Heading into fifth title defense, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane sees Juliana Velasquez as potential rival

Heading into fifth title defense, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane sees Juliana Velasquez as potential rival

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s legacy already includes numerous title defenses and building up enough cachet to convince Bellator to have her headline an event thousands of miles away from its base in California.

One thing her story is missing so far is a rival, a major component to the mythologies of most great combat sports champions. She believes Juliana Velasquez could be that rival.

Macfarlane (11-0) defends her flyweight championship against the unbeaten Velasquez in the main event of Bellator 254 this Thursday. It’s easy to see why Velasquez is considered the biggest threat yet to Macfarlane’s reign.

Alejandra Lara was the first woman to challenge Macfarlane for the title and like Velasquez, she brought a strong record to the table, but only one of her wins had come inside the Bellator cage. The second to challenge Macfarlane, Valerie Letourneau, was a strawweight title challenger in the UFC but unproven as a flyweight and her fight with Macfarlane took place in Hawaii, Macfarlane’s home.

Velasquez has worked her way through the Bellator ranks, winning all five of her fights to improve her pro record to 10-0, and she’s beaten Lara and prospects Bruna Ellen and Kristina Williams to earn her shot. One could argue that Velasquez’s title shot is overdue and that the belt is hers for the taking.

Count Macfarlane among those who are taking Velasquez seriously.

“I am actually really very excited for this fight because she is very hyped up,” Macfarlane told MMA Fighting. “Of course I get nervous before fights and everything, but this one I am so up to the challenge because I just want to test myself. Not to say that the other girls weren’t tests, but Juliana is just kind of a different animal and she’s definitely a much different test from my [previous] opponent. I’m really excited for the challenge and to see how I have evolved as a fighter.

“I like that you said that she’s very hyped-up because I have that feeling too. That there’s a lot of talk about this fight because we both are undefeated, we both have a similar number of fights. We’re both very well-rounded too. I believe she just doesn’t use her ground game because she likes to stand and bang.”

Rematches are not uncommon in Bellator and some of its most notable champions have had to knock off tough competition more than once. That hasn’t happened yet for Macfarlane during her title reign, but if anyone has the potential to become her nemesis, it’s Velasquez.

“I believe that we will meet again regardless of what happens Thursday,” Macfarlane said. “Whether that’s in a tournament or your normal rematch I do think that we’re the top two girls in the division and there’s gonna be a rematch.”

A win over Velasquez would not only give Macfarlane an even dozen, it would provide a memorable milestone as she approaches the fifth anniversary of her pro debut in January. Macfarlane, 30, fought just once before signing with Bellator—the infamous “Soccer Mom KO” that went viral in 2015—and has seen nothing but success as she’s learned on the fly.

If it seems to fans like she’s sped through her career so far, just imagine how it feels for Macfarlane herself.

“[The years]totally flashed by,” Macfarlane said. “I was actually just talking to a fellow fighter earlier and I was saying I’ve kind of accomplished all of these goals that I didn’t even intend, you know I didn’t even set these goals. But bringing MMA back to Hawaii, defending my title twice in Hawaii, selling out arenas for all of my title defenses, just where do you go from there? My first Bellator Hawaii was probably the highlight of my career and how can you ever top something like that.

“So yeah, I do take the time to reflect on what I have been able to accomplish in this short five-year chapter. It’s like, what’s my next goal in terms of my career? I’m not sure.”

Among Bellator champions, Macfarlane is one of the least experienced. However, she’s also set to have the longest active title defense streak in the company, for now tied with only two-division champion Patricio Freire.

That achievement could give her serious bragging rights, though she realizes she still has a lot of work to do to match their accomplishments.

“I didn’t even know that,” Macfarlane said. “That’s cool. Hopefully I get the win. I was actually looking at the Bellator website the other day and looking at all the champions and all of their records and I’m like, dang, everybody has, like, 20-plus fights and I have 11 fights and so I’m like, I’ve got to get more fights up there. Those guys, every other champion, they’re OGS, they’ve been in the fight business forever. They have 20-plus fights at least and so I feel like I’m kind of like the young grasshopper champion compared to all of them. I’ve only been fighting for a fraction of the amount of time they have.

“At the same time, even though I’m the little grasshopper champion, I have been able to be a pioneer like they are in the sense that this was a new division, I’m the inaugural champion, and I’ve been able to defend the belt four times already.”

And if she has a chance to mention her streak the next time she’s in the company of her fellow champions?

“I’m definitely going to talk trash to them.”

Watch Macfarlane’s Bellator 254 media day scrum here:

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