The women’s flyweight division is becoming one of the most promising weight classes in all of MMA, and Bellator title contender Ilima Macfarlane is ready to lay claim to being the cream of the crop.
Macfarlane, undefeated in six professional bouts, meets Emily Ducote (6-2) for the inaugural Bellator flyweight title at Bellator 186 on Friday at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Penn. It will be the second time that Macfarlane has faced Ducote, one of several hungry up-and-comers in the promotion’s 125-pound division.
Though Bellator had dabbled in women’s flyweight fights as far back as 2011, it’s fair to say that plans to promote the division began in earnest around Aug. 28, 2015, when Macfarlane made her debut with the organization at Bellator 141, where she won a split decision over Maria Rios. Over the next few years, more 125ers would be recruited and given a considerable push, including Ducote, Anastasia Yankova, and Heather Hardy, all the while Macfarlane kept knocking off whatever competition was put in front of her.
Macfarlane’s résumé is solid, albeit against opponents who have a similar level of experience to herself. That makes any definitive claim to flyweight supremacy problematic as there are several established names scattered across the globe that are currently vying to be the queen at 125 pounds.
Invicta FC champion Jennifer Maia is unbeaten since 2014, veterans Roxanne Modafferi and Barb Honchak are two frontrunners of The Ultimate Fighter 26 tournament that will soon crown the UFC’s first female flyweight champion, and others like Rin Nakai, Ariane Lipski, and Andrea Lee have all been making waves in their respective promotions.
Asked if she thinks a title win at Bellator 186 makes her the best flyweight in the world, McFarlane’s answer is emphatic:
“Yes. I do.”
If you’d asked Macfarlane where she stood in the flyweight pecking order three years ago, she’d probably wonder what the hell you were talking about.
MMA wasn’t supposed to turn into a career for the Honolulu native who turned 27 this past April, three weeks before submitting Jessica Middleton at Bellator 178 in what would turn out to be her final audition for the role of title contender. Macfarlane originally saw combat sports as a means to exercise, but she showed enough promise that her coach Manolo Hernandez pushed her to compete.
Championship gold was hardly a blip on the radar.
“Hell no. My long goal, honestly, was to lose weight. I had no intention of even competing when I first joined the gym,” Macfarlane said in a recent interview with MMA Fighting. “And then my coach convinced me after a couple of months, he’s like, ‘I think you should do a smoker.’ After I did a couple of those, he’s like, ‘I think you should do a couple of amateur fights on the local circuit. It kept going from there and I guess once I did a couple of amateur fights and he proposed the idea of me going pro, I was like that would be kind of cool. A bucket list kind of thing to just tell people like, hey yeah, I fought professionally, but I didn’t expect to go fight for a big promotion nonetheless be fighting for a belt after a couple of years.
“It was definitely never my initial goal, but I have been setting goals as they become reachable. It was probably after my Rebecca Ruth fight when Scott made the announcement that they wanted to crown a champion, that’s when I was like, that’s the next goal, to get that title shot.”
That goal has meant a lot of changes for Macfarlane, who had a reputation for playing as hard as she worked. Prior to the Middleton fight, Macfarlane had to cut out a lot of bad habits and she underwent an even more dramatic overhaul after a recent trip to Panama motivated her to embrace a pescatarian diet, which allows for seafood, but no meat.
On the cusp of her first major championship, Macfarlane has put the old Ilima behind her, at least for the foreseeable future.
“For this camp, I’ve been crazy, tunnel-vision focused,” said Macfarlane. “Typically for my other camps, I would stop drinking like four weeks out, but for this camp I haven’t had a drop of anything. I actually haven’t done anything for over three months, which is a record, and I’m not saying that the ‘Party Ilima’ is completely gone, but I do enjoy this healthy, pescatarian, meditating Ilima lifestyle I have going on. It is kind of nice. I think that it’s that stage of my life where if I want to accomplish these goals that I have, maybe it is time to not rage as hard as I once did. But at the same time I do like to have fun, I do think it’s part of my personality, if you ever met my mom you would totally understand where I get it from. She totally likes to rage.
“Obviously, I’m under the public eye a lot more, I’m under scrutiny a lot more than others, so probably I’ll be refraining from posting the crazy videos of our nights out, but Party Ilima is still there.”
Macfarlane has really had no choice but to mature as her profile has rapidly grown and she’s become a representative not just for herself but for her team and her native state of Hawaii. If there was any question that “The Ilimanator” is becoming a responsible adult, look no further than the fact that she’s set to open up her own 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu franchise gym in Oahu, an undertaking that she has taken the lead on.
Not too bad for someone who went from the wrestling team at Honolulu’s Punahou School (the same prep school that Barack Obama attended in his youth) to MMA stardom. Still, some things never change, and as much as Macfarlane has found balance and control outside of the cage, there’s still a fire that emerges on fight night, an experience she describes using the Hawaiian phrase ‘tita’ (pronounced tih-tuh).
“‘Tita’ is a girl who likes to fight in Hawaii,” said Macfarlane. “I don’t really know how to explain it much more than that, but I guess whenever we’re like, ‘Oh that girl is such a tita,’ I guess a girl who doesn’t really care. She does what she wants to do. If she gets into a scrap then she’s scrapping. It’s funny because there’s this thing we call a ‘tita bun,’ and it’s a hairstyle, and sometimes I post it on my social media, but when a girl is about to fight she puts her hair up into a tita bun and that’s just putting your hair up so that it’s a loose floppy bun and they can’t pull on it. So that’s what a tita is, and the tita is going to come out.
“It’s not going to be the nice Punahou-educated girl, because Punahou was a private school and there was a zero tolerance policy there, so even if you got into a fight off-campus and the school found out about it, you would get expelled or get in trouble. So I grew up totally a private school girl, never been a fight before in my life, but yeah I guess once the cage door closes then my inner tita is going to come out.”