Ilima-Lei Macfarlane was backstage. On the other side of the curtain was a sellout crowd of more than 1,000 fans from her home state of Hawaii. A good majority of them were there to see her, the headliner of Bellator 201 in Honolulu. Macfarlane, with the pressure mounting, broke down before walking out.
"I couldn't stop crying," Macfarlane told ESPN. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, am I gonna be able to turn it off when I get to the cage?' It was pretty gnarly."
Macfarlane was able to flip the switch. She ended up finishing UFC veteran Valerie Letourneau by submission (triangle choke) at 3:19 of the third round to retain her Bellator women's flyweight title.
A little over a year later, Macfarlane will make the walk again at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in her hometown. Kate Jackson, an Ultimate Fighter alum, will be on the other side of the cage.
That title bout will be the main event of a two-night doubleheader in Honolulu: Bellator 235 on Friday and Bellator 236 on Saturday. Here's a look at five things to watch during the pair of cards this weekend.
Can Macfarlane retain the women's flyweight title in her home of Hawaii?
Macfarlane has quietly become one of the best fighters in the world who's not in the UFC. ESPN has her ranked No. 2 among women's flyweight fighters. She is 10-0 and has finished opponents in all but two of her victories. Macfarlane, 29, has been Bellator champion since 2017. Can she keep the run going against Jackson? The pressure will be on in her hometown of Honolulu. With Max Holloway losing the UFC men's featherweight title last weekend, Macfarlane is now the only Hawaiian to hold a major MMA belt.
Jackson has won two in a row and four of her past five. The England native was eliminated from TUF 23 in 2016 by Tatiana Suarez, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed about. Macfarlane has not fought since a somewhat lackluster win over Veta Arteaga in April. She has become one of Bellator's front-facing names, even getting gigs on the broadcast analyst desk during events. But Jackson won't be an easy out.
Bellator surely has big future plans for "Iliminator," including perhaps a matchup with her teammate Liz Carmouche if Carmouche signs with Bellator following her UFC release. Macfarlane will need to win here to set those things up.
How does AJ McKee build on his eight-second knockout in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix first round?
McKee is the future of Bellator. In October, ESPN ranked him the top MMA fighter in the world under 25 years old. McKee, 24, is 15-0 with 10 career finishes. He is coming off an eight-second starching of Georgi Karakhanyan in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix first round in September. On Saturday at Bellator 236, he'll meet Derek Campos in the quarterfinals of the tournament. McKee is likely to be a heavy favorite, but Campos is durable and game.
Like Macfarlane, McKee will likely be a big part of Bellator's plans for 2020 and beyond. With a win over Campos, McKee would face either former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell or prospect Adam Borics in the semifinals. And a matchup between McKee and featherweight champion Patricio Freire would be one of Bellator's biggest fights of 2020 if it happens. Freire is on the other side of the Grand Prix bracket.
McKee's bout with Campos, who is coming off a win over former champ Daniel Straus to rebound from a three-fight losing streak, is a pivotal one for Bellator with this year coming to a close.
What will 42-year-old Josh Barnett look like after a three-year layoff?
Barnett signs with Bellator, hints at London debut
Josh Barnett stuns Ariel Helwani by signing with Bellator live on his show and suggests a possible debut in London.
It's hard to believe Barnett will return to the cage for the first time since Sept. 3, 2016, and it's being met with such little fanfare. Barnett is a former UFC heavyweight champion, one of the best heavyweights of his era and a popular figure in the sport for a very long time. "The Warmaster" has been a pro since 1997.
When we last saw Barnett in competition, three years ago, he was beating Andrei Arlovski by second-round submission in the UFC. Barnett looked excellent in that bout, and it seemed bigger things were coming his way in the UFC. Then he failed a USADA drug test and spent nearly two years trying to clear his name. He eventually did -- USADA cleared him of an anti-doping violation -- but not before he lost precious time late in his career.
Barnett asked for his UFC release in March 2018 and was granted it. He signed with Bellator three months later. On Friday night at Bellator 235, which doubles as a tribute to the troops, he'll face Ronny Markes, a UFC and PFL veteran. Barnett will be the favorite -- he'll be much bigger than Markes going into the cage. But it's anyone's guess how Barnett will look in MMA after more than three years away.
Can Joey Davis duplicate McKee's success and be a big breakout talent for Bellator?
Davis floors opponent with overhand right
Joey Davis knocks out Marcus Anthony with an overhand right late in the first round at Bellator 219.
Less than a year after signing McKee, Bellator brought in his teammate Joey Davis. The two train together at Team Body Shop in Lakewood, California, under McKee's father, Antonio. Davis brings with him a substantial wrestling pedigree. The welterweight went 133-0 at Notre Dame College, a Division II program in Ohio. Davis is 25 and gaining more polish in MMA.
Funny enough, Davis has become known so far in Bellator for highlight-reel knockouts. He's 6-0 and has finished four of those victories by KO/TKO. One was via spinning back kick to the body, another was a flying knee. Not bad for a wrestler. Davis will be co-headlining Bellator 235 on Friday against journeyman Chris Cisneros. Davis will be a heavy favorite.
This is a showcase fight, but Bellator is wise to bring Davis up slowly. The promotion has been criticized for doing too much too soon with blue-chip prospect Aaron Pico, who has been knocked out in two straight fights.
Will Juliana Velasquez earn the women's flyweight title shot?
Velasquez will face Bruna Ellen on the main card of Bellator 236 on Saturday, underneath Macfarlane's title defense. That's no coincidence. Velasquez vs. Ellen is likely to be a title eliminator at women's flyweight -- especially if Velasquez wins.
Velasquez, 33, might be one of the most underrated female fighters in the world. She sports a 9-0 record with five finishes and is coming off an impressive second-round TKO of Kristina Williams in July. Many thought she'd be positioned as Macfarlane's next title challenger in Hawaii, but it seems instead she is being groomed for 2020.
The diminutive Ellen (she's just 5-foot-3) is no easy out. She has won three of four, including a victory over Arteaga, with whom Macfarlane had trouble earlier this year. Both Velasquez and Ellen are Brazilians with bases in jiu-jitsu, so it should be a fascinating ground fight. The winner seems very likely to be queued up for Macfarlane.