Next Big Thing: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane vs. Valentina Shevchenko

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

It has been a long time since MMA fans had a “dream” fight on the women’s side. Like Cyborg vs. Rousey, Macfarlane vs. Shevchenko may never happen. But it certainly would be interesting.

Dream fights are what makes MMA fandom fun. Lesnar vs. Fedor. Cyborg vs. Rousey. GSP vs. Silva. Now, you can add Ilima-Lei Macfarlane vs. Valentina Shevchenko to the list.

Just about the only pre-UFC mainstream women’s MMA fighter, Cris Cyborg succumbed to the vicious ‘Lioness’ Amanda Nunes at UFC 232. With that, a new era dawned for the women of the MMA world. The bantamweight division which was earlier ruled by the likes of Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, and Sara McMann; is now dominated by Amanda Nunes, Ketlen Viera and Aspen Ladd. The strawweight division which saw Carla Esparza, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz now has entirely different set of leaders in Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, Tatiana Suarez, and Livia Souza.

The featherweight division, which looked as though it wouldn’t see any change, instead saw Nunes dethrone Cyborg, while outside the UFC contenders like Olga Rubin and Kayla Harrison have gained relevance (to be fair, Harrison fights at 155, but cuts little weight in doing so).

However, the division which has managed to capture maximum fan attention of late is the flyweight division. Flyweights have been around for a long time, but surprisingly before 2016 were limited to Invicta and regional promotions. It was in the summer of 2016 where Flyweights got their first major break, when Joanne Calderwood faced Valarie Létourneau at UFC Ottawa. It was also around that time when Bellator started making serious investments in their own flyweight division. In fact, with the UFC initially only booking that single fight in the division, Bellator actually beat the competition to the punch.

Valentina Shevchenko made her UFC debut back in late 2015 and managed to rack up a win against former Strikeforce champion, Sarah Kaufman. After a loss to Amanda Nunes, where for the first time fans noticed that Shevchenko was undersized, Valentina skyrocketed to mainstream attention via a win over former UFC champion Holly Holm. Since that point, it became very clear that whenever the UFC flyweight division was created, it would be dominated by the fierce ‘Bullet.’ After a failed attempt at the bantamweight title, that saw Shevchenko lose to Nunes for a second time, she moved down and captured the flyweight title. Where it looks as if there is little to no competition for her.

Enter Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. Bellator had always had women’s MMA matches, but none of them materialized into anything in terms of star power. Until the ‘Iliminator’ arrived. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane entered the company at 1-0 in 2015 and by 2016 had become a popular fighter. Her name value grew, resulting in Bellator growing their flyweight division around the Hawaiian. Her efforts resulted in her finally becoming the inaugural women’s flyweight champion in 2017. Since then, she has defended the title twice and each time has drawn a considerable amount of interest. This makes her the only female non-UFC fighter who can draw something on her name in the United States. Thanks, no doubt, to the support she has in Hawaii, which makes her even more marketable.

As of now, the UFC has shown interest in promoting their new champion, Valentina Shevchenko. Both brands promoting their respective flyweight champion raises one question: who is the better fighter? The majority would lean towards Valentina given she has the UFC brand behind her, but Macfarlane has an amazing record in her own right. With their respective pulls, if a fight between the two builds and is marketed properly it can result in the MMA world finding their next female superstar.

Of course, the question is when, and how? With the two on opposite sides of the MMA world, so to speak, it seems unlikely. Then again, Cris Cyborg eventually joined the UFC (though the Rousey fight never materialized). Ben Askren, a former Bellator champ himself, is preparing to make his UFC debut. Other fighters have gone the other direction. So perhaps one day. Until then, it’s another great fantasy fight for fans.


  1. I’m a big fan of Ilima Lei, but she’s nowhere ready for Valentina. Her recent opponent, Valerie, was not even top 10 at 135 while many thought Valentina edged the BW champ, Amanda, in their title fight. It almost sounds like Angela Lee calling out Joanna J. last year. Now that could be a good fight – assuming Angela does well in her title challenge at 125, having Angela face Ilima Lei for a title unification. The fact that the two champions are both from and wrestled in Hawaii merely adds to the story line.

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