This weekend in the co-main event of Bellator 220, Hawaii’s very own; Ilima-lei MacFarlane takes on Idaho’s Veta Arteaga in a flyweight title clash.
‘The Illimanator’ recently burst onto the MMA scene in 2015, going 6-0 before getting a shot at the vacant Bellator flyweight title in 2017. Ilima-lei would go on to win the flyweight crown by defeating Emily Ducote in spectacular fashion; securing an armbar finish in the 5th round.
Fast forward the clock to 2019, and Ilima-lei is still undefeated, now at 9-0 with three successful flyweight title defenses to her name. So far it’s been something of a quadratic rise to greatness, with Ilima-lei going from being completely unknown to being on the brink of super-stardom in a relatively short time-span of just four years.
I caught up with Ilima-lei last week to preview her upcoming fight at Bellator 220, and to try and get a real sense of how she can cope with the immense stress and pressure of being a cage fighter.
What got you interested in MMA?
It’s a pretty interesting story actually. In college I was over-weight, I had fell victim to the party lifestyle here in San Diego and I was an athlete my entire life, but this was the first time I was overweight and unhealthy, so after I finished my under-grad, I decided to join a random gym that I passed by every day on the way to work, and it just so happened to be an MMA gym and it went from there, and before I knew it, I was fighting for a world title.
If you didn’t get into MMA, what do you think you would be doing now?
I would either be a school-teacher; I was actually going to school to become a social studies teacher before I got into fighting. So I would either be doing that, or I would be an NFL wife, if that makes any sense. I was in a really serious relationship before I started fighting where I was engaged to an NFL football player but it didn’t work out.
Your last fight at Bellator Hawaii was huge, how did you cope with all the pressure leading into it?
Oh wow, I really had to key into like the spiritual side of things and the mental side of things. As there was a lot of pressure going into that fight, I visualized a lot and prayed a lot. I was able to just be completely focused as soon as the cage door closed.
Are you relived in a way that this fight doesn’t have as much pressure and hype?
For sure, that fight was definitely the most pressure I’ve ever felt in my career so far. So by seeing how I am able to handle a fight like that, makes everything else just fun, as I know that I can do it! So now I can focus just on training, I don’t have to worry about having any mental breakdowns or anything, by proving to myself that I can handle that [sort of pressure] has made this a lot more enjoyable I’d say.
Last fight you had one of the best walkouts ever, how do you plan to follow it up?
Haha, hopefully Bellator can return to Hawaii sometime again soon, as we do have some great ideas for that. I think if we do have the opportunity to go back, I think fight fans all around the world will appreciate this idea we have. Though that’s not to say that this next walkout for San Jose isn’t going to be great, it is and there’s a theme and a very meaningful that we’ve prepared for San Jose, and hopefully we can get the message out across the world.
I’m curious if you got to see fellow Hawaiian Max Holloways fight against Dustin Poirier, and what were your thoughts on the fight?
Yeah, I watched his fight. It was bitter-sweet in a way because obviously I was pulling for Max, but I think Dustin is great too, he for sure deserved that win and the belt, he’s a legend of the sport. I also think it’s a win-win because Max went out there and battled like the warrior he is, he was gracious in his defeat and there was mutual respect between both fighters, there was nothing to be ashamed about. Max did his thing, even seeing [Max’s] coach congratulating Dustin was so incredible and it shows what an amazing champion Max is.
Now back to Bellator 220, you’re taking on Veta Arteaga (I butchered the pronunciation of her name), how do you feel you match up with her?
Haha, I think this matchup is really interesting and a lot of fun. Veta is an in your face, balls to the wall, she just doesn’t give an ‘F’ about anything type fighter. She is not intimidated by who’s in front of her, or by the bright lights, even if she gets her face split open she will still come forward. So I think this is really exciting, so long as I stick to the game plan and don’t get pulled into her game which is ‘standing and brawling’, I think I’ll be successful. This is the first fight where I’m super excited to stand and just get punched in the face and hit her back.
Outside of MMA, do you have any interesting hobbies?
I actually really love to karaoke. When I’m not in camp, I’m karaoking. I also really love to travel, I go on trips after each fight just to unwind. After this fight I’m going to Vietnam for a couple of weeks and then to Jamaica and I’m thinking of maybe going to Ireland in the fall when Bellator have their next event there.