For a country of its size, Hawaii has produced a disproportionate number of successful mixed martial artists. B.J Penn, Travis Browne, Brad Tavares, Max Holloway, Louis Smolka…the list goes on. Now it’s time to add a rising star to that list.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane started her professional career in 2015 after going undefeated in the amateur circuit. Since going pro, Ilima has amassed a 4-0 record with two submission victories, one KO and one decision win.

Despite being an athlete all her life Ilima’s emergence onto the professional MMA scene was an unexpected turn. Moving away from a safe, potential career in teaching, Ilima has shown that though she mightn’t have initially planned to make money through fighting, she’ll be making waves in Bellator women’s 125lb division for the foreseeable future.

Aiding Ilima’s rapid rise was her choice of gym. San Diego Combat Academy and Team Hurricane Awesome have provided her with a staple of high-level athletes to train with from Liz Carmouche to 10th Planet Black Belt, Richie Martinez.

Ilima filled us in on how she got down the MMA path, how she thinks she matches up with her next opponent Emily Ducote, and whether she still has her eyes set on Anastasia Yankova

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane ahead of Bellator 167

Image: Facebook


The Neversphere: …just enjoying the start of summer down here in Australia.
Ilima: Oh yeah, I was going to ask where you’re from. Do you guys celebrate Thanks Giving over there? I’m always curious if other countries have the same holidays as us.
The Neversphere: No we don’t actually, we have to hang out until Christmas until we get some time off unfortunately. So, let’s start from the beginning. What lead you down the path of a professional mixed martial artist?
Ilima: It’s just something that happened, really. It wasn’t in my plan at all when I joined the gym. I joined the gym just because I was fat and out of shape. It went from that to, ‘OK, Ilima do you wanna fight one fight?’. And I’m like, ‘yeah, I guess I’ll try it’, an amateur show. One fight lead to six or something, and that lead to, ‘Ah, Ilima, do you want to go pro?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that…so I can tell people that I was a professional fighter’ and then that lead to me being signed by Bellator.

It was all very unexpected and definitely not planned at all. I was actually in graduate school, I’m not sure what they call it down there in Australia, but I was in college to become a teacher. So this is definitely something that just happened.
The Neversphere: Was there any indication that you’d be good at this line of work earlier in your life?

Ilima: Well, I grew up an athlete. I come from a family of athletes and it was always my dream to play ‘ball in college. I thought I was going to go to college on a basketball scholarship. But then I got injured in high school, had to get a couple of surgeries on my knees and the prevented me from playing basketball again.

That’s when I decided to focus on wrestling. And yeah, I really enjoyed that competition, you know, one on one. It’s just you and that other person on the mat. Other than that there wasn’t realy any indication that I’d make fighting my profession. I’ve never been in a fight before in my life, like literally I’ve never been in a street fight before, I’d never even thrown a punch. I was a good private school girl, so I was too scared to fight. I was a weenie growing up actually! So yeah, no indication whatsoever. [Laughs]

A photo posted by Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (@ilimalei) on

The Neversphere: What’s the reason behind you moving to San Diego Combat Academy, why aren’t you training in your native Hawaii?
Ilima: Well, I didn’t start fighting at all until I came up here to the mainland, which is weird because Hawaii is like, all about fighting.

I came to San Diego to go to school, as soon as I graduated high school I moved up here to attend San Diego State University – home of the Aztecs – and once I finished my undergrad then that’s when I joined the gym, San Diego Combat Academy, and I was actually in graduate school when I joined, and I was competing in the amateur circuit the whole time I was in grad school. Then after that I received my masters – that’s when I turned pro and went to Bellator.
The Neversphere: How’s Team Hurricane Awesome? That’s an awesome team name by the way…
Ilima: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s amazing. Monolo – he’s our head MMA coach. It’s such a fan atmosphere and an amazing environment, and I love that it’s a small gym. I mean, we have a lot of members but it’s a small gym and I love that because it makes us all so close, we definitely have a very family oriented vibe there.

I’ve been to other gyms, not necessarily to join, but just to train and I don’t get that same vibe that I get from my gym, you know? Everyone’s so close and awesome. Yeah. Team Hurricane Awesome.
The Neversphere: In previous fights cardio was a focal point for you, has there been a specific focus for you this time round?
Ilima: Yeah, so one of my other head trainers, Bill Cooper, he’s in charge of my striking and all of my conditioning. And dude, this guy has it down to a science already. He’s been doing this for years. He is like 50 something, I think, and he’s in like amazing shape. He’s a ficken machine.

He definitely has everything down to a science. Cardio hasn’t really been one of my strong points I would say, but I feel great for this fight and I think a lot of that is not only attributed to Bill but also because of the intensity of our camp has really been elevated.

That’s because Liz Carmouche fought at UFC 205 and she was my main training partner this whole time. We did our camps together and that meant that I had an extended camp, that I started when she started. My camp was extended by like three weeks and also the intensity was way more than what I’m used to. So my trainer Bill wanted me to know that this is what I’m going to be doing from now on, just because now I’m at that level.
The Neversphere: And during camp do you watch tape on your opponents?
Ilima: Yeah, I mean…my past fights I would totally stalk the shit out of them. I’d go on social media, try to find anything I could, see what they’re up to. And for some reason this fight camp I watched her fight a couple of times and I was like, ‘good, alright.’ I let my corner handle that, they’re the ones who come up with the game plan and strategise and everything.

I just had no desire to look at any of her stuff and I don’t know why that change came about. I think it’s mainly because I’m confident in my game and my ability, where I’m finally finding my rhythm, I’m finding my style, what type of fighter I am.

And I think it’s because me and her have the same exact style pretty much, so I already know what she’s going to do. Maybe that’s why?

I’m finally coming into myself as a fighter and I’m confident in my abilities.

Emily Ducote. Image: Facebook

Emily Ducote. Image: Facebook

The Neversphere: You’ve definitely shown that you’re well rounded, so how do you see the fight with Ducote playing out?
Ilima: I see it going all three round, going to the judges. And I think it’s because me and her are very well rounded. We’re comfortable on our feet, we’re comfortable on the ground, but we’re also very durable. I feel like we’re very difficult to finish. That’s why I don’t see it – unless she knocks me out with that overhand right she has – I see it going to the judges, to be honest [laughs].
The Neversphere: [Laughs] So at least that’s something you’re very aware of then. You always seem so calm not only in the cage but around it as well. Is that legitimate or is that a façade you’re putting on?
Ilima: Well…no it’s legitimate. I mean…I’m always nervous, of course…
The Neversphere: …Of course!
Ilima: …but I’ve never been one to really be emotional…Even during wrestling I never flipped out or wigged out or anything. I think that’s just how I am. In my last fight I got emotional after the fight when the finish happened, but…my emotions were really high going into that fight just cause my coach was in the hospital…under the bright lights, my parents were there…but otherwise, yeah, I consider myself a composed fighter. I don’t fly off the handle or swear, or talk shit or anything.

But who the fuck knows? When I fell off her back and yelled, that was like instinctual. I didn’t plan that; it just came out. Anything can happen in a fight.
The Neversphere: Although you’re facing Ducote on December 3rd (Dec. 4th Australia) there’s still been a lot of media attention around your back-and-forth with Anastasia Yankova. She scraped out a decision win in her last fight, did you watch that fight and what did you think of her performance?
Ilima: I did watch that fight. That was actually the same card that Emily [Ducote] was on – where she submitted a black belt. I was very interested in that card in particular. And yes, I did watch Anastasia’s fight and, honestly, I was not impressed. She did not look like a world champion kick boxer. In my honest opinion. It was also a very annoying fight to watch, because both girls were just fucking swinging, like it almost seemed as though there was no technique.

And you know I’m not by any means a technical striker, I don’t consider myself a technical striker, but at least like change levels and take her down. There’s so many times where she left herself so wide open to be taken down. I think the grappler side of me was disappointed that you didn’t see any ground game at all – except Anastasia being knocked on her ass. That was as much ground game as you saw.

So yeah, that fight was annoying to watch but whatever, congratulations Anastasia. She got the win. I think she still kind of skirted the question when they asked about me, she was like “oh I don’t know, I want rematch” or whatever [laughs].


The Neversphere: [Laughs] That’s a good impression. So she’s clearly still in your sights?
Ilima: Oh yeah, I still got my eyes on her. I’m still watching that girl, seeing what she’s up to.
The Neversphere: We cover music as well as MMA at the Neversphere so I have to ask, what’s your currentl walk out song and does it have any special meaning to you?
Ilima: Yeah actually, my walkout song is Make It Bun Dem by Damien Marley. That song always pumps me up and coming from Hawaii I love my reggae music, add a bit of Skrillex in there and it really pumps me up.

Also one of the main reasons I love that song is the music video; it’s really sick. You know, I’m native Hawaiian, I identiy a lot with indigenous people across the world, especially native Amercians. I’m actually part Native American…my Dad took one of those DNA tests and he’s like 0.08% Native American, and I’m like, ‘I KNEW IT! I knew we had a little bit’. Our struggles are exactly the same, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, our histories are basically parallel to eachother.

So, if you haven’t seen the video for Make It Bun Dem it’s about this Native Amercican family that’s being evicted by the white man. And how they’re channeling their ancestors’ energy and spirits to fight off the white power.

I think it’s also super appropriate right now, there’s a bunch of our brothers and sisters fighting for clean water right now in North Dakota. And also I’m fighting out of Oklahoma – I think it has the highest population of Native Americans.

Happy Skanksgiving everyone. While you're enjoying this holiday of giving thanks, remember that there are people still fighting for their rights to clean drinking water…IN THIS VERY COUNTRY. Sending my love, mana and gratitude to the warriors at Standing Rock. You are all braver than I am. Ea! #NoDAPL #rezpectourwater #waterprotectors #kukiaimauna #standwithstandingrock

A video posted by Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (@ilimalei) on

So I’m just feeling all, connected and everything. And like, fighting for them.