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Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane understands the timeless phrase better than most, especially as an ambassador for Bellator MMA, flagbearer for Hawaiian mixed martial arts and headliner of a rare major mixed martial arts event on her native island. Moreover, she will confront it all while facing the most significant test of her young career.
Macfarlane, 28, inquired about Bellator taking its traveling show to Hawaii for much of the last year. However, she never pushed hard on the notion and had begun to lose hope about it ever coming to fruition. When the decision was made to finally promote a Bellator event on the island, it caught her off-guard.
“I really didn’t think it was going to happen,” MacFarlane told Sherdog.com. “I had no idea. It almost makes me think Bellator had it in their back pocket. Props to them for keeping it a secret and being able to do it so soon.”
With Macfarlane on the marquee for Bellator 213 this Saturday at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu, the reigning women’s flyweight champion admits to feeling the heat.
“One hundred percent, there is way more pressure on me now than there has been for any fight,” Macfarlane said, “but it’s what I asked for. I almost feel like I manifested this. I put it out into the universe and it came back.”
Getting what she wants comes with greater expectations, as Macfarlane will defend her title in front of a raucous crowd of supporters as part of a historic event. With that said, she feels prepared for the circumstances.
“I’m ready for it,” Macfarlane said. “I feel like I’m ready as a person, as a fighter [and] as an ambassador. This is what I wanted, and now it’s here.”
The San Diego-based Team Hurricane Awesome representative remains confident in her readiness because of what she dealt with ahead of her most recent fight. In her first assignment as a headliner at Bellator 201, Macfarlane retained her 125-pound championship with a third-round submission on Alejandra Lara at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California in June. The venue was not far from her gym and home. Supporters either made the drive from San Diego or took the five-hour flight from Hawaii to see her compete.
“I had tons of family come up, and that was insane,” Macfarlane said. “Fight week was honestly the most exhausting fight week of my life.”
She remembers having cameras follow her throughout the day -- every day -- during the week. Macfarlane estimates she only had a couple of hours of silence and alone time in the seven-day run to the event. With that in mind, Macfarlane set guidelines with her loved ones ahead of Bellator 213 so they could be a part of the journey but respect the focus required to make it a successful effort.
“As soon as I found out about Bellator Hawaii, I talked to my family,” she said. “We made the necessary arrangements [and] everybody completely understands, so I’m like, ‘You know guys, do not talk to me about tickets. Do not talk to me about shirts. I am going to block you. I love you, but I need to focus on this.’”
Macfarlane even flew in one of her cousins to assist her during fight week. Headlining a Bellator event, defending a title and doing it all in your home state seems stressful enough. However, Macfarlane will face all of those challenges while locked inside the cage with Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Valerie Letourneau -- an opponent she views as the most difficult obstacle of her eight-fight career. Letourneau has appeared in twice as many bouts as Macfarlane and faced elite-level competitors like Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha.
“She is the best opponent I am going to go against [yet], and I say that because she is a next-level opponent for me,” Macfarlane said. “She has only fought the best in the world, [and] she is a pioneer in the sport. This is going to be a real test.”
The path to victory seems clear for the Hawaiian. Macfarlane must stand and strike when necessary before exploiting her advantages on the ground. She admits engaging in a five-round standup battle with Letourneau does not qualify as an optimal game plan.
“I’m not under the illusion that I can stand and strike with her for all five rounds. I keep it real. I am not trying to do that with her,” Macfarlane said, while admitting the Canadian presents challenges everywhere. “Valerie is no slouch on the ground. She’s been doing jiu-jitsu for a long time. I’m not expecting to have an easy time with her on the ground, but I am expecting to have that edge.”
Macfarlane was quick to pay homage to her Hawaiian heritage and the role it continues to play in her competitive spirit.
“I think people are going to be surprised that I don’t mind standing up and striking,” she said. “I don’t mind throwing down. Fighting has been a part of our blood. Our ancestors were warriors. It doesn’t matter if we are a black belt in jiu-jitsu, we’ll stand and bang. The fighting culture in Hawaii is really big and not even [just in] organized MMA fights. I mean like street fighting, too. A lot of times, you’ll see people fight on the street and then shake hands afterwards. It’s just part of our culture.”
Wherever the fight with Letourneau plays out, Macfarlane believes opponents worry more about her than she does about them.
“For the most part, I think she’s preparing for my game plan,” she said. “I think I’m at that point in my career where my opponents are preparing for me, not necessarily the other way around.”