Ilima-Lei Macfarlane is coming off the ultimate high of fighting, a night back in December that was closer to the final scene in a sports movie than a typical championship title defense. But she is stepping back into reality Saturday night.
Macfarlane was the star of Bellator Hawaii, the first major MMA event in her home state of Hawaii in years. As a local product, she stepped into the Neal Blaisdell Center, the same building where 10 years earlier she won the high school state wrestling championship, and retained her Bellator flyweight title over Valerie Letourneau.
The scene, from the emotional native-themed walkout — easily one of the greatest in MMA history — to the reactions of the sellout crowd, was incredible. The crowd did a big wave to start the third round, and Macfarlane then finished Letourneau with an armbar submission to retain her championship. The crowd reaction ranked with any in MMA.
”I was trying to keep it together,” Macfarlane said of the period right before the fight started. “I was crying backstage in the locker room and I was crying in the staging area. I got it together, I thought, ‘I’m good,’ and when I walked out, I made eye contact with my brother, and all the emotions came back.”
But when she got in the cage, she was able to flip the switch.
”This comes from hours of visualization,” she said. “It clicked, it switched back.
”Now that I know I can do that under those circumstances, I can do anything.”
Macfarlane heavily planned her walkout, to the point where she even asked Hawaii’s two most famous fighters, Max Holloway and B.J. Penn, to be part of her entrance, but both weren’t down with wearing the malos, the loin cloth-like outfit of the guys in her entrance.
”It seriously took weeks to fully recover from everything,” she said. “I stayed another week in Hawaii, thinking it would be my down time. But I had zero down time. I had maybe a half hour to myself in my hotel room before I had to go to the afterparty. I was in my bed thinking, ‘I can’t believe this really happened.’
”I love Hawaii. I love the people. In Hawaii, we truly have the best fans in the world. One, we’re probably all related, so it’s like family. They’re not bandwagon fans. If we win, lose, or get knocked out in the first round, they’ll have our backs to the end. They’re ride or die fans.”
Even weeks later it felt like it was a dream.
”It was kind of a blur. I had to relive everything through social media, re-watch stuff,” she said. “It still feels like a dream. I really took a long time to recover. I went to Cuba, where there was no Internet. Me with a lot of books, that was my time to relax.”
Saturday will be very different. Macfarlane (9-0) will defend her “accidental” flyweight championship against Veta Arteaga (5-2) at the SAP Center in San Jose, one of the most storied buildings in U.S. MMA history.
The fight is part of one of Bellator’s major events of the year, a DAZN exclusive headlined by Rory MacDonald defending his Bellator welterweight championship against San Jose’s Jon Fitch in a bout that doubles as part of the first round of the welterweight tournament.
“Veta’s a badass,” she said. “I think she’s like a caged animal. I think she definitely deserves this title shot. Every single one of her fights has been a barnburner. She brings it every time. The two fights she lost were controversial. Everyone thought she deserved to win both of them. I expect her to come out guns blazing. Some days I think I’m going to run through her and some days I think I’m going to get knocked out. I flip back-and-forth. Veta, I respect her very much as the fighter she is.”
But the week of the fight is completely different from the last time.
”I feel so much less pressure here in San Jose,” she said. “Bellator Hawaii was the most incredible week of my life. I loved it, but I can’t do that every time I fight. I don’t have the emotional capacity for that. I welcomed fighting in San Jose.”
Still, Macfarlane has a special walkout planned. The theme of the entrance is water, the Hawaiian wave. She’s hoping that the nickname of the arena, the Shark Tank, which constitutes water, and her own underwater training nickname, bull shark, will bring her luck.
”I have some autonomy now, so I asked if I could fight before June, because June is my 10-year high school reunion,” Macfarlane said. “I know people think that’s really lame, but you didn’t go to my high school.”
Macfarlane attended Punahoa High School, a school that has produced 13 Olympic medalists, television and movie stars, a number of major stars in a wide variety of sports, as well as President Barack Obama.
”I go to see my school every time I go to Hawaii, I go to see my teachers, I even talked to the students fight week. I want to party at my 10-year reunion,” she said.
”I was really excited when I found out I was going to fight here, because it’s Bellator’s headquarters and it has a long fighting history with Strikeforce, which I just learned this fight week. When I came here in September, it was a really cool atmosphere.”
Her friends nicknamed her the accidental champion because this was not a career path she chose, as much as a path that chose her.
”Hell, no,” she said when asked if she ever thought about being a fighter growing up.
”I actually grew up playing basketball, I wanted to go to the WNBA. I wanted to go to college and play basketball. I tore my ACL. I had a few surgeries and I couldn’t play anymore. But I could still wrestle. After those knee surgeries, I gave up the dream to play basketball. I got a scholarship for wrestling to Menlo College (in Northern California), but at the time I felt like I was never going to play sports after high school.”
Instead, she went to San Diego State.
”I partied super hard, and my weight got up to 175 pounds,” she said. “I walk around now at 140 and fight at 125. I got really big in college. When I finished my Bachelor’s and was waiting to get into a grad program, I had the summer off. I had joined a Crossfit Gym and an MMA gym, Liz Carmouche’s gym. I said I’ll do both of these and whichever one I like, I’ll stay with. I came to lose weight and get in shape.
After some training, Macfarlane’s coach, Manolo Hernandez, asked her if she wanted to try a smoker, and after that went well, he asked her to try an amateur fight. She ended up doing nine of them and was recommended that she go pro and get paid for it.
”At the time I was in a grad program, so I thought, I’ll do it for the bucket list, just to say I did one pro fight,” Macfarlane said.
She won that fight in 10 seconds and Bellator called, offering her a three-fight contract.
”I’d just received my Master’s degree, I had a few months before looking for a big girl job, and Bellator calle,” she said.
Macfarlane called her parents, and after all the money they had spent putting her through college and graduate school, she wasn’t sure how they’d react.
”I said, ‘How would you like it if I started fighting a little bit. It’s a three-fight contract. It won’t be long.’ They said,’Do it while you’re able.’ Four years later, here I am.”
”I definitely fell into it, but I do believe it was part of a plan.”
She said she didn’t even think of herself as a fighter until beating Rebecca Ruth three years ago. When she beat Emily Decote in her next fight, she decided to quit her job waiting tables and focus completely on fighting.
”It wasn’t until I won the belt (her second win over Ducote on November 3, 2017) that I thought this is my career and this is what I’m going to do,” she said.
When Macfarlane won the championship, the idea was to fight until the age of 30. That’s far from the plan now.
”I just turned 29, [my 30th birthday] coincides with the end of my contract,” she said. “I wanted to have babies, start a family, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t even have a boyfriend. Kids, I can hold off on them. I’m doing well in my career. Why should I stop? We’ll see what happens next year when my contract is up. I’d love to continue fighting if my body is able. I’m one of the fortunate fighters who haven’t suffered a mitigating injury so far.”