‘Like a phoenix’: Mackenzie Dern opens up on divorce, ‘messy’ camp ahead of UFC Vegas 73

Mackenzie Dern is very honest about her training camp for her UFC Vegas 73 main event with Angela Hill.

Most athletes would not disclose difficulties they’ve endured through the weeks and months of preparation for a fight. But Dern is unlike most fighters. Speaking with MMA Fighting days before her 11th UFC appearance, the jiu-jitsu legend was as honest as she could be.

“It wasn’t a calm camp – it was a very messy one with the divorce and my coach [Jason] Parillo leaving to Colorado for a month to train Luke Rockhold to fight bareknuckle,” Dern said of her fight, which goes down Saturday at UFC APEX in Las Vegas. “It was crazy, but we’re fine. I’m very, very motivated. I want to win, and that’s what matters the most.”

Dern divorced Brazilian surfer Wesley Santos in 2022. “You think [the divorce process is] going to be friendly and all, but everything changes when there’s money involved,” she said.

All that adds extra weight over the shoulders of someone entering a cage to fight. Dern thought of all the what-ifs of a third loss in as many UFC main events before “all the pieces started to fall together, and I’m here and I’m fine despite all the mess.”

“You start to get inside your own head and question, ‘Was I supposed to be in the top 5?’” Dern said. “I lost to Marina [Rodriguez] and Yan, both top 5. You started to see the rest of the division, to think about the fans and all. … I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to watch me fight. It makes a big difference when you remember why you’re really fighting. I want to be champion, but I don’t want to be a champion no one remembers. I want to be a champion that everybody remembers, one that people like to pay to watch.”

“I’ve reconnected [with myself], stayed away from social media during this time, but I’m starting all over again,” she continued. “It sounds kind of of cliche, but this is like a phoenix, reborn from defeat. Everything that’s going on in my life has shown a cleared path for me. That’s what I needed. When you’re an athlete that receives so much attention since the beginning, and everybody has a tip, everybody wants to take you as their athlete, a manager making you all kinds of promises that he’ll make you a lot of money. It was always like that since the beginning of my career. Many coaches and managers had plans for me, but I was still learning MMA.

“People see me as money since the beginning. ‘I’ll make money with Mackenzie’. But it takes time to learn a new sport. I understand my path now. If I’m going to put it all together in this fight, we’ll know on [Saturday], but I believe so because it’s so much clearer for me. This is my journey. I like it. It’s tough, but I like it.”

With Parillo out to coach Rockhold for four weeks, Dern enlisted MMA fighter Antonio Trocoli as one of her main coaches for UFC Vegas 73. She expects to face “the best Angela Hill ever” on Saturday and won’t go crazy for a finish, but going the distance after five rounds isn’t the plan either.

“Angela Hill is a dangerous girl because she’s experienced,” Dern said. “I can get knocked out or submitted, of course, but the danger here is losing a decision. She’s not someone I want to get comfortable with in there, and then the judges think she won, you know? But I think it’s a good fight for me. Since I’m going through all this, I think it’s the best fight for me. To fight Zhang Weili during this phase I’m going through, this type of camp I had, it wouldn’t be possible. Not that I think that [Hill] is an easy fight, it’s not that, but all I have to do is control my life and chase my dream.”

A former Invicta FC strawweight champion, Hill is 10-12 under the UFC banner with several controversial defeats by decision. For Dern, though, a win Saturday gets her closer to the top 5.

Carla Esparza is unavailable since she’s expecting a baby, but Dern has other names in mind.

“Rose [Namajunas] would be a great test after a good win over Angela Hill,” she said. “[I want] someone raked ahead of me. Yan [Xiaonan] fought super well, Virna [Jandiroba] just beat Marina and shook things up a little bit in the division. There are a lot of cool fights to happen.”