Staff Predictions: Mackenzie Dern vs. Yan Xiaonan | UFC Fight Night 211
Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan will share the octagon this Saturday night as the two fighters are set to clash in the main event of UFC Fight Night 211. The event will be closed to the public and media, unlike all other events that are hosted at the promotion’s own UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fight card will feature a total of 12 fights, including a co-main event bout between Francisco Trinaldo and Randy Brown.
Focusing on the main event, Dern returns following her split decision win against Tecia Torres in April at UFC 273. Dern is now 7-2 in the UFC and has won five of her last six fights, with her only defeat in that time coming against Marina Rodriguez.
Yan is on a two-fight skid after what was an impressive six-fight winning streak to start her time in the UFC. Yan’s streak of wins included victories against Claudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Angela Hill, and more. But recently, Yan was defeated by Carla Esparza and Marina Rodriguez.
Mackenzie Dern’s a moderate betting favorite before the UFC Fight Night 211 main event this weekend.
Yan Xiaonan is one of the quickest and most dynamic fighters in the division. She has excellent Sanda striking, which is busy and technical. She likes to skirt the outside, staying on her bike and picking her opponent apart by bouncing in and out with her jab, then jab-fake and chaining in her right straight. Once established, she uses her in and out movement to draw out the counter so that she can land her fade-away left hook. By utilizing her jab and constantly circling, she allows herself to stay ahead on the cards often, by filling the space in volume and being generally busier.
She also has fantastic kicks, however, this becomes less applicable against a fighter like Dern. Claudia Gadelha, although an opponent from two years ago, is the highest level jiu jitsu black belt Yan has fought prior to Dern. What we can learn from that fight is that early on, Yan’s kicks were caught which is what put her on her back defending on the bottom. Yan is good at staying active and looking to slice up with elbows on her back and using the fence, but technically she is at a massive disadvantage in grappling against Dern. She generally does not threaten with much submission offense on her back or execute sweeps on high level BJJ players, plus her striking activity on the mat may be muted by the heightened threat of Dern snatching a limb. Yan’s primary goal should be to stuff Dern’s shots and drag her into deep waters on the feet by maintaining her range and using her jab.
If Yan does choose to kick, Dern has to make the most of those opportunities. On the feet she can’t keep up with the accuracy and footwork of Yan, but what she does have is a powerful right hand and a good right body kick. Her overhand and right straight have been the highlights in her striking within the UFC so far, while she does not throw the body kick as often, she has had success when she has, and it seems to be a crisp technique. It works particularly well as she tends to over extend with her hands, allowing her opponents to angle and slip off of the line, but by chaining her kicks onto the end of her combination, she in a way cuts off the escape route.
Dern has had difficulty with wrestling her opponents to the mat which is where she tends to lose fights. Even if she can catch Yan’s kicks and establish a single leg, she tends to trip out the remaining leg rather than commit to the shot and drive through. However, where she finds her most success, is if she can swarm with pressure and put Yan against the cage where she tends to skirt around anyway, Dern can enter a clinch and drag her down. Dern is very good at lacing the upper body and jumping guard against the fence, and most importantly immediately establishing a threat. Where many guard players end up in trouble is keeping their opponent engaged once it hits the mat, Dern by instantly securing a limb, forces her opponents to entertain the grappling match and give up position in order to defend against the submission, and this opens numerous opportunities for Dern. In her last fight against Tecia Torres, Dern attacks a standing Kimura, which pulls Torres onto her, she then underhooks Torres’s leg to establish a sweep but transitions to a leg lock instead. Once Dern starts a sequence she opens up varying avenues for herself. The main problem she has to solve is initially getting her opponent to lace up in a clinch.
It’s no surprise that Yan will be looking to remain on the feet and Dern, the mat. This is where the fight will be won and lost, ultimately Yan is as mobile a fighter as Dern has faced but she has struggled on her back. Over five rounds, if Dern stays disciplined and answers Yan’s strikes with pressure, I think she can eventually force Yan into a clinch and drag her to the canvas.
Pick: Mckenzie Dern to win
Since Dern made her debut in 2018, I’ve been impressed by her game because she, in a division where fights often reach the judges, has the ability to find the finish. All 7 of Dern’s wins inside the distance have come via submission. This is no surprise considering how truly talented she is in jiu-jitsu. Dern tends to favor armbar submissions, where she pivots her hips in an instant and can nearly snap her opponent’s arm clean off before anyone knows what happened. While an armbar is her go-to submission, Dern has a full weaponry of high level submissions in her arsenal. Like many submission aces, early in her career, Dern struggled to get the fight to the mat.
Recently, though, Dern’s wrestling has improved and her offensive grappling has become more aggressive. Her striking is still rudimentary and if the fight stays on the feet for a prolonged period of time, Dern can get pieced up. Her typical fight style is to pressure forward, and look to crash distance as quickly as possible. Dern is athletic and powerful but unrefined and technically limited so she finds the most success on the feet when striking in the pocket. Her striking is designed to set up a clinch or open up an opportunity for a takedown. Often, Dern will unleash a telegraphed but powerful overhand right that is meant to stun her opponent and immobilize them which makes a takedown easier to land. Or, if the strike misses, it allows Dern to follow her momentum into a takedown attempt. If the takedown fails, Dern can still win valuable minutes with clinch control and has recently shown impressive ability to attempt submissions even from a standing position. The typical way Dern has lost, which has only happened twice in the UFC, is when she faces a high volume and skillful striker with reliable takedown defense.
Yan fulfills two of the above three criteria, which is what makes this fight so fascinating. Yan is a high volume and highly skilled striker but her takedown defense is less than reliable. Yan is a combination kickboxer who can land, from range, with consistent volume and real pop. Similarly to Dern, in a division where many fights reach the judges, Yan has proven the ability to end the fight. Yan has finished 7 of her 15 wins inside the distance, all of which have been by knockout. Typically, Yan moves laterally around the edge of the octagon, bouncing lightly on her feet and fighting, intelligently, behind her jab. When she plants, often in instances of countering an opponent who overextended, Yan throws a quick combination and is able to work the head and body with precision. Then, she’ll get back on her bike and continue her movement. Yan hasn’t finished a fight in the UFC, but, she has stunned and hurt opponents with this striking style. Yan’s body and head kick are especially snappy and powerful.
The question in this fight is whether or not Yan can defend the takedown for 5 rounds. She should have the cardio and striking style to stick’n move for 25 minutes but she’ll need to keep the fight standing if she wants to come out victorious. In her most recent two fights, one against a supreme wrestler and one against a well-rounded but primary striker, Yan was taken down 5 times out of 8 attempts. Her movement, kicking game, and experience create a difficult and dangerous target for opponents to attempt to takedown. But, when Yan plants to generate power, opponents have been able to take advantage of the stationary target.Neither woman has proven to have 25-minute cardio, neither woman has proven to shine bright under main event lights, and both women have the skills to exploit the other’s weakness. That’s why I’m surprised by the odds in this one. I anticipated Dern being the favorite but not the more than the 2:1 favorite she is. While I think Dern’s betting line is overly juiced, I still like her to win. Yan is unlikely to put Dern away so Dern will have 25 minutes to find a takedown. Once down, Dern has the special kind of submission game to end the fight.
Pick: Dern by Sub
Mackenzie Dern is one of my favorite fighters to watch given she has one of the most elite attributes across the entire UFC – world-class jiu-jitsu. For context, she is an ADCC and no-gi BJJ World Champion and has finished 7 of her 12 professional MMA wins by submission. This elite attribute of finishing fights on the mat makes her an extremely fun fighter to watch, but also, makes her one of, if not, the most dangerous fighter to face off against given if it hits the mat, it is likely over.
The above statement of her potentially being the most dangerous strawweight on the roster is not hyperbole because she may have the greatest fight-ending ability in the division. But, to argue against myself, Dern’s danger is not fully extended to danger in the opposition losing, as Dern has more flaws than the other elite contending strawweight. Specifically, she has developing striking that is quite rudimentary in nature. While her in-and-out movement along with natural fighting skills allows her to find some success on the feet prior to the fight hitting the mat against non-elite contenders, her less-than-elite striking becomes exacerbated when fighting the best of the division. This disparity in high-end ability on the feet would be less of a concern if Dern’s wrestling was elite, given elite wrestling coupled with elite submissions would nullify striking concerns; but, when facing good competitors, Dern has had trouble getting the fight to the mat through her own wrestling. This difficulty is not too surprising knowing other elite jiu-jitsu fighters lack elite wrestling, but even though not surprising, it is a significant issue for Dern given if the fight fails to hit the mat, it is more than likely Dern will fail to get the win when facing the elite of the elite.
Where Dern is consistent in her fight approach and performance(s) put forth, Yan Xiaonan is the exact opposite. When coming up in the strawweight division, Yan was touted as a future title challenger, likely being the one to test Weili Zhang at the time. This high-end perception was warranted, as Yan showcased time after time talented striking with strong offensive wrestling when needed/decided. More specifically, Yan routinely displayed a plethora of offensive attacks on the feet, all of which were thrown with speed, damage, and technique. While she does still have a wealth of attacks to throw on the feet, the effectiveness of striking has fallen short when fighting the elite of the elite in striking. Moreover, her grappling, which is still solid from an offensive end, proved to be quite poor when put on her back by Carla Esparza, as Yan had nothing for the Cookie Monster – likely the best wrestler in the division.
So, while Yan has good size and natural offensive talent everywhere, she struggles to defend against an elite attack by an opposition. If she can show improvement in this area, she is more than good enough to attack against what her opposition does poorly which is a very good tactic to win fights. Fortunate for Yan is that the elite attribute of Dern is a facet of MMA that needs a set-up to get there, so while I expect Yan to look poor on her back against Dern, she has all the skills needed to use footwork and technique on the feet to keep range, and once Dern shoots, Yan does have the skills needed to negate takedowns.
As much as I want to go Dern in nearly ever one of her fights, she needs to show improvement in either striking or wrestling for me to back her at a steep price over the top of the strawweight division. Because I believe she’ll be at a clear disadvantage on the feet coupled with believing Yan can negate the takedown shots from Dern, I do believe Yan should win this fight. But, if Dern manages to create a scramble and/or Yan shows poor fight IQ with offensive wrestling in this bout, Dern will finish the fight if it hit the mat.
Choosing between “should win” and “will win IF” is difficult, but, given the disparity of price on the fighters is significant, I will happily let the value on Yan sway me in backing her in this fight. Her striking should allow her to win most of the round while keeping distance, and once the inevitable clinch occurs, she has the skills necessary to keep the fight standing for the scheduled 15-minute affair.
Pick: Yan to win