Last weekend was one of the biggest in recent memory for mixed martial arts. While the majority of the attention should deservedly go to UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, another noteworthy development took place the night before at Penn State University in Pennsylvania.
Bellator MMA put on its own big card on Nov. 3, with two title fights topping the bill. The first of these bouts crowned the inaugural Bellator women’s flyweight champion, and it should have created the next star for Bellator to build its evolving brand around, too.
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane submitted Emily Ducote to become Bellator’s first lady’s flyweight titleholder, and she should become one of the faces of Bellator as a result.
While the UFC is currently determining its first female flyweight champion on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter, Bellator has spent the majority of the last two years building its own women’s flyweight division. The company signed talented fighters to fill out its roster, including Macfarlane, Ducote, Lena Ovchynnikova, Valérie Létourneau, Rebecca Ruth and Colleen Schneider, among others. However, it was clear when Bellator launched the division that it planned to make former Muay Thai kickboxing champion Anastasia Yankova one of its biggest stars. It’s not that difficult to see why, either:
— Anastasia_yankova (@YankovaAn) October 27, 2017
Yankova is undefeated in Bellator, but she hasn’t really been seen or heard from since winning her last fight for the promotion in April with a unanimous nod over Elina Kallionidou. She has not been able to make the 125-pound flyweight limit either, tipping the scales at 130, 131 and 133 pounds, respectively, for her first three Bellator outings.
Bellator also seemed to invest heavily in undefeated boxer Heather Hardy, who switched to MMA and won her Bellator debut at the promotion’s own card at MSG in June against Alice Yauger. However, Hardy suffered a devastating broken nose and a loss to rookie fighter Kristina Williams in her second pro MMA fight, which took place in October at Bellator 185.
While Bellator tried to make other fighters into the face of its brand, Macfarlane kept winning. She also continued to improve as a fighter. “The Ilimanator” is undefeated in seven pro fights and has finished all but two of her opponents. Her title victory over Ducote at Bellator 186 was the pair’s second meeting and was every bit as entertaining as their first match-up last year.
Macfarlane boasts a diverse skill set, but she is especially effective on the ground. In addition to becoming Bellator’s first female flyweight champion, she also became the first female flyweight champion at the Eddie Bravo Invitational jiu-jitsu tournament earlier this year. Macfarlane has achieved four of her seven overall victories by submission. Despite only seven pro fights, Macfarlane already looks like one of the best ground-based fighters around, and she’s only getting better.
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) November 3, 2017
Macfarlane has some interesting match-ups awaiting her as the first Bellator women’s flyweight champion. Her potential challengers include the aforementioned Létourneau and Ovchynnikova. If Yankova comes back for another fight with Bellator and can finally meet the 125-pound weight limit and win, it’s highly likely that Bellator will try to book a fight between her and Macfarlane as quickly as possible.
Macfarlane has come a long way from winning her first pro fight by knocking out a soccer mom for a shady local MMA promotion. She has already turned into one of the more recognizable fighters in Bellator, and her title win last week can only boost her profile.
The UFC appears to have the market on women’s MMA cornered right now, with champions like Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, Amanda Nunes and Rose Namajunas and elite fighters like Joanna Jędrzejczyk under its banner. However, Bellator is slowly and steadily building its own niche with women’s MMA as well, and Macfarlane has all the tools to be at the forefront of this movement.