Every fighter has lofty goals when starting a career in combat sports. Some have moderate hopes, while others just know they are destined for great things. Bellator MMA women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane falls into the latter group.
“I have always felt I was meant for big things,” said Macfarlane, who carries a perfect 7-0 record.
There is not a brashness to her confidence, just an inherent understanding that this was always a part of the plan. Macfarlane is one of many fighters the California-based promotion has slowly groomed for greatness during the Scott Coker era. However, just six fights into her tenure with Bellator, the 28-year-old is already proving to be one of the top stars of the roster. Earning the promotion’s inaugural women’s flyweight championship in her most recent appearance, Macfarlane has garnered main-event billing in her first title defense: a showdown with the once-beaten Alejandra Lara in the Bellator 201 main event on June 29 in Temecula, California. Despite her quick rise to prominence, the champion seems keenly aware of her lack of experience as professional fighter.
“Seven fights is still pretty green in my eyes,” McFarlane said. “I think that there is 110 percent room for improvement and growth.”
Macfarlane has zeroed in on a few weaknesses.
“The area I can improve in the most would be kicking,” she said. “I think I’ve kicked a total of three times in my professional career.” While kicks could add a new wrinkle to her attack, do not expect her to be throwing head kicks anytime soon. “Anatomically, I am not meant to do that. My hips are not flexible.”
Lara will enter their match at 7-1 and finds herself at a similar stage in her career. She catapulted herself to a tile shot with a win over 17-fight veteran Lena Ovchynnikova -- a respected grappler who had secured eight of her 12 victories by submission -- at Bellator 190 in December. Ironically, Lara beat the Ukrainian at her own game, as she submitted Ovchynnikova with a rear-naked choke in the third round. While Macfarlane sees similarities between herself and the upstart challenger, she believes she has the advantage.
“I think I’m better, especially with my 10th Planet [Jiu-Jitsu] background,” Macfarlane said. “I think I’m going to be a lot tougher on the ground and give her a bigger challenge.”
Aside from the internal pressure of preparing for an opponent, there is also the pressure a fighter may feel from being in his or her first headlining slot of a major event. Yet McFarlane claims she does not feel any different in the run-up to Bellator 201.
“My last camp was probably way more intense,” she said, pointing to the preparation that went into her first five-round fight.
Macfarlane credits those around her for teaching her to deal with the media obligations that go along with being a champion.
“My coaches and my team, ever since the beginning, have been preparing me,” she said. “They felt that something big was going to happen with me.”
Macfarlane’s relationship with the promotion she represents as champion also aided in her development. She indicated she talks to a Bellator representative almost daily.
“It’s cliché to say,” Macfarlane said, “but I really do consider them like my family.”
That family atmosphere brings comfort to the fighter during the hectic schedule of a championship fight camp. The career path for female fighters in the sport can be quite different from their male counterparts. Similar to other industries, objectification can be inherent for female pugilists, especially for a fighter at the forefront of a major promotion. McFarlane understands the fine line female fighters have to walk to make the most of their celebrity while maintaining the reverence of a legitimate competitor.
“I think that there are some fighters that have handled it very well, that have been able to make a name for themselves and create an image that doesn’t tie into the whole [sexy side],” she said. “I think [UFC women’s strawweight champion] Rose Namajunas has done a fantastic job of not being objectified by the media. It’s a tricky line and it might be unfortunate, but you also have to remember that it is a business. It’s all what your comfortable doing.”
Despite her young age, McFarlane seems to have a clear grasp on the business side of the sport and the reality that fighting careers do not last forever. She understands the need to strike while the iron is hot.
“I know that it’s going to be over one day,” she said, “so I might as well ride the waves and just enjoy the ride.”