The champ is coming home.
Punahou graduate Ilima-Lei Macfarlane will headline Bellator’s first mixed martial arts show in Hawaii with a title defense against Valerie Letourneau on Dec. 15.
Blaisdell Arena will host the first MMA event by a major organization on Oahu since 2008, when KJ Noons and Yves Edwards headlined an EliteXC card broadcast on Showtime.
“We’ve finally put all of the pieces in place,” Bellator President Scott Coker told the Star-Advertiser. “The islands have a great history of MMA. Traditionally a lot of the great martial artists ever have fought on the islands, and we’re going to carry on that tradition of martial arts.”
The catalyst behind it all is the undefeated women’s flyweight world champion. Macfarlane, who won the belt last November and successfully defended it with a submission win over Alejandra Lara in June, will finally get to live out a long-awaited dream of fighting in her hometown.
“Because I didn’t get into fighting until I came up here to San Diego, it has always been my dream to fight at home,” said Macfarlane, who had a fight lined up in Hawaii when she was signed by Bellator. “I just missed it by a month, but you know, it was well worth the wait. Three years later I’m coming home and bringing Bellator with me.”
The second-biggest mixed martial arts organization in the United States, Bellator will rival the 2005 K-1: World Grand Prix event as the biggest martial arts event ever held in Hawaii.
That event took place at Aloha Stadium and was strictly a kickboxing card except for the main event, an MMA fight between B.J. Penn and Renzo Gracie that drew 12,000 fans.
The 8,000-seat Blaisdell Arena has hosted King of the Cage, ProElite and EliteXC cards and was also home to top local promotions Icon Sport, Rumble on the Rock and Super Brawl. Locally run organizations DestinyMMA and X-1 still occasionally use the arena.
For mainland promotions, there are many hurdles to clear in order to do a show here. The UFC has never held an event here, despite the sport’s popularity, for a variety of reasons.
Bellator had its own concerns as well, but still managed to get the event done.
“Obviously the time frame is a challenge because of daylight saving time and we have certain times we have to be on air (on the mainland),” Coker said. “Fortunately we have a lot of friends on the island and some who have promoted there in the past, so we’ve managed to get it done. We’ve been in touch with the athletic commission and the venue and we’ve got a lot of help from the outside.”
T Jay Thompson, a longtime promoter in the islands with both Super Brawl and IconSport, will help put together an undercard featuring fighters from Hawaii.
The fight will be broadcast on DAZN, an online video streaming service dedicated to sports and live events. It will be Bellator’s second show broadcast on the streaming service. Most of its shows are broadcast on the Paramount Network (previously Spike TV).
Today’s announcement is a relief for Macfarlane, who has had to keep it quiet after officially finding out about it just recently. She arrived in town on Tuesday to promote the fight starting today.
“I just had a feeling because everybody (at Bellator) was being so tight-lipped about it and normally I can get something out of someone,” Macfarlane said. “They told me to keep (this week) open because I needed to travel and I was like, ‘Cool, what for?’ and they wouldn’t tell me until right before we left, so I kind of knew.”
Macfarlane (8-0 overall) is a perfect 7-0 in Bellator with five submission wins since her promotional debut in August 2015.
Letourneau (10-6 overall) has won both of her Bellator fights since leaving the UFC, where she challenged Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight title.
“I think Valerie stands for a lot of the things that I stand for and we’re very cool with each other,” Macfarlane said. “I just think on top of being a good human being, she’s also a great fighter, so you know I’m not going just walk right through her or she’s not going to walk through me.
“It’s going to be a good, entertaining fight for Hawaii and I’m ready to step up to the challenge. I feel I’m totally ready for this.”
Tickets are scheduled to go on sale Sep. 21.
Also on the card is a welterweight world grand prix fight between undefeated prospects Neiman Gracie and Ed Ruth. More fights will be announced leading up to the event.