October 14, 2019

Grappling With Limitations: UFC Tampa Losses Prove Mackenzie Dern and Kron Gracie Must Evolve To Apply Their BJJ To MMA

By Raphael Garcia

It’s a challenging feat for any man or woman to walk into the Octagon and compete at the highest levels of MMA. That challenge is multiplied when it comes with the burden of carrying a legacy as well. Kron Gracie and Mackenzie Dern walked into UFC Tampa on Saturday with long resumes of success in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu behind them. Many were expecting them to lead a resurgence of BJJ in MMA, but after their performances on Saturday, it’s clear that there’s a need for improvement before they can progress to the upper echelons of their respective divisions.

Both Dern and Gracie lost tough bouts that were contested on the feet, suffering their first defeats. It was clear that Amanda Ribas and Cub Swanson, both BJJ black belts in their own rights, went into their bouts with the intention of keeping the fight on the feet. They both achieved their goals on their way to victory. It’s rare that stats tell the whole story in an MMA contest, but the numbers from both Gracie’s and Dern’s defeats on Saturday have a lot to say.

Gracie and Dern both implemented game plans that saw them use aggressive flurries on the feet in hopes of getting into grappling range. However, they were swinging wide shots that allowed their opponents to counter with crisp, straight attacks of their own. Dern and Gracie combined to land 106 of 345 significant shots; that means just 30 percent of their attacks landed. Plus, they completed a combined zero of eight takedown attempts. The game planning against the two fighters worked flawlessly, and it’s a challenge that they should both expect to contend with in the future.

In many ways, Dern and Gracie's styles represent an outdated application of BJJ to MMA. Yes, each is a threat to end a fight at a moment’s notice when it hits the floor. But the way they are looking to get the fight to the floor will no longer work at these levels of MMA. Walking in with a high guard throwing haymakers will open space for more precise strikers to land shot after shot.

We saw Ribas land punches down the middle, while Swanson tore into Gracie’s body with kicks and punches. Dern telegraphed single leg after single leg, all of which were stuffed by Ribas. Gracie tried to pull guard, but Swanson immediately disengaged and forced the fight back to the feet. And not only are high-level fighters prepared for these types of strategies on the feet; they also spend hours in the gym honing their BJJ. Swanson and Ribas may not be at a level to win an ADCC gold medal, but they can do enough to apply their craft in a manner that helps them win MMA fights.

Now let’s compare Dern and Gracie's approach did to another BJJ standout in Ryan Hall. Hall competed at ADCC back in 2009 and 2011, taking home a bronze medal in the 66-kilogram division in 2009. And while that isn't the same level of success as Dern and Gracie in that tournament, he has been able to apply his BJJ skills in MMA in a different, more successful way, putting together a four-fight UFC win streak.

If you look at Hall’s four fights in the Octagon, one thing stands out and surprises most people: he out-struck all of his opponents. In nearly 18 minutes of action, he has out-landed his opponents in significant strikes 111-46. He absorbs less than one significant strike per minute, while landing two of his own.

What’s different? Hall has mixed in his striking in a manner that allows him to manage distance, negate damage, and score points, knowing that his opponent will not take the risk of a takedown because of what he can do on the floor. And instead of wading in with strikes in order to attempt to pull guard, Hall uses the unconventional Imanari Roll to enter into the legs, which can bring the fight to the ground, forcing his opponent to work to get the fight back to the feet. What may seem like he’s throwing himself to the floor is actually a calculated tactic to get the fight to the ground without putting himself into dangerous range and absorbing too much damage. It’s a departure from the grappling-based strategies that hindered both Dern and Gracie on Saturday.

MMA is a compelling combat sport because the fighters continue to evolve. Mackenzie Dern and Kron Gracie must now do the same thing with their respective game plans and fighting styles, because modern top-level fighters have long figured out the strategies that will defeat their current ones. They both lost for the first time this past Saturday at UFC Tampa, and if they do not change things up, it won’t be the last time.

UFC on ESPN+ 19
Mackenzie Dern vs. Amanda Ribas: Amanda Ribas def. Mackenzie Dern (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).

UFC on ESPN+ 19
Kron Gracie vs. Cub Swanson: Cub Swanson def. Kron Gracie (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).

UFC on ESPN+ 19: Joanna vs. Waterson took place October 12, 2019 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN+ 19 Post-Fight Analysis


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