Macfarlane says that it is because of promotions like Bellator and president Scott Coker that women headlining in fights sports has grown
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane might think Brazilian Juliana Velasquez is her toughest challenge to date, but the Bellator champion insists she’s not feeling the pressure heading into her fifth title defence this Thursday.
Bellator’s flyweight queen from Hawaii headlines the fight league’s final night of 2020 against a fellow undefeated fighter in Velasquez, who is four years Macfarlane’s senior, and 10-0 in MMA.
Macfarlane remains one of Bellator’s brightest stars despite almost a year on the sidelines and her return is highly anticipated, especially given the hype surrounding Velasquez.
“Stylistically Juliana is my biggest challenge to date,” Macfarlane said. “Not only is she a southpaw – you don’t really fight a lot of southpaws – she’s very physically strong, she goes for the finish and has an extremely similar record to mine.
“And I think her mentality too, she’s ready to be champion. She works hard and she wants this a lot.
“Stylistically too, although she likes to stand and bang, she’s a black belt which I’ve never faced before. Definitely my biggest challenge so far.”
Every time Macfarlane competes expectations are high. The 30-year-old has looked sensational at her best and was the leading light on Bellator’s female roster before the arrival of Cris Cyborg.
Macfarlane is still Bellator’s one and only female flyweight belt holder and the Hawaii native revealed she is finally starting to enjoy being a champion.
“Honestly I feel like I’ve already made history quite a bit. Regardless of the outcome on Thursday I’ll still be in the history books,” Macfarlane insisted. “At this point to be totally honest, I’m just having fun with my fights.
“I feel like a lot of the pressure has been lifted off of me because I have accomplished a lot in this division and in my career and in the sport itself. I’ve accomplished a lot.
“At this point in my career I’m really starting to enjoy the process and enjoy the camps, enjoy the evolution of my skills as a mixed martial arts.
“I want to take fun fights, I want to fight overseas, in the ring. I want to do a cross promotional fight with Rizin. Now I feel a lot more relaxed.
“Not taking my opponents lightly but I don’t have as much pressure as people think I have being champion, because I feel like I’ve done a good job being champion and reached the heights one could reach in their career.”
Macfarlane has finished the last two years with a triumphant return to Hawaii as the headliner there. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that trip impossible and instead Macfarlane-Velasquez will be staged at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
Bellator has pitched its tent at the casino resort since they resumed events in July and Macfarlane actually thinks not fighting in her hometown will be good for her.
“For me personally I don’t think it makes a difference. I think it’s kind of a nice change up,” she said. “There’s a lot less going on, a lot less I need to focus on and I can just focus on making weight and the fight.
“However, I do think the disadvantage of it not being in Hawaii is for my opponent. Because my opponents, to be fighting in my home town in front of that crowd is intimidating and is a huge mind fuck for them.
“You can see it when you watch those fights. When they introduce my opponent and the whole crowd is dead silent, you can hear a pin drop. There will be occasional boos but it’s dead and then my walk out comes. I think that can be very mentally intimidating for my opponents.”
“I think that will be a big difference. It doesn’t really have any effect on me but it does on my opponents.”
Macfarlane also noted the growth of women’s MMA this year, praising Bellator president Scott Coker for his work in promoting female fighters.
“I think it’s because of promoters like Scott Coker,” said the fighter known as ‘Iliminator’. “Scott has always been supportive of women’s MMA. I would say he was the one who gave a stage and platform and spotlight for women in MMA.”
“I think it’s individuals like him that have allowed women’s MMA to excel and he’s the one who is putting us as headliners. He’s never doubted us from the beginning. Compared to other promotions who have, they have literally went out and said ‘we will never the women fighting in the cage ever’ but uncle Scott has never said that, he’s always been supportive of us.”
“It’s because of guys like him that we don’t have to fight so much for stuff like equal pay or opportunities to headline or sell out events. It’s because of promotions like Bellator and promoters like Scott Coker.”
Bellator 254 is live on Sky Sports from midnight on Thursday Dec 10.