TEMECULA, Calif. (June 29, 2018) – The last time she fought at Pechanga Resort Casino, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane wasn’t even good enough to stay at Pechanga Resort Casino.
It was three years ago and Macfarlane was making her Bellator debut far down the undercard of Bellator 141. She beat Maria Ramos in a split decision in the third bout of the 12 that night at the Pechanga Grand Ballroom.
And then she went back to her hotel – a nearby Holiday Inn.
“It’s amazing that it’s come full circle. I finally get to fight back here at Pechanga and it’s for my title defense and I’m the main event,” she said. “When I fought here three years ago, they put me in a Holiday Inn down the road. I was nothing. Now, I get to come back here and I’m the headliner. I see my face on posters and on the billboard. It’s incredible. It’s so beautiful here.”
OK, so Macfarlane doesn’t get to stay in the resort casino’s new Resort Tower because the tubs in the Casino Tower are better for cutting weight. Somehow, Macfarlane will adapt. She always has.
Nearly three years after dispatching Ramos and five professional victories later, Macfarlane (7-0) returns to Pechanga to defend her Flyweight Class title tonight against Alejandra Lara (7-1) at the resort casino’s brand new Pechanga Summit. The Macfarlane-Lara fight headlines a 12-fight card on Bellator’s return to the Pechanga Summit after a very-popular January card for the mixed martial arts organization.
Macfarlane’s journey to Fight Night at the Pechanga Summit is considerably shorter than her last trip to Pechanga. But the journey from state-champion high school wrestler to overweight, insecure college student to Masters degree holder to the MMA octagon is what makes Macfarlane a fascinating outlier in the world of MMA.
A Hawaii native, Macfarlane was a standout athlete at the elite Punahoa High in Honolulu, where she was classmates with pro golfer Michelle Wie. She took her considerable intellect to San Diego State, picking up bachelor’s and masters degrees – along with 30 unwanted pounds and a lifestyle that could best be described as “unhealthy.”
“Everyone has insecurities. But those were by far my darker days,” Macfarlane said. “I was very insecure. I don’t want to say depressed, because of what that means, but I was depressed. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I was engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior. I was partying a lot, not eating good foods and not living a healthy lifestyle. I didn’t like myself.”
On her way to work one morning, Macfarlane noticed an MMA gym. When she took the plunge, she also noticed how much she had let herself go.
“I was terrible. I kid you not. I couldn’t even get through the stretching warmups, I was that out of shape,” she said. “I was embarrassed because I grew up an athlete. My family were all hall-of-fame athletes. I was a state-champion wrestler and I was pretty embarrassed I let myself get to that point.”
That point didn’t last long. Because of her athleticism and adaptability, MacFarlane figured out much of this MMA thing on the fly. She started competing against many of the wrestlers she battled in high school. Before Macfarlane knew it, she had a Masters degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences, and a 9-0 record as an MMA amateur.
That’s when the call came from Bellator. And when the wheels on this MMA thing started really turning in Macfarlane’s head.
“That’s when I really had to sit down and think. My pro debut was with a local show, very small,” she said. “When I got the call from Bellator, I understood that was a huge step up in competition. If I did this, I have to be fully committed. I can’t half-ass it. It’s all-in or nothing.
“I called my parents and they said, ‘Yes. Do it. You can always fall back on your degrees later. You’re young and able-bodied. Go do it.’”
So she has, working her way up the Bellator food chain with a multi-faceted skill set that explains her 7-0 pro record, with four of the victories coming by submission. There’s her wrestling background, her considerable jiu-jitsu MMA skills, which she said “are the best around,” and the not inconsiderable fact she is one of the most intelligent fighters on any level. The ability to process the process required to outflank, outthink and outmaneuver your opponents on the fly appeals to Macfarlane’s sense of purpose.
After making weight at Thursday’s weigh-in, Macfarlane’s sense of purpose took another turn, one courtesy of Pechanga’s expansive restaurant selections.
“I’ve already looked up the menus for all the restaurants to see what I’m going to eat after the weight-ins,” she said, laughing. “I like the salmon at the Lobby Bar and I’ve already looked up and found three good desserts at Kelsey’s I’m into.”
When she partakes in one or all of the above, Macfarlane can call Room Service if she so chooses. This time, she has a room at a different inn.
Bellator 201 is the latest high-profile event to take over the Pechanga Summit, Pechanga Resort Casino’s new 40,000-square foot events center that was a featured element of the property’s $300 million resort expansion. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians broke ground on the two-year project in December 2015. Entertainers, concerts, live sporting events, trade shows, weddings, or any large group find the Pechanga Summit ideal because of its versatility in seating options and excellent sight lines.