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How Ilima-Lei MacFarlane became one of MMA's most unlikely success stories

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Ilima-Lei MacFarlane fights Nov. 3 for the inaugural Bellator women’s flyweight championship. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

She’s fighting for a world title on national television. She’s won every fight she’s ever taken. She is the ultimate success story, a highly educated woman who went to the gym to shed 30 pounds she’d put on during her college years and discovered that she had a unique talent for mixed martial arts.

Ilima-Lei MacFarlane will rematch Emily Ducote on Nov. 3 in University Park, Pennsylvania, on the campus of Penn State in the co-main event of Bellator 186 for the inaugural Bellator women’s flyweight championship.

Not even MacFarlane would have thought that possible when she moseyed into a gym in San Diego in 2013 with the intention of getting back into shape.

Since then, she’s won five consecutive amateur MMA fights, six in a row as a pro and won the women’s flyweight combat jiu-jitsu title at the 12th Eddie Bravo Invitational in July.

Yet, the truth is she’s mostly known for her appearance in a viral video in 2015, when she knocked out a soccer mom in an utter mismatch in her pro debut.

The video now has nearly 2 million views and led to both good and bad. She got the exposure that virtually every professional athlete craves, but it led to plenty of awkward interactions as well.

“Fortunately, I had awesome teammates and they prepared me for what was going to happen after it went viral,” MacFarlane said of her 10-second knockout of an overmatched Katie Castro, aka “The Soccer Mom,” that first introduced MacFarlane to the MMA world.

The bout never should have occurred because of the disparity in talent between the two, and the California State Athletic Commission conducted an investigation in how the fight came to be.

It led to an onslaught of trolls, who mocked her for beating up an overmatched opponent.

“When I first saw the reaction to it, I was like, ‘Oh crap, maybe this isn’t the best thing,’ ” she said. “But I’ve gotten used to the haters and the negativity and all the keyboard warriors and the trolls. What is it they say, if you have haters you must be doing something right?”

That spotlight, though, put the focus where it didn’t belong. It was remarkable in the first place that MacFarlane even found herself anywhere near a ring, gloves on, ready to battle another woman.

She grew up in Hawaii where she attended — from kindergarten through 12th grade — the famous Punahou School, now best known as former President Barack Obama’s alma mater.

MacFarlane’s father was a teacher at the private school, and she planned to follow in his footsteps. She went to San Diego State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s in liberal studies with a focus on indigenous studies.

She wanted to become a social studies teacher and was making good progress toward that goal. MacFarlane, though, admits that she was a “crazy partier” and enjoyed the good life at SDSU.

Not only did she pack on 30 unwanted pounds, but like so many college students, she was in photos appearing drunk and partying with friends.

It made her think.

“I was a crazy partier in college and I had no problem being very public about that,” she said. “I kind of had a potty mouth. I think I still do have a potty mouth, but I have at least learned to pick and choose when it’s appropriate to use. But things like that, I thought, ‘If I want to be a teacher at my alma mater, would they hire me if they saw these pictures of me drinking and getting wasted or whatever.’ It kind of put things in perspective, especially now that I’m kind of in the public eye.”

Ilima-Lei MacFarlane aspired to be a social studies teacher. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

She’ll be much more in the eye if she defeats Ducote again to win the Bellator title. Bellator president Scott Coker has had great success promoting women fighters and helping them become stars. Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey each came up and matured as fighters with Coker as their promoter.

The discipline that MacFarlane used to get herself to the gym in the first place to shed that excess weight is what has led her to become an elite fighter. She tried a fight at the urging of Manolo Hernandez, her coach at the San Diego Combat Club.

She was decent and she won. She tried again and she won.

She’s never stopped winning, but it wasn’t until her first win over Ducote, on Dec. 3 in Thackerville, Oklahoma, that she at least considered MMA as a full-time career.

“I was taking these fights and even though I was enjoying them and having success, it wasn’t until the fight with Emily last year that I felt like this was right, that it was what I was supposed to be doing,” she said. “It didn’t feel crazy anymore. When I step into the cage now, I know I have a plan and a purpose.

“When I first was with Bellator, I’d be thinking to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But I feel comfortable now and it’s like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life at this point in time.’”

She says she eventually wants to get into teaching, but the Hawaiian is going to ride the MMA wave as long as she can.

“I never would have believed in a million years I might be fighting for a world title, but here I am and it’s happening and I love this,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself, and I feel great about what I’m up to now.”

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