There aren't many people currently walking the Earth that can boast having a coral belt, but Mackenzie Dern's father, Wellington "Megaton" Dias, is now one of them. Dern and her daughter, Moa, were among those present when he received the rare 7th degree honor for jiu-jitsu masters.
"My dad was a black belt when I was born, so I never got to witness him getting promoted," Dern said. "He promoted me all my belts, but I never saw my dad get promoted, and it was really just such a great experience to see, like, man, it's not about the titles, it's not about the academy, it's just about how much time he's dedicated to getting better and to keep evolving."
Dern is naturally effervescent and animated when discussing most any topic, but there's an extra level of joy when she talks about her father.
"My dad still competes today, still trains like he's 20 years old, and it's just so crazy to see how many people are inspired by him. It gives them hope, like, OK, this is something I can do when I'm a grandpa. He has his granddaughter, and she was there, and it really gives a lot of value to jiu-jitsu.
"Very few people have the coral belt, you know? It's 40 years as a black belt. It's how much time he has been training and dedicating a lot of sweat, tears, blood into the sport, into our martial art. It's really inspiring, and I'm so proud of him."
The pride goes both ways, of course, and dad is beaming as his daughter enters another high-profile fight week, one in which she'll be featured on the main card of Jacksonville's UFC 273 pay-per-view card vs. veteran Tecia Torres (13-5 MMA 9-5 UFC).
"This fight with Tecia is going to be a tough fight," Dern (11-2 MMA, 6-2 UFC) said. "She has so much experience, way more experience than me. She's one of the pioneers of the strawweight division. The few losses that she has are from former champions or champions now, so she's lost to only the top of the top, and she's just been on a on a great run. I'm definitely happy to be fighting her at this moment of her career. I think she's the best she's been. I think that's what makes you a better fighter. That is what brings your level to the next level, finding someone that's at a higher level than you. That helps bring you up."
Dern is perched at No. 5 in the strawweight rankings, keenly aware that the "higher level" she speaks of is a shot at the belt if she can string together another couple wins. She had her first UFC main event last October, and while she fell on the scorecards to Marina Rodriguez, she's eager to taste that opportunity again.
"It was great being a main event," Dern said. "It was my first experience, so it's definitely something I want to experience more. I felt at home."
In no manner was the moment too big for her. The extra media commitments, the spotlight ... it's all part of the cacophony that she felt she was destined for when she first started training at the age of 3.
"I like to talk with everyone," Dern said. "I like people asking a lot of questions. You start thinking about your career. You start realizing you have really good potential to be a future champion and you start falling in love even more with the sport. You start seeing what can come forth; this is a main event, imagine when I'm the champion.
"You're going to be selling fights and you're more in the spotlight, and that's good because people connect more to your story, to your lifestyle. For sure, so many more people knew who I was after my first main event. It puts you on a different spotlight. It was great to be able to get new fans. Unfortunately, it was a loss, but it was 'Fight of the Night,' so I'm happy. It was a great experience; 25 minutes of fighting and giving it my all."
"When I look back at the fight, I think the biggest thing that I would change would just to be more committed to my decisions.
"As a fighter, we have so many critics. People criticize you all the time 'Her striking is not that good' or 'her takedowns are so sloppy,' this and that, and we try to just stay true to who we are. But it's hard. Sometimes those opinions start getting into your mind and you want to show much you've improved. But ... a fight is a fight. If you get it to the ground, you get to the ground.
"So, I think during the fight I was kind of second guessing myself and all my decisions a lot. 'Oh, should I ground and pound a little more? Should I go for the armbar?' And then, all of a sudden, the time's done and I'm like, 'oh no, no, I have to stand back up and go through the whole process of trying to get her down to the ground again.'"
Her takeaway was that the only voice she should be listening to is her own, something she'll try to put into practice this Saturday.
"I feel now I trust the whole process; I trust all my training and I'm not trying to show that I'm better for anybody else. I'm just trusting my instincts because I think my instincts are good now. Everything else? The show will come."
The show always does come. Compiling an 11-2 professional record, Dern's bouts are frequently the antidote to the misinformed opinion that ace jiu-jitsu doesn't make for great MMA. Her high placement on a two-title fight pay-per-view event is a testament to that.
"I think my style since the beginning has always been a style that the UFC enjoys and that the fans enjoy, even though I'm a jiu-jitsu grappler. You know, I've always been kind of that jiu-jitsu grappler that will throw her hands to stay in ... broken nose ... brawl ... kind of different submissions," she says, gesturing wildly with her hands. "I think just my style alone is something that people enjoy seeing. I know that I'm not a boring fighter. I know that we're going to really set the energy and the vibe for the rest of the fights. I'm excited just to be back in front of a crowd in Jacksonville. I'm ready to feel that energy and live my moment. That's what I'm here for. I'm here for the fans. I wouldn't be here without them."
One fan that will be watching is daughter Moa, a frequent attendee of UFC shows whether Mommy is fighting or not. Moa might even have some cornering advice.
"My last sparring before I came out here, she was on the cage and she was saying 'Yeah, go Mom, go kick, OK, breathe, yeah, punch, punch," laughs Dern. "She was trying to coach me. She was so confident with what she was trying to instruct me to do. I'm thinking, man, that's crazy. Two and a half years old already, so confident with what she's seeing in the surroundings, bringing me water."
Moa has also had a front row seat to the less-glamorous aspects of MMA, including Dern's frequent trips to the doctor and the physical therapist. As such, she hasn't yet expressed an interest in becoming a fighter, and that's fine with Dern.
"I hope she decides to be a surfer, just travel the world on the beach and have fun," she says, nodding to the day job of her husband, professional surfer Wesley Santos. "Honestly, I don't I don't know if I will be ready to see my daughter get punched in the face when she's older."
It's humorous as she says this for those that have followed Dern's career. After becoming a decorated world champion in jiu-jitsu, her father Megaton—the man with the coral belt—didn't want to see his beloved daughter go into MMA for the same reason. He begged her to be a model instead.
The apple, it seems, does not fall far from the proverbial tree.
"I won't be surprised if she wants to do it," says Dern. "If she decides to be an MMA fighter, I'll support her no matter what."
This story first published at UFC.com.