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Ilima-Lei Macfarlane of Bellator Discusses Raising £2 Million for Victims of Hawaii Wildfires


Ilima-Lei Macfarlane sat on her couch, tears streaming down her face, next to her partner when Bellator informed her about the upcoming announcement of the most significant fight in her career.

This Saturday in San Diego, Macfarlane is set to face her longtime friend and flyweight champion, Liz Carmouche, in Bellator 300.

It is a landmark event for Bellator and perhaps one of the final fights of Macfarlane’s history-making career.

But for Macfarlane, 9 August was also one of the most difficult days of her life. A Hawaii native, Macfarlane had spent all day trying to contact friends back home in Maui, where wildfires were raging through the land.

Entire areas were wiped out in Maui, including the town of Lahaina. The death toll stands at 97 people. Macfarlane was watching the devastation unfold on TV.

She had been in Maui some 72 hours beforehand and had been in the airport when Bellator told her she would be fighting champion Carmouche. She returned to San Diego to begin her camp.

“When I woke up I saw tons and tons of text messages from my family,” she says.

“I looked on my phone and saw just how devastating the fires are.

“I instantly tried messaging my girl friend [who lives in Maui] and she’s not answering so I’m freaking out.

“I have to go to practice, I have to go train. When I came back from training, I couldn’t stop seeing images of the fire, of people dying. It was crazy.”

Bellator went ahead with the announcement, but Macfarlane decided to use the moment as a tool to help her homeland.

The 33-year-old has built a life outside of the cage advocating for the rights of indigenous women and raising awareness about the plight facing many Hawaiians.

“In that moment, when Bellator announced the fight, I also made a video and I was like ‘yes we just announced this fight and it should be one of the happiest days of my life, but I can’t be happy right now because my home is burning’.

“I made that video, it was very raw, very emotional, I was crying in it. I posted it and it kind of went viral overnight.”

Macfarlane would raise more than £2.1m for victims of the fire through Instagram.

The funds were only be released this week due to Instagram’s owners Meta and their non-profit partner Network for Good’s policy of holding the money for a certain period of time.

Macfarlane’s bank then also took time to release the money.

“It ended up reaching a million dollars in 48 hours,” Macfarlane said. “This wasn’t big donors, big organisations or corporations or anything.

“It was actually just the people sending $5 here, sending $10 there. It was the people that raised this money and it’s for the people of Maui.

“I’m a very small non-profit. I actually do this entirely voluntarily. I don’t make any money from my non-profit.

“This is what I do on the side of my fighting career and running the gym business. I was like ‘oh my gosh, I’ve never had to handle so much money before. What do I do?’

“It was pretty chaotic those first couple of weeks just trying to get everything in order.”

While training for her fight, MacFarlane organised several donation drives, kept track of all the money that went to victims in Hawaii, made countless media appearances and fundraised at charity events across San Diego.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane of Bellator Discusses Raising £2 Million for Victims of Hawaii Wildfires

Her own family lost a distant cousin to the fire.

“I cried every single day for the first month,” she says.

“While this camp wasn’t the most ideal in terms of how much focus I put towards it, it’s okay.

“This is the fight I wanted. This is what I wanted.”

On the eve of the fight, Macfarlane missed weight and is now unable to win the flyweight belt.

But once the bout is over, Macfarlane will fly to Maui and begin to properly distribute all the money she has raised.

With a massive rebuild under way in Maui, MacFarlane is hopeful Hawaiians will be at the front of decision making.

Hawaiians say the fires were in part caused by a long-running water diversion dispute on the island, that dates back to when pineapple and sugar plantations were first established in the mid-1800s.

“This was definitely an avoidable tragedy had we been able to sustain Lahaina using Hawaiians’ traditional agricultural and water flow practices,” Macfarlane says.

“Hawaiians are some of the smartest people in the world and to not listen to them in their own home, in the land that they have cultivated for generations and generations – you have tragedies like this.

“The shirt I’m wearing,’Keep Lahaina lands in Lahaina hands’, the rebuild of Lahaina 100% needs to be led by the people of Lahaina and the generational families and voices of Lahaina because they know what’s best for Lahaina.”

With retirement potentially looming for Macfarlane and the chance to regain the flyweight title she lost in 2020 now gone, she has no regrets about her choices in this camp.

“I’m dedicating this fight to Maui and to the deeper causes,” she says. “I’ve been toying with the idea of potentially retiring soon.

“This phase of my fighting journey is reaching its conclusion, but I’m committed to carrying on this battle beyond the cage.

“If this isn’t a significant sign from the universe that this is my calling, I don’t know what is.

Hence, I’m not just fighting for myself; I’m fighting for a greater purpose.”

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