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Ilima-Lei Macfarlane further validated her place as one of the sport’s premier flyweights when she retained her Bellator MMA championship with a third-round submission of Valerie Letourneau some four months ago. “The Ilimanator” will put her title on the line again when she meets Veta Arteaga in the Bellator 220 co-main event on April 27 at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
Always honest and forthright when discussing her career, the 29-year-old Macfarlane admits to having some internal doubts heading into her showdown with Letourneau, a well-traveled veteran who was once the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s No. 1 contender at 115 pounds.
“My head was all over the place before the fight,” MacFarlane told Sherdog.com. “Am I ready for an opponent like Valerie Letourneau? Am I ready for this type of stardom? It was just so many thoughts in my head, and the fact that I was able to do all of that and come out with the win and the finish, it proved more so to myself that, yes, I do belong there.”
Facing an opponent of Letourneau’s caliber would be difficult under any circumstances, but Macfarlane had to do so in a main event in her hometown of Honolulu -- a city that had not played host to a major mixed martial arts promotion in over a decade. She was emotional during her walk to the cage at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center, tears welling up in her eyes. For Macfarlane, the reaction was not out of the ordinary.
“I actually get emotional for a lot of my walkouts,” she said. “The minute I step in the cage, [it becomes] ‘Alright baby, let’s go.’”
Once a fight starts, nervous energy often remains. However, MacFarlane claims she had no such issues during her battle with Letourneau, especially after she tasted the American Top Team rep’s punching power.
“I was actually really calm the entire fight,” she said. “I get nervous when someone can hit really hard, but [her punches] just didn’t feel hard at all.”
In fact, Macfarlane believes Letourneau struggled to get her composure under control.
“Honestly, I wasn’t nervous, because I thought that she was more nervous than I was. For some reason she seemed very tentative, in my opinion,” she said. “I really do think that the crowd that night maybe got to her a little bit. When she walked out, it was dead silent. If I were her, I would have felt in a really weird position.”
Letourneau still proved resistant to the champion’s advances, with some observers believing she did enough to win the first two rounds. However, Macfarlane landed a pivotal takedown and submitted the Canadian with a triangle midway through the third. It was a defining moment for the undefeated Team Hurricane Awesome standout.
“I think that was my career high. That was the peak of it. I can retire happy now,” Macfarlane said with a laugh. “I always think, ‘How are you going to top that moment?’ I really don’t know. It was like four months ago, but people are still talking about it. Every time I re-watch that fight or the walkout, I still get emotional.”
By defeating Letourneau, Macfarlane managed to get past the mental and spiritual difficulties she often endures before a fight. The process includes seeing a sports psychologist, a shamanic hypnotherapist and even dabbling in the Lakota tribe tradition of Inipi, i.e. a “sweat lodge,” where an individual goes through a spiritual purification and rebirth. MacFarlane believes these techniques help her visualize future events and outcomes, improving her mental preparation should they occur. Her pre-fight ritual paid off against Letourneau.
“I definitely proved [something], not just to everybody watching but to myself the most, because I wasn’t sure,” Macfarlane said. “I was my own biggest critic. It was very validating.”
A title defense against Arteaga comes next. The 31-year-old Combat Fitness export has compiled a 3-2 record in Bellator, her two losses resulting from split decisions to Anastasia Yankova and Bruna Ellen. She has Macfarlane’s respect.
“I actually think Veta is the most dangerous opponent I’ve ever faced, because she is the most aggressive, in your face, zero Fs given fighter that I’ve ever gone against,” she said. “I really truly mean that.”
Macfarlane has worked tirelessly to add new wrinkles to her game. She has upped the level of her muay Thai training to incorporate more elbows and kicks, and she has made it a point to focus on “stabilizing [and] securing the position” on the ground. Arteaga has already shown a strong ability to scramble and return to a standing position when taken down. Macfarlane has also continued her work with Deep End Fitness and its Underwater Torpedo League. She linked arms with the organization, run by former Special Operations Marines, prior to her encounter with Letourneau. The underwater training focuses on CO2 and VO2 max tolerance.
“A lot of times when you see fighters gassing out and sucking wind, it’s not necessarily their cardio,” Macfarlane said. “It’s their muscle endurance. Their muscles are just fatiguing, and they’re not able to oxygenate it.”