HONOLULU – Ilima-Lei Macfarlane will return to competition for the first time in 499 days when she steps in the cage Saturday at Bellator 279. It’s the longest layoff of her career, but one that at a point could’ve been permanent.
Before her hiatus, Macfarlane (11-1 MMA, 10-1 BMMA) was arguably the face of Bellator. She was an undefeated women’s flyweight champion putting on impressive performances each time out, but then she ran into Juliana Velasquez at Bellator 254 in December 2020, and her momentum came to an abrupt halt with the loss of her title by unanimous decision.
The time since has been filled with struggles and big decisions for Macfarlane. She returns against Justine Kish (7-5 MMA, 0-1 BMMA) in a Showtime-televised main card matchup at Neal S. Blaisdell Center in her native Honolulu, Hawaii. However, there was a period where this moment was far from certain.
“I knew after I lost, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to fight again.’ – but I wasn’t in a rush necessarily,” Macfarlane told MMA Junkie and other reporters at Thursday’s Bellator 279 media day. “Then as I fell into that comfortable, non-fight-camp routine and the happy married life and like, ‘Maybe we should start a family now.’ I was like, ‘OK, maybe I should just retire.’ Just having issues with my knee when I was trying to train. … Once I figured out the knee situation and got that taken care of a little bit and I started a real camp, then I got the date for Bellator Hawaii, that’s when all that went out the window and I was like, ‘OK, I’m not anywhere near retirement.’ I can put off having babies for a couple more years and finish out my fight career.”
Macfarlane said she enters Bellator 279 with a sense of peace of relief. She admitted after her loss to Velasquez that the pressure of being champion was becoming immense as the expectations around her grew larger.
Not holding the title or being the main event has Macfarlane feeling very different for this fight, though, and she said her mind is at ease for the upcoming clash with Kish.
“I think for sure it is a nice change-up not having that invisible target on your back, but also getting a one-pound allowance (at weigh-ins),” Macfarlane said. “That’s what I’ve been really looking forward to, because I don’t have to weigh in at 125. I get to do it at 126, which is really nice. And preparing for this fight I was preparing for 15 minutes instead of 25. So that was also really nice. There’s a number of different reasons why not having the belt has made this camp really just kind of mellow almost. Same with fight week, it’s really mellow.”
Macfarlane isn’t content with staying in this position forever, though. She said she wants the title back around her waist, but won’t rush to make it happen. Her resume would be more than worthy if she gets past Kish this weekend, but Macfarlane said she doesn’t intend to campaign for a title fight immediately, and instead has another approach in mind.
“I actually think that I want one more fight – if all goes well this Saturday – I would like one more fight before the title shot again,” Macfarlane said. “I’m keeping a very close eye on the Denise Kielholtz and Kana Watanabe fight on the London card in May. … This fight on Saturday, for me, is my comeback fight and a test to see how my body holds up from the layoff and from the surgery and everything. So, I don’t necessarily want to jump back into a title fight camp if I can’t even handle preparing for a regular fight.”