From November 2017 to December 2020, the MMA world had only known one name as the Bellator flyweight titleholder. Unbeaten in any competitions dating back to 2014, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane tasted defeat for the very first time to head into the new year.
A constant provider of excitement as well as an inspiration to her home of Hawaii, Macfarlane’s last time out was far from what she’d grown accustomed to in more ways than just the end result. Arguably Bellator’s greatest homegrown talent, the former champion’s entire pro career, except for her debut, has taken place inside the Bellator cage.
Throughout this journey, some of the biggest and most unique moments in the promotion’s history were created. Most notably, Macfarlane carried two events on her back with Bellator setting up shop in Honolulu. Unsurprisingly, the atmospheres were about as unique as we’d seen in the sport’s recent years. That all went away in 2020 due to the global pandemic.
Naturally feeling like she performs best in front of live crowds, the energy Macfarlane has been able to feed off of is typically unlike any other. Against Juliana Velasquez in her unanimous decision title loss, the arena was empty.
Therefore, from a strategic point of view, the “Pineapple Princess” isn’t necessarily clamoring for an instant rematch under the current circumstances. At the same time, she does want to prove she can fight in any situation and show it just wasn’t her night on December 10.
“I’m so embarrassed about my performance,” Macfarlane told MyMMANews. “It’s just one of those things, I don’t want to watch that sh*t. I’m not embarrassed that I lost, I’m just embarrassed that it was so boring. I really thought we were gonna throw down and it was going to be this crazy fight, back and forth. It was so not like that at all, it was the complete opposite. It’s not a fight I would want to watch normally if it was two other people so I don’t want to watch it especially (laughs).
“It’s like yeah, whatever, I lost, move on. I just feel a sense of relief almost or more so a sense of newfound freedom and autonomy. I’m doing a lot more things I wouldn’t have done had I been the champ. Not because I couldn’t, Bellator has always been very supportive of what I do but I just feel like I don’t have to second guess myself like, ‘Okay, will this affect me as champion or could this potentially be bad?’
“Basically, I can focus my energy elsewhere and not just ‘Alright… champion. I have to do champ camps,’ so it’s kind of nice,” she continued. “Just like I’ve adjusted to COVID, I’ve adjusted to this life of not being champion and I feel like I’m doing pretty well, I’m good.”
Directly after her encounter with Brazil’s Velasquez, Macfarlane took to the Bellator 254 post-fight press conference and shared her sense of relief. The championship pressures alone are enough to get the best of any great competitor, add on top a perfect 11-0 record and they’re only intensified.
Macfarlane famously admitted several fights prior that she goes into every fight expecting to come out on the wrong end. Now that it’s actually happened, a weight feels lifted. When one door closes, albeit potentially temporary, a new one opens.
“It would be cool to be that fighter who takes a fight on short notice,” Macfarlane said. “Realistically, I can’t do that right now because I’m fat as sh*t, so I just got to get my weight under control then I can do it but even if they were to have a full camp… and fight when I’m not injured, I feel great, I can jump in like right after. I’m talking about more so like that. I think that would be really fun, and travel overseas, go to Europe, hopefully, if they open up. Just things that I wouldn’t normally have considered when I was champion, I’m considering now.”
Macfarlane is open to all possibilities. Whether it be continuing to do some analyst or commentary work for Bellator or Lux MMA in Mexico, or even the somewhat new-ish fad that seemingly is boxing crossovers.
When it comes to overall pressure relief, however, Macfarlane removed some baggage ahead of her last fight as well – or at least, she’s in the process of fully doing so.
In April 2020, the Honolulu native filed a civil lawsuit in the Hawaii court circuit alleging former Punahou School assistant basketball coach Dwayne Yuen of sexually abusing Macfarlane and her sister Mahina when they were students between 2003 and 2006.
The suit stated that the Macfarlanes went to administrators of the school board in 2004-2005 but nothing came of their pleas for help and protection. Fast forward to the present day and Macfarlane notes that she’s been flying home a lot as of late for the court process.
“It’s actually been in the works since about 2018, and the reason we decided to go public when we did was because the statute of limitations was about to end,” she said. “That’s why we had to come out when it was announced. It’s still in litigation so that’s why there’s nothing that’s public knowledge yet.
“As far as the reaction, it was really good on certain platforms – or very supportive. People had our backs on a lot of platforms but, of course, there’s going to be negativity around it and I was not surprised that most of the negativity was the f*ckin’ MMA platforms. MMA fans suck. What a surprise! (laughs)
“But I already know not to care about any of that sh*t because they all suck anyway,” Macfarlane added. “I could seriously save a child out of a well and MMA fans will still be like, ‘F*ck you, whore!’ They’re just insane.”
Although Macfarlane is now without her shiny Bellator title belt, she remains in a great place and is living life to the fullest – despite what any of the trolls may have to say.
Over time, the 10th Planet BJJ product’s 125-pound division has deepened tremendously. So much so that two years ago talk began of a possible flyweight Grand Prix tournament. This coming around Macfarlane’s third-successful title defense when finishing Veta Arteaga with a slicing elbow to the forehead.
If anything, the new undefeated champion 11-0 champion in Velasquez is proof of the weight class’s development.
Just in 2020 alone, Bellator made big moves with signings like the seasoned 125-pound legend, Vanessa Porto. Also on Macfarlane’s radar was the official addition of rising 10-0-1 Japanese prospect Kana Watanabe – a fighter that the former champ could easily see herself matched with soon.
In the meantime, Macfarlane has just stayed busy by competing in her first Submission Underground grappling match. Coming out victorious, the “Ilimanator” submitted UFC contender Jessica Eye and now aims for a possible June or July return to MMA action.
“It’s great, I’m so excited,” Macfarlane said of flyweight’s depth. “Every time Bellator signs new girls, every time they do well in their fights or debuts, whatever it is, it’s better for the division overall, it’s better for the promotion, it’s better for myself.
“I’m very excited whenever I hear about new signings. I annoy [former Bellator Matchmaker] Rich [Chou] so much, I’m always texting him, ‘Hey, what about this girl, hey, I think you should match these people up.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m the matchmaker…’ (laughs) But yeah, I’m super pumped.”
As artistic of a field as MMA is, it’s quite alone in its uniqueness compared to your usual arts. Macfarlane remembers asking some of her musician friends if they’re super competitive or all friendly because in MMA, it’s just going out and bloodying each other up – it’s not as “catty” as outsiders may think.
In the end, mastering the arts and bettering oneself in the process is the goal. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane has always been about that – MMA related or not. Yet here we are, recognizing her as one of the sport’s best and most crucial figures for her division.
It’s been quite a different path traveled as opposed to where she thought she’d be at 31-years old.
“I used to always say I would be an NFL wife,” Macfarlane said. “I didn’t have to aim for it, I was actually with an NFL player – he wanted me to be an NFL wife. I didn’t want to, I was like, ‘I want to fight!’ So… If I didn’t get into fighting I’d probably be married with kids and be a teacher. Because that’s what I wanted to do. I was going to school to be a teacher [teaching history or social studies].
“But it’s so hard to say now because obviously, I’m a completely different person, I have a completely different mindset, I’m like, ‘F*ck no, I ain’t gonna be an NFL wife.’ So I really can’t tell you, but I can probably say I’d have a couple kids.”
Drake is an MMA writer based out of Brush Prairie, Washington, USA who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. He has been a passionate fan of MMA ever since 2009. Drake has most notably written for BJPenn.com, FanSided, The Body Lock, South China Morning Post, MyMMANews, WhatCulture, Cageside Press, Sherdog, The Scrap, and MMA Today. He has also written for and created video content for RT Sport. As for other sports, Drake is a longtime fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @DrakeRiggs_ . Also check out all of his video content on YouTube at YouTube.com/DrakeRiggs where he uploads fighter interviews, podshows, and various other types of content.