UFC Vegas 61: Dern and Yan Look to Shuffle Strawweight Pecking Order

Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan, UFC Vegas 61
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 30: (L-R) Opponents Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan of China face off during the UFC weigh-in at UFC APEX on September 30, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC strawweights Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan will be looking to make a statement about their place in the title picture at UFC Vegas 61.

For the past two years, it is clear that there is now always a place in the strawweight title picture for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace Mackenzie Dern.  The Arizona native who now calls Southern California home has amassed an impressive 12-2 record largely within the UFC and has emerged as one of the top female prospects turned title hopefuls that the sport has seen since women were brought into the fold in 2013.  Behind her skills and strong presence on social media (1M followers on Instagram alone), Dern is widely considered one of the most popular non-champions in the entire sport.

Saturday’s bout comes at a crucial time in the strawweight division as there are two high profile fights on the schedule and a dominant former champion waiting in the wings.  For Dern, a 2021 loss to Marina Rodriguez keeps her on the outside looking in with other potential options for the next title shot and thus maintaining her place in line relies on holding off the other up-and-coming contenders.  While a title shot is not expected with a victory, it would put her in line for an eliminator depending on how the next several months shake out.

For Yan Xiaonan, Saturday marks a serious opportunity to become a breakout star in strawweight division.  After putting together a strong 15-1 mark to begin her career, including a perfect 6-0 in the UFC, Yan was widely considered one of the biggest dark horses in not only the strawweight division but the entire roster.  Under the radar with a huge opportunity last year, she found herself on the wrong end of a one-sided bout with future two-time champion Carla Esparza in a performance through the proverbial bucket of cold water on her title aspirations.

As luck would have it, she found herself in another high profile opportunity as top contender Marina Rodriguez sought to stay active.  Yan pushed the Brazilian standout to the limit but ultimately lost the fight via split decision.  Regardless, several pundits and many fans scored the bout for Yan which provided a validation of sorts that her run to reach the title eliminator against Esparza the year prior was on the merit of her abilities.  This makes Saturday all the more crucial from a rankings standpoint.  Considering it is her third straight high profile bout, Yan will also need to show that the third time is the charm if she seeks to secure that coveted title shot while she is at the height of her abilities.

Yan should look to utilize her movement and boxing to keep the Brazilian at bay and replicate the game plan set by Rodriguez.  Volume, movement, and counter-striking will be the key to neutralizing the athleticism and entries from Dern but Yan will need to execute the strategy efficiently across a potentially 25 minute fight.  Dern must use great shot-selection to work the legs and body to affect the mobility of Yan and make her a more stationary target.  Dern’s gas tank across five rounds has been proven but the key will be to effectively setting up takedowns and using her vaunted submission attack from the top position.

The strawweight division has several women in the title picture awaiting to see who prevails in the championship fight between Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili in November.  Firstly, top contender Marina Rodriguez is the consensus top contender and is expected to remain so should she prevail in her upcoming bout with Amanda Lemos on November 5.  Secondly, former champion Rose Namajunas remains firmly in the title chase and an immediate rematch with Esparza (should the champion defend her title) isn’t out of the question.  The winner between Dern and Yan is expected to factor into a high stakes bout in their next outing, with a possibility to compete for the title next depending on how the upcoming bouts play out.