'I'm an MMA fighter – I don't want to be judged by how pretty I am'

'I'm an MMA fighter – I don't want to be judged by how pretty I am'


Strong Women is a weekly series that celebrates diversity in the world of fitness.

Too often women are taught that they have to look a certain way in order to be fit, healthy and active.

Women of all ages, sizes, races and abilities can be strong – physically and mentally – this series aims to tackle preconceptions and show that fitness doesn’t have one look.

Each week we meet a woman who has achieved something incredible and breaks the Instagram-perfect mould of what a strong woman should look like.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane is the Bellator Women’s Flyweight World Champion. She is physically and mentally tough, training in the ring and underwater to build up tolerance and endurance.

Ilima-Lei is passionate about the rights of indigenous women and wants young girls to always feel empowered to ‘fight back’.

Tell us about your relationship with fitness 

My relationship with fitness has been lifelong but for a little break during my college years.

I was an athlete my whole life, I came from a family of athletes but after suffering some pretty devastating knee injuries which required surgeries in high school I decided that I was not going to play any sport after high school, which was really hard for me to accept because I always saw myself at least playing in college.

It was my dream as a little girl to be in the WNBA and play basketball and it was a hard pill to swallow to know that I wouldn’t play sport after high school because it was just too difficult.

At college I ended up putting on a lot of weight and it wasn’t until I finished that I decided that it was time to at least get back into shape – not necessarily compete in sports again, but just get into shape.

I decided to join an MMA gym and a CrossFit gym and I told myself whichever one I liked better I would try to stay with. I chose the MMA gym. That was about six years ago and now I’m competing in MMA.

Fighting under the Bellator MMA banner is my full-time career and my life.

How did you get in to MMA and when did you realise you had a talent for it?

It wasn’t until my fifth pro fight that I was like, OK, maybe this could be a thing. That was when I fought for the belt.

I didn’t really accept it as being something I could make a full-time career until after I was already professional. I feel like now it’s my identity.

I love the lifestyle. I love that it allows me to pursue other things that I have a passion for. I love that it gives me a platform to speak about things that I am passionate about.

I always explain to people that I fight twice a year and to prepare for a fight you need three months of very, very focused discipline so really, I’m only working about six months out of the year.

Of course, the other six months I’m trying to stay in shape, but it allows me to travel the world, to spend time with my family and to be involved in things I am passionate about – like indigenous rights.

What are the benefits of training underwater?

One of my classmates from Hawaii was doing underwater training in San Diego – he is an NFL football player.

I saw him doing this with some of his teammates and I thought it looked really cool. He invited me to a practice and I was totally hooked. That was about a year ago and in my last two fight camps I have implemented this training into my preparation – it has been such a game changer.

I’m now an instructor and I even train other fighters using this technique. That just shows how much I believe in it and how incredible the programme is.

The physical benefits of it, like CO2 tolerance and vo2 max, are bi-products of the mental training that is required.

It requires and builds a lot of mental fortitude which translates directly to my fighting.

I remember I was in a nasty choke hold and I could see that there were two-minutes left on the clock and I knew from my underwater training that I can hold my breath for around two minutes and 20 seconds, so I was like – let’s wait this out, I can get through this.

You fight for the rights of indigenous women – what inspires that?

I initially went to college to become a social studies teacher, or a history teacher, and a lot of my studies focused on indigenous issues because I was passionate about indigenous knowledge.

I was always very interested in working with other cultures so when I started fighting, winning and climbing the ranks I decided to create a scholarship called The Ilimanator Scholarship.

The scholarship is for young native girls, whether that’s native Hawaiian, native American, native Alaskan, to help send them abroad to travel because a lot of the time these girls will never leave their reservations or their islands.

Part of the reason I wanted to create a scholarship for this demographic is because statistically, indigenous women actually face the highest rates of violence out of any demographic.

There is a movement called the ‘missing and murdered indigenous women’ movement, #MMIW, and it was created because in North America, these disappearances and deaths are an epidemic.

Indigenous women are seen as disposable, so I wanted to show these young native girls that not only can you be a strong, successful woman, but that you can do so as a native women and you can fight back.

You have to fight back. Your life depends on it. Don’t just become another statistic, learn to fight back in all ways, physically, mentally, emotionally, verbally.

I always try to teach the girls that it’s not necessarily ‘stranger danger’ that you need to be worried about, because 80% of violence against women is from someone they know.

It’s about recognising red flags, having enough self-love that you won’t be in an abusive relationship and having the confidence to tell someone ‘don’t touch me’.

Most importantly, you will be a confident woman that isn’t submissive and who has a voice.

I do believe that combat sports or some type of martial arts will help to give you that confidence and a feeling of empowerment.

Do you come up against any prejudices or stereotypes as a female MMA fighter? 

I’m very lucky because Bellator MMA is amazing in terms of looking after their fighters, whether they are male or female.

We all have big platforms, female fighters headline shows just like male fighters.

Scott Coker has done an amazing job with Bellator’s female fighters. He has always discovered them and believed in them. I haven’t met any prejudice when it comes to the promotion or my gym, I’ve always been respected and treated well by my coaches and other fighters.

Having said that, I will tell you that I have faced prejudice from some of the fans or the followers.

We do tend to be overlooked as a female fighters – if we aren’t physically what society expects us to look like.

If you don’t have a pretty face then a lot of times you are overlooked as a female fighter.

People will say that they only made it to where they are now, not because of their fighting ability but because of the way they look.

I think it’s something that female fighters have been dealing with since the beginning – that our looks are almost more important than our fighting ability.

I want us to be recognised for our fighting ability.

Why should women feel empowered to try combat sport?

The hardest thing about getting into a combat sport as a woman is honestly getting into the gym in the first place.

As women we might have been raised to be more reserved or the idea of touching other people or being in such close quarters with men especially, might make us feel uncomfortable.

It’s important to find a gym that you feel comfortable in, maybe one that offers a women’s class if that’s something that’s important to you. The gym atmosphere and vibe makes a huge difference so it is really important.

But don’t give up if you aren’t happy with the first gym you try. Just keep looking around because it all comes down to the gym fit.

Once you get over the hump of the fear of the unknown and get yourself into a gym, you will never look back.

Going to an MMA or combat sports gym it will change your life. I’ve never heard of a women who has got in to it and gone back.

MMA gave me back my health. If it was not for MMA who knows where I would be right now. I know I wouldn’t be as healthy as I am right now.

What do you think makes a ‘strong woman’?

Strong women take so many different forms.

You can find strong women everywhere, in different circumstances and realities, across the world.

For me personally, it is someone who is independent.

My parents have instilled in me that we should always make our own money and so I’ve always carried that with me. I think it has really helped me in life and I am now doing things on my own.

For me it’s being independent, setting and achieving goals, with or without having a partner by your side.

Bellator London takes place at The SSE Arena, Wembley tonight – Saturday, 22nd June. Tickets are on sale now and can be bought online.

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