The UFC’s strawweight division is on notice: Don’t mess with Mom.

Eighteen months after the birth of her daughter Moa, Mackenzie Dern finds herself more driven than ever to achieve success in the Octagon.

The Huntington Beach strawweight looks for her third consecutive victory of 2020 when she takes on Virna Jandiroba on the UFC 256 main card Saturday at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.

Jandiroba (16-1), a 32-year-old former Invicta FC strawweight champion, brings two consecutive submission victories and a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Dern (9-1), on the other hand, is the only female black belt in jiu-jitsu to have won gold medals in each of the five highest-ranking International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Gi Championships.

Two points to consider though. While both rely on their jiu-jitsu, Dern says she and Jandiroba have different styles.

“Her jiu-jitsu is a little bit more, I think, kind of slowly going forward kind of pressure. Try not to lose too many positions,” Dern, 27, said. “Mine’s a little bit more, I think, more aggressive attacking-wise. Like leg locks, armbars, kind of jumping around all over the place.”

Dern also advised that fans shouldn’t expect to see the fight go to the mat immediately.

“I don’t think either of us wants to go to the ground so early in the match with both of us strong and dry, not sweaty or wet anything like that,” Dern said. “It could almost be kind of boring, the fight. I think we’re both training a lot on striking and there’s gonna be a lot of feeling out in the beginning and try to let our hands go a little bit.”

Mackenzie Dern works toward a neck crank on Ashley Yoder in the final minute of her strawweight split-decision victory in her UFC debut at UFC 222 on March 3, 2018, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Hans Gutknecht/SCNG)

Dern used to have her struggles on the scale making the 116-pound limit. And since she became a mother, many figured they would continue and she would move up to flyweight – except Dern has made weight all three times.

She attributes it to being motivated by Moa.

“I’m so much more focused. The things are flowing way more,” said Dern, who has gone 4-1 in the UFC since March 2018. “My levels are getting better, so much faster. I see I’m evolving so much more. You see the hard work and you put the hard work in and it shows. I’m a way more professional and more mature fighter.”

As a mom, Dern is 2-1 in what she considers one of the best post-pregnancy turnarounds in the UFC – and she might not be wrong. She boasts two first-round finishes in 2020, each earning her a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus.

Dern isn’t just the only UFC strawweight to fight again after becoming a mom. She is the first fighter outside the 135-pound division to return to the Octagon after giving birth.

Former bantamweight title challenger Sara McMann, who already had a daughter when she joined the UFC in 2013, has gone 7-5 in the UFC. She had a son in 2018 and returned in January with a unanimous-decision victory over Lina Lansberg.

Alexis Davis, who like McMann was unsuccessful in trying to dethrone Ronda Rousey in 2014, had a son in 2016. She has gone 2-4 since returning, including a submission loss to McMann in her first fight back that earned McMann a Performance of the Night bonus.

Former title contender and “The Ultimate Fighter” winner Julianna Peña gave birth to her daughter in early 2018 and has gone 1-1 since. She and McMann are scheduled to fight in January.

Dern did lose in her initial return 14 months ago – via unanimous decision to Amanda Ribas just four months after Moa was born – but she doesn’t see her first MMA loss as a defeat.

“It was good because I had my daughter with me. If I would’ve had the loss without my family, maybe I would have took it way worse,” Dern said. “Because I have the most precious thing for me there? Hey, whatever. It’s part of life. It was kind of good to get that out of the way.”

Dern has found a new gym at RVCA in Huntington Beach, where she trains with renowned striking coach Jason Parillo and her father, legendary jiu-jitsu and judo grappler Wellington Dias, who travels from Arizona on weekends to drill with his daughter. And the third generation, Moa, has plenty of room at RVCA to play around in the private gym.

After stops in Arizona and Long Beach, Dern and her husband, professional surfer Wesley Santos, are glad to make Huntington Beach their home.

“He’s happy to be close to the beach,” Dern said with a laugh. “Me too, you know? From Arizona and the hot desert, I’m so happy to be in California full time.”

Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom Mackenzie Dern is seen in Glendale before her strawweight victory over Amanda Cooper at UFC 224 on May 12, 2018, in Rio de Janeiro. (Hans Gutknecht/SCNG)

The feel and vibe at RVCA, with its surfing and skateboarding lines, appeal to Dern. It’s all coming together at the right time as she eyes climbing the UFC ranks in search of a title shot while holding her family close.

“I’m very happy and fortunate. I don’t think a lot of people get to be this lucky during the pandemic times,” Dern said. “I’m definitely a fortunate fighter in terms of having an organized camp and my family very united.”

UFC 256

When: Saturday

Where: UFC APEX, Las Vegas

How to watch: Early prelim (4:30 p.m., ESPN+); prelims (4 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN+); main card (7 p.m., PPV via ESPN+)

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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