As she made her way to the center stage of the sold-out Neil S. Blaisdell Arena, Ilima-Lei “The Ilimanator” Macfarlane could feel the swelling emotion and energy of thousands of fans cheering her on in her hometown.
The sound of the pū, followed by chanting, filled the area as a processional of kumu and cultural practitioners, dressed in mahiole and malo and carrying Hawaiian flags, guided Macfarlane into the Bellator Hawaiʻi MMA event. As she made her way to the cage draped in a Hawaiian flag and lei, she sang along with the crowd to her chosen anthem, “All Hawaiʻi Stands Together” by Dennis Pavao.
“Everyone was singing along to it,” Macfarlane recalled. “Everyone knows that song and it was such a powerful moment that showed how unified we all are.”
This “chicken skin” moment would later become the most memorable entrance of Bellator Hawaiʻi, with over 50,000 views online.
That night, Marcfarlane successfully defended her title as Bellator Women’s Flyweight World Champion for the second time. “It was always my dream to fight at home in front of my family and friends, because not everyone can travel to the mainland to come watch me fight,” she said. “So when I finally got the opportunity at Bellator Hawaiʻi, I realized that it was way bigger than that. It turned out to be an opportunity to show the world not only the talent that we have in Hawaiʻi with all the local fighters, but also the atmosphere, the crowd, the arena. We got to show them so much more and I got to show the world a little sliver of our Hawaiian culture in the walkout. It was an incredible moment and opportunity to share Hawaiʻi with the world.”
Born and raised on Oʻahu, Native Hawaiian Ilima-Lei Macfarlane is blazing a path for women fighters in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). As a professional fighter for Bellator MMA, Macfarlane started fighting professionally in San Diego in 2015, and she currently holds a fight record of 9-0. Macfarlane has several fighter nicknames given to her including “The Ilimanator,” “Pineapple Princess” and “Wahine Toa,” a Native Hawaiian woman warrior.
“It always gives me such an immense sense of pride when my supporters call me a wahine toa. Its also a very heavy thing to be called. It comes with a great sense of responsibility to carry yourself as wahine toa,” said Macfarlane.
Family is the main motivator for Macfarlane. Being the youngest of six siblings, Macfarlane grew up in a big Hawaiian household in Nuʻuanu Valley, with parents who remain her biggest supporters and source of inspiration.
Macfarlane is proud of her Native Hawaiian roots and represents Hawaiʻi in each one of her fights abroad. However, since almost all MMA matches happens on the continental U.S., fighting at home in Hawaiʻi was always a goal for Macfarlane. “I am a Native Hawaiian. My roots are back in Hawaiʻi, that’s my home,” she reflected. “We’re representing our families, our people, and it doesn’t matter where we are in the world. We’re going to come out with our flag on no matter what.”
As a descendant of the Hawaiian warrior chief Kahahawai, Macfarlane draws strength from her culture, kūpuna, family, and coaches to continue fighting professionally.
“There is definitely a reason why Hawaiians are drawn to MMA. It’s part of our DNA, it’s part of our history, it’s part of our culture. We are drawn to it and we are still warriors.”
Native Hawaiians have played a significant role in MMA from its beginning, with decorated fighters like UFC Hall-of-Famer “The Prodigy” BJ Penn and the current UFC featherweight champion Max “Blessed” Holloway being recognized on an international level for their success in the sport. (See below for additional profiles.)
“Seeing such a strong Native Hawaiian presence in MMA I think is incredibly badass. I love the fact that Native Hawaiian fighter is our identity.”
Outside of the ring, she works as a mentor with Intertribal Youth, a San Diego-based non-profit organization that works with native and indigenous youth, using her platform to support and bring awareness to indigenous issues. Macfarlane earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology and a Master of Arts Degree in Liberal Studies with a focus on indigenous issues from San Diego State University.
As an offshoot of her work with Intertribal Youth, Macfarlane partners with the organization to offer “The Illimanator” Scholarship, which provides indigenous and native girls the fighting chance to further their education. She used funds from her first MMA belt win to start the scholarship for 13 to 19-year-old indigenous girls.
After getting some much needed rest and time off following her win at Bellator Hawaiʻi, Macfarlane is now back in training, preparing for an upcoming fight in San Jose on April 27, 2019. Her fans await eagerly to see what’s next for this mixed martial artist. Although still in the making, Macfarlane’s legacy both in and out of the MMA cages continues to encourage and inspire Hawaiians to work together and fight for a better future. “I feel like fighting has allowed me to be a teacher, just in a different classroom,” said Macfarlane.
“My mission with this scholarship is to provide young native girls a fighting chance to not only succeed, but to live,” she said. “Statistically, indigenous women and girls face the highest rates of violence and have some of the highest numbers of missing and murdered peoples. I want to give young native girls hope that there is more to this life than the one they know. I want to give them the confidence to fight back, the opportunity to see outside of the rez or the islands, and the strength to realize their divine feminine power.”
The notorious nine
Compiled by T. Jay Thompson and Jason Lees
Native Hawaiians have maintained a dominant presence in the world of professional mixed martial arts since it’s early days in the mid-1990’s. Here’s a brief overview of just some of the many prominent Native Hawaiian MMA fighters: