“The most challenging aspects of being a champion..”, muses Ilima-Lei Macfarlane ahead of Bellator 236, “… is learning how to do everything else. Not letting the shining lights and all of the material things and wealth get to you.”
Even at this relatively early stage in her career, Bellator’s Ilima-Lei Macfarlane has voiced a sentiment echoed by some of the most dominant and prolific MMA champions the sport has ever witnessed. This level of steely-eyed focus is evident in Macfarlane’s adherence to grappling fundamentals, and a smooth, yet explosive submission game.
From Humble Beginnings
Macfarlane hails from Honolulu, Hawaii, one of the sport’s nerve centres for naturally gifted martial artists. Ilima-Lei, ever the natural athlete, originally found great success in basketball. This came to an unfortunate end due to ongoing knee injuries. After college, the future Women’s Flyweight Champion was drawn to Crossfit and eventually the San Diego Martial Arts Academy. Here, she began training with women’s MMA legend Liz Carmouche in 2009.
Her natural affinity for MMA shone through. This resulted in a 5-0 amateur record culminating in one of the most viral professional debuts of all time. It goes without saying that this sent her rocketing into the collective consciousness of MMA fans worldwide.
The Big Time
Not soon after, Macfarlane signed a 3-fight deal with Bellator MMA. This fight saw the grappler add more depth to her game with Muay Thai striking alongside takedown defense. Already, Macfarlane was showing maturity in training and in planning – something typically unseen in such inexperienced talent.
From here on out, The Ilimanator carved her way through the women’s Flyweight division, racking up 3 submission victories and one unanimous decision win on her way to the championship against Emily Ducote.
Whilst their first match went the distance, the rematch for the title at Bellator 186 would go very differently indeed.
In their first encounter, Macfarlane was all but forced to employ the trademark unorthodox 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. This ensured she was causing Ducote difficulty even from the bottom. This eventually led to a slow but sure shifting of momentum with regards to the ground game in Ilima-Lei’s favour.
In their rematch, however, it was clear that Macfarlane’s ground game had simply evolved beyond what Ducote was able to contend with. By the 4th round, this left her attempting to pick-and-move and throw leg kicks from range to avoid any grappling exchanges. This saw Emily on the receiving end of crisp counter punches and a seemingly new-found power that lasted the duration of the bout.
Ultimately, this was to no avail, as Macfarlane was able to pull her into guard and submit Ducote with an armbar in the 5th round all stemming from that rubber guard.
The Queen Claims Her Throne
The rest, as they say, is history. Macfarlane’s visible and well-documented talent and discipline led her to 4 straight title defences in as little as 18 months, once again displaying elite level grappling, true grit in the championship rounds and even devastating ground and pound.
At this stage, it’s easy to draw parallels between Macfarlane and a certain other female fighter who enjoyed early dominance in her career.
Both drew viral attention almost immediately, both enjoy/enjoyed dominant championship streaks in a fledgling division, and both have a submission game that it seemed their opponents may never have an answer for.
That, however, is where the similarities begin and end. Despite sharing the Bellator Women’s spotlight with only one other woman in the newly recruited Cris Cyborg Justino, and despite her even appearing in music videos, Macfarlane seems somewhat ambivalent to the media attention.
The Ilimanator has both feet squarely planted in her profession, as well as her evolution as a martial artist. This has led to performances leaps and bounds ahead of even her most previous outing.
It’s with these improvements that Macfarlane was able to develop a headstart over her division. Moreover, one could argue that this is also what is allowing her to remain ahead.
This is where her path seemingly deviates from other fighters. At this point, it is clear Ilima-Lei Macfarlane will not be a cautionary tale in the same vein as the Ronda Rousey’s of the world.
The champ embodies a rigid dedication to the improvement of one’s craft. Her displays inside the cage and her comportment beyond all of this have added a true legitimacy to the Women’s flyweight division. Not only does this provide up and comers a true precipice to reach for, but it also sets the blueprint for what is necessary to reach it.
Soon, we will look back at these seminal moments in Bellator’s women’s divisions. At that point, there will be no doubt that Ilima-Lei Macfarlane will stand out; not only as an elite contender but also as the one who created the road to immortality by daring to tread it first.