Ilima-Lei Macfarlane was in a car with her father after just arriving in Hawaii last Sunday, driving in Honolulu on the way to her family home. They were stopped at a traffic light when her dad suddenly became excited and pointed: "Look! Look! Look!"
Macfarlane looked. They were right next to Neal S. Blaisdell Arena and there, on the marquee, was her name in lights, as the headliner for Saturday night's Bellator 213. The 28-year-old (8-0) will be making the second defense of her flyweight championship, taking on Valerie Letourneau inside a venue "seven minutes away" from where she grew up.
Talk about a hero's welcome.
How rooted in Hawaii is Macfarlane? Though she now lives and trains in San Diego, she remembers competing at Blaisdell Arena during her childhood -- as a hula dancer. She attended a Honolulu secondary school whose most famous alum is Barack Obama. She was named after the official island flower of Oahu -- the ilima -- recognizable for its delicate yellow petals.
"It was considered a flower for royalty," Macfarlane said during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show on Monday, "because it would take hundreds of flowers to make a lei, they're so paper thin. You're going to see a lot of yellow [on Saturday night], because that's the color for Oahu. I'm totally repping everything Oahu for this fight."
That she's Hawaiian and wears a shiny Bellator belt makes Macfarlane the appropriate headliner for Saturday's event. But consider the flashy makeup of her undercard: former Bellator champions at both light heavyweight (Liam McGeary) and middleweight (Rafael Carvalho), former light-heavyweight champs from the UFC (Lyoto Machida) and Strikeforce ("King Mo" Lawal), a three-time NCAA Division I wrestling champ (Ed Ruth), and a multiple-time World Jiu-Jitsu Championships medalist bearing a surname that connotes MMA royalty (Neiman Gracie).
"What a huge honor it is. Max kind of got this started," Macfarlane said, referring to fellow Hawaiian Max Holloway, who defended his UFC featherweight championship last Saturday. "He started the train of Team Hawaii Week this past weekend. And in about two weeks, it's going to be BJ's turn." That would be BJ Penn, the former UFC lightweight and welterweight king and a Hawaiian MMA legend, who fights at UFC 232 on Dec. 29.
"You can totally feel the vibes down here," said Macfarlane. "We're on a roll right now."
When Bellator announced weeks ago that it would be bringing its fights to Hawaii, said Macfarlane, "I totally cried." She asked the promotion to set aside 300 tickets for her. "I immediately texted my family and said, 'You guys, don't leave for the holidays. I'm coming home.'"
The inaugural Bellator flyweight champion, who has reigned for a year, will be facing a 35-year-old veteran of the sport. Letourneau (10-6) challenged Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight championship back in 2015 -- the same year Macfarlane started her professional MMA career.
Macfarlane, despite ranking No. 2 in ESPN's new women's flyweight rankings, recognizes that she is young in the game. When she watched No. 1-ranked flyweight Valentina Shevchenko win the UFC belt last weekend, her immediate thought was not a callout. "Valentina's a monster," Macfarlane said. "She's been doing this for a long-ass time, and I've been doing it for three years -- that's how long I've been fighting as a professional. So just on experience alone, she'd probably beat me nine out of 10 times. But all I need is that one shot."
That one shot would involve jiu-jitsu, where Macfarlane owns a brown belt that has enabled her to submit five of her professional opponents. "I was watching Valentina and thinking, 'Wow, she's really perfected her striking,'" she said. "And I feel the same about my ground game. I've perfected my jiu-jitsu. I feel like I have the best ground game in the division."
Still, no callout -- not for herself, anyway. Macfarlane is quick to point out that her teammate, Liz Carmouche, is the only fighter to finish Shevchenko, getting a TKO by doctor stoppage in 2010. Carmouche went on to compete in the first women's title bout in UFC history, in 2013, almost derailing the "Rousey Express" before she tapped to a Ronda armbar.
"I'm campaigning for Liz to get the title fight," said Macfarlane.
In that spirit of selflessness, Macfarlane is putting on a luau after Saturday's fight. Poi, pig, poke, beer, hula dancing -- the whole traditional party. She has invited her friends and family, of course, and also the whole Bellator entourage -- including Letourneau, her opponent. "It doesn't matter, the outcome of the fight," said Macfarlane. "The invite is still there. I just want to show her the aloha spirit."