Mixed martial arts has no shortage of female stars in 2016.

Miesha Tate and Holly Holm have been able to leverage the stardom of Ronda Rousey to become household names in their own right, while the popularity of current UFC champions Amanda Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk grows with every win.

Then you have Brazilian beast Cris "Cyborg" Justino, and of course Rousey herself, who UFC boss Dana White regularly describes as the biggest name in the history of the sport.

But currently taking her first steps into the brutal world of cage fighting is a young woman who could, in the opinion of some observers, one day usurp them all.


Her name is Mackenzie Dern and she has the look - and most importantly the game - to become the biggest name in MMA.

"She will be bigger than Ronda Rousey before Ronda Rousey lost. She's going to be huge", former UFC champion Benson Henderson says.


Similar to Rousey, whose mother AnnMaria De Mars was a world judo champion and began teaching her daughter the finer aspects of the sport at age 11, Dern was also born into a fighting family.

But she started even earlier under the tutelage of her father Wellington "Megaton" Dias, who is one of the top BJJ black belts in the world.

From the age of three, Dias, Dern and her stepmother Luciana Tavares, who is also a black belt, would rise early to learn jiu jitsu and at the age of six she began competing in tournaments.

She received her blue belt at 16 - the earliest age allowed by the international controlling body - and three years later received her black belt.

"My life has always been jiu jitsu," Dern told Vice. "From three years old (Dad) used to bring me to the academy and even from that young I kind of started picking up things. Listening to him teach got ingrained in my head, and when it was my time to learn techniques, I felt like I already knew them."


All of Dern's hard work culminated in her reaching the absolute top of her sport in 2015. She not only won gold at the world championships in the 59kg weight class, but also in the open weight class at the Abu Dhabi World Cup.

That included a semi-final victory against Brazilian giant Gabi Garcia, who outweighs her by more than 50kg. Dern defeated Garcia - who has embarked on her own MMA career - via disqualification. But to see her attack the 111kg behemoth, who hadn't been defeated in seven years, was a sight to behold.

"I didn't know that I was going to beat Gabi Garcia, but I was always the one who said, 'no, someone's going to beat her'," Dern told MMAFighting.com. "She was undefeated, she was huge, people would go to fight her defeated already ... But I always tried to win. I didn't want to survive."

With that victory there was no question where Dern stood on the world stage. "She's the current No. 1 ranked female jiu-jitsu practitioner on the planet," Henderson says.


Dern had initially been reluctant to pursue a career in mixed martial arts but like many, she was swayed by the rise of Rousey.

Having established a legacy in BJJ, Dern wanted more.

"So when I had a great year (in 2015), it was like, OK, I can do this. And I saw Ronda, how much she opened the doors for girls, even outside of MMA. All the success that she had, it was like, man, we can make a living off that too."

Dern began training with UFC fighters like Lauren Murphy and quickly showed they were no match for her on the mat. "For me to even win, like, 20 seconds of a five-minute roll, or to stay on top for 15 seconds longer than I was able to last time, that's when I know I'm improving my game," Murphy told MMAFighting.com. "Because I know in my mind, no girl that I face is going to move like that or know the submissions that she knows. They're not going to get the quick angles that Mackenzie gets from the ground. It almost makes me feel dumb. I'm like, man, I outweigh her probably by at least 15, maybe 20 pounds, and she makes me feel like a baby on the ground sometimes."

Like anyone from a BJJ background, Dern is new to wrestling and striking. But the likes of Demian Maia and "Jacare" Souza have proven a submission-based style can be successful against anyone.

"She has an amazing work ethic. She's an amazing athlete. She definitely needs to work on her MMA skills, but her ground game is phenomenal," Henderson says. "Any woman on the planet goes to the ground with Mackenzie and Mackenzie is going to tap her."


Dern made her MMA debut in July this year after signing with Texas-based promotion Legacy Fighting Championship.

She wasn't able to submit her first opponent but won a clear decision by dominating the fight on the ground.

Her second fight, held last weekend in Dallas, went more along the lines of what pundits were expecting. Dern's opponent, Montana Stewart, was riding a five-fight winning streak into the bout, including four victories via submission.

But despite that pedigree she was no match for Dern on the ground and was submitted via the rarely-seen Omoplata rear naked choke after three and a half minutes of action.

"What a nightmare for people. If you get on the ground with her, good luck because you're going to need it," said MMA analyst Luke Thomas, when breaking down Dern's most recent win.


At age 23 and still relatively new to MMA, Dern isn't ready to fight against the best in the world. But make no mistake, the UFC is keeping a close eye on her.

"We've had discussions with the UFC and they're definitely interested in her" Dern's MMA coach John Crouch said. "(But) she has only had two MMA fights, so I think it would be premature."

But after getting a few more fights under her belt, Dern will quickly begin targeting a move to Dana White's promotion - and getting her hands on Jedrzejczyk's 115-pound belt. "I want to get there," Dern told MMAFighting.com. "For me, it's my goal. I know I will reach my goal, which is to be the UFC champion."