SAN DIEGO — Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and her coach, Manolo Hernandez, usually see eye-to-eye, like you’ll find in any good trainer-fighter relationship. But they do have a bit of a disagreement on one subject: How fast they knew Macfarlane was going to make it big in the mixed martial arts game.
“It took like three years to even admit to myself I might become good at this,” Macfarlane told MMA Fighting. “That light bulb just went off. Even when I started competing, it was still as a hobby, it wasn’t serious. Even when I went pro with Bellator, I still just, yeah, it’s a temporary whatever. It wasn’t until, I think, the first Emily Ducote fight, I thought maybe I can make this my career, my full-time job. It took awhile.”
Hernandez, for his part, has bona fides in the sport that date back to Ken Shamrock’s legendary Lion’s Den, so he knows talent when he sees it. And he insists he sensed there was something special from the moment Macfarlane stepped into his 10th Planet San Diego gym.
“I knew she had the potential to be a world champion from day one,” Hernandez said. “I know that’s going to sound like bullshit. I almost never say that about anyone. But I knew from the very beginning that Ilima’s determination and athleticism and attitude, that all the building blocks were there from the first day she hit the mat.”
In this case, we’re going to have to side with the coach, as there’s an abundance of evidence Macfarlane is pretty damn good at what she does.
At 8-0, the 28-year-old Macfarlane has six finishes, is the inaugural Bellator women’s bantamweight champion, she’s shown signs of being a breakthrough television attraction, and, oh yeah, the Honolulu native will headline the first major MMA event in her home state in nearly a decade when she meets veteran Valerie Letourneau at Bellator 213 on Dec. 15 at the Blasidell Center in Honolulu.
But despite the sort of fast success which has brought down many a fighter before her, Macfarlane refuses to let the accolades or her coach’s praise get to her head.
“The people I surround myself with, my friends, if you met my family and you’d see how and they’d be the first to call me out and keep me in check,” Macfarlane said. “The people I surround myself, the coaches, the teammates, they will not have a problem calling you out.”
Macfarlane’s fight in Honolulu will represent something of a full-circle moment. Macfarlane thought she had left her athletic career behind once and for all at the Blasidell Center, competing there in the Hawaiian state high-school wrestling championships in 2009.
“I was totally done with sports after that wrestling match,” she said. “I had no desire to play sports again. I suffered a knee injury in high school and had to have a couple surgeries, so I I had no plans on ever being able to compete at this level.”
Macfarlane found herself working as a waitress at a Coco’s restaurant in San Diego’s Mission Valley, and as part of her daily commute, she would pass by Hernandez’s gym, which by this point had been put on the map as a leading women’s MMA camp through Liz Carmouche’s pioneering success in the sport. One day, she finally decided to give it a try.
“I would literally pass by this place every day going to work,” Macfarlane said. “And I remember the sign they had at the time, it was all ghetto looking and missing letters. It was just a ghetto little warehouse gym, but one of my friends joined cardio boxing here and she was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool, you should check it out’. One day I just popped in and Liz was working the front desk, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to try it,’ and I went to an MMA class with him and then as I was leaving I talked to Liz again.”
Hardcore MMA fans have had Macfarlane on their radar for a while now, as she gained earlier notoriety due to her involvement in the notorious “soccer mom” knockout in her pro debut. But she soon thereafter earned notice on the basis of her real skills, earning one submission win after another and finally earning the first Bellator women’s flyweight belt with a fifth-round submission over Ducote at Bellator 186.
One title defense later, the timing is right for Macfarlane’s return to Hawaii. As it turns out, Bellator kept the Honolulu fight a secret from the champ all the way until she got to the airport for the trip to her media tour and received her itinerary.
“It was nuts,” Macfarlane said. “First of all, they kept Bellator in Hawaii a secret from me, up until I left pretty much. So they kept it a secret from me, and they just were like, ‘Keep this time open for a press conference.’ I asked where and they were like, ‘You’ll find out when you get your itinerary.’ So I was like, what, I need to pack? I was waiting, I didn’t even know Hawaii. It wasn’t until I received my itinerary and it said I was going to Hawaii that I was like, alright, it’s going to happen. I’m fighting in Hawaii.”
Once there, Macfarlane went on a hometown press tour like most fighters never receive, visiting the Blaisdell Center, Aloha Stadium, her high school, and to Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office, where Ilima-Lei Macfarlane Day was proclaimed in the city on Sept. 17, and where the champ used the platform to state her advocacy for the right’s of Hawaii’s indigenous people.
“I wasn’t sure how legit it was I was. Like, ‘Do they do this often? How many other people?’ And so I didn’t really do any research on it,” she said. “But people were like, no, it’s a big deal. It’s a legit, big deal. That was really cool, and our mayor is a pretty cool guy. I made it clear to him I am very pro-indigenous rights and native issues, and he was really cool. He was down to earth and we had a nice long talk, so it was cool.”
After the buzz of the whirlwind tour wore off, the reality set in: Macfarlane is going to be the star of the show, the hometown hero in the main event. She says she’s doing her best not to fixate on the enormity of the day.
“I totally just know how important this is and the gravity of it, and I’m just trying not to freak out,” Macfarlane said. “That’s why I’m like, ‘Oh, whatever,’ because I understand it could be [big] so I’m trying not to freak out. I already knew for sure it’s going to be emotional for me so I try not to freak out too much.”
And besides, Macfarlane has a legitimate foe awaiting her in Letourneau, a well-respected former UFC strawweight title challenger who is 2-0 in Bellator since making the jump in 2017.
Macfarlane knows the battle between the Hawaiian and the Canadian may not make for the greatest of trash talk headlines, but she promises the bout will deliver when the cage door is locked.
“I would say this is going to be the nicest fight, the Canadian against the Hawaiian, the two nicest places,” Macfarlane said. “So yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Me and Valerie have a good relationship. We’re cool with each other, we’ll comment on each other’s stuff on social media, we have the same manager, so there’s no bad blood. We’re going to go out there and try to rip each other’s heads off, but it’s out of respect for each other and the sport.”