gas quickly. Given Phil Hawes isn’t the most disciplined striker, it isn’t hard to see Winn landing some heavy shots. However, even if Hawes isn’t the most technical striker, he’s been improving in that area, hits plenty hard, and Winn isn’t the most technical himself. Plus, Hawes’ own wrestling pedigree rivals that of Winn’s, perhaps even exceeds it. This isn’t an unwinnable fight for Winn by any means, but Hawes at least matches Winn in all the major areas that he doesn’t exceed him in. Winn’s best chance to win appears to be a KO blow. It feels foolish to count on that. Hawes via TKO of RD3