Ilima-Lei Macfarlane is once again competing on a big December card for Bellator MMA. However, Bellator 254 is far from the scenic Hawaiian locale that these late-year events are usually situated in.
For two years running, Macfarlane (11-0) has been the crown jewel of Bellator’s excursions to Hawaii, but the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to that in 2020. Instead, the promotion continues to hold out in the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, nestled in the impressive Mohegan Sun Casino.
There’s no complaint on Macfarlane’s part, however, about not being able to continue the Hawaiian tradition with Bellator. “I’m just grateful, because the fact that we’re even fighting — there’s a lot of people who haven’t been able to fight, who aren’t getting paychecks,” she observed during Tuesday’s Bellator 254 media day. “There’s a lot of businesses that have been forced to shut down because of this year.”
To even have the opportunity to compete, reiterated Hawaii’s Macfarlane, has her very grateful. “You won’t hear any gripes from me about not being able to be in Hawaii this time of year, because it’s fine. As long as I’m getting a fight, I’m totally cool with it.”
The promotion’s long-serving flyweight champ sees opponent Juliana Velasquez as a “lot more of an intimidating physical fighter than any of my other opponents. She’s bigger than me, has a longer reach, is really aggressive and physical.” The champ is expecting a tiring fight in the end. “I feel like my other fights were very strategic, but with her, it’s going to be a very physical fight.”
Many have proclaimed Velasquez as the toughest test of Macfarlane’s career. Like the “Iliminator,” Velasquez is an undefeated fighter. The Brazilian boasts a 10-0 record, and has looked dominant in Bellator.
Yet heading into the bout, Macfarlane explained that a lot of the pressure is off. “I’m just having fun with my fights. I’m finally being able to enjoy [them]. I feel like a lot of the pressure has been lifted off me because I have accomplished a lot in this division and in my career. And in the sport itself, I’ve accomplished a lot.” Which has translated into Macfarlane enjoying her camps, the evolution of her skills, and looking to “fun fights” like the idea of competing for RIZIN in Japan.
“Not taking my opponents lightly, but I don’t feel as much pressure as people think I have being champion, because I feel like I’ve done a good job of being champion, and reached a lot of the heights that one could reach in their career,” she added.
And all that said, when asked directly about the fight with Velasquez, “I consider it the biggest challenge so far,” said Ilima-Lei. While Valerie Letourneau once sat in that spot because of her experience and pedigree, “I would say that stylistically, Juliana is my biggest challenge to date. Not only is she a southpaw, which you don’t really fight a lot of southpaws, she’s bigger, she’s very physically strong, she goes for the finish, she has a very 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.”
Velasquez’s status as a black belt in Judo is another new wrinkle for Macfarlane as well. All those factors add up into a formidable title challenger. Enough so that with some oddsmakers, Macfarlane is now the underdog in the fight, if by a slim margin.
“I don’t even understand how odds work,” Macfarlane admitted, adding she’s never really bet on anything in her life. “I also don’t care about numbers going into a fight. I never have. If I did care, I feel like that’s just my ego speaking, and you want to try to stay away from ego as much as possible before a fight.”
Watch the full Bellator 254 virtual media day press scrum with Ilima-Lei Macfarlane above. Bellator 254 goes down this Thursday, December 10 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. The main card airs live on CBS Sports Network following prelims that can be found on Cageside Press.