The Bellator women’s flyweight division has been ruled exclusively by Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, but there are contenders lining up to unseat her as champion.
Among those vying for a title shot is Brazil’s Ilara Joanne (9-4), nicknamed “Arya Stark” after the popular Game of Thrones character. She is looking for her fourth straight win when she faces Kana Watanabe on the Bellator Japan main card this Saturday night. It was far from an easy start to her MMA career, losing her first two bouts by stoppage back in 2013, but she explained what she learned from those early setbacks.
“I was too green back then, I should have started as an amateur, but didn’t have that option,” Joanne told Bloody Elbow. “Those losses taught me the need to not rush things and prepare better. They helped shape my career as it is today and now I got into Bellator ready to face anyone they match me up against.”
Joanne credits the Pitbull Brothers gym, which notably boasts Bellator two-division king Patricio Freire, his brother Patricky, and with UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo, for her success and improvement as a fighter.
“I owe everything to my team,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. We have the best trainers, structure and people to look up to in Patricio and Patricky. Everyone is always willing to help. It’s the best team in the world. I’m sure if I had joined the team earlier I’d have progressed much faster.”
The 25-year-old was a relative unknown and underdog when she made her Bellator debut against UFC veteran Bec Rawlings. Not only did Joanne pull off the upset, she became the first person to submit the Australian, tapping her out with a kneebar late in round two.
“It was a life changing situation,” she said. “Patricio had shown and said great things about me to the Bellator executives and I had high expectations to live up to. I beat her standing and finished on the ground, I believe that also brought the respect from media and analysts that were somehow discrediting me without actually knowing me.”
“I was not only the first woman to submit Bec, I was also the first woman to have that submission in Bellator and they’ve had over 200 events. It was a great start for my international career and I hope that I keep pulling historic and positive feats like that. I’m very happy with my performance and looking forward to have an even better one here in Japan. This is just the beginning.”
As expected, Joanne kept a watchful eye on Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s title defense against Kate Jackson last weekend, as the Hawaiian delighted the home crowd with a dominant decision win over Jackson. She’s quite confident in her chances against Macfarlane, whom she revealed she had trained with prior to joining Pitbull Brothers.
“I thought [Macfarlane had] a great performance, but I think my aggressiveness would be key [against her],” Joanne said. “I also have KO power and a strong submission game, I wouldn’t go in there to give any room for Ilima-Lei to dictate the fight and I’ll always be threatening her with something. We trained together a few years ago and I know I can beat her, especially now that I’m at Pitbull Brothers and more prepared than ever.
With the very impressive 10-0 Juliana Velasquez likely at the front of the line for a shot at the belt, as well as the recent signing of former UFC title challenger Liz Carmouche, the odds are stacked against Joanne getting a title shot with a win over Watanabe. When asked if she’d still call out Macfarlane should she prevail in Saitama, she said that while she hopes a title fight materializes, “if Bellator wants me to fight again before that, I welcome everyone.”
Bellator 237 airs live on Paramount Network and DAZN, starting at 10 PM ET/9 PM CT.