The opportunity to corner the market on women’s mixed martial arts is still very much in the air, in my opinion.
Sure, the UFC has probably the most dominant female fighter in the world, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, on its roster. It also has who many consider two of the other best female fighters on the planet, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Amanda Nunes. All three fighters are champions to boot, so that can boost the UFC’s claim. But since Ronda Rousey has seemingly transitioned into a happy retirement, the UFC is lacking that one female star who can appeal to a mainstream audience.
Which is where I think Bellator MMA has an excellent opportunity on its next fight card, Bellator 186, on Friday, Nov. 3. Bellator will crown its first female flyweight champion when Ilima Lei-Macfarlane faces Emily Ducote. The two previously squared off at Bellator 167 last year, and Macfarlane won a unanimous decision in what was a very competitive and hard-fought bout.
If you haven’t watched the first meeting between Macfarlane and Ducote, you should. Both fighters came into that meeting wanting to prove they deserved to compete for a title, and put on 15 minutes of hard-fought, passionate competition. It was a fight held mostly on the ground, with both Macfarlane and Ducote displaying excellent grappling and jiu-jitsu and jockeying for dominant position. Although Macfarlane was unanimously declared the victor, Ducote could have easily been victorious.
Which makes a rematch between the two for the inaugural Bellator flyweight title the only logical move to make. Bellator has stocked its flyweight roster with other talent with the potential to become a face for the promotion, including Lena Ovchynnikova, Keri Melendez and longtime veteran Valerie Letourneau.
Bellator is also banking heavily on Heather Hardy and Anastasia Yankova to become its next big stars. However, Hardy just had her face destroyed by Kristina Williams in Hardy’s second-ever MMA bout earlier this month. Yankova is undefeated but hasn’t been heard from since winning her last fight earlier this year, and she has yet to be able to make the 125-pound flyweight weight limit.
Which is where Macfarlane and Ducote come in. Macfarlane is undefeated in her 6-fight career, and only two of those bouts have gone the distance. She also became the first female flyweight champion at the Eddie Bravo Invitational jiu-jitsu tournament earlier this year. Ducote has finished half of her six career victories, all by submission. So Macfarlane and Ducote definitely have the talent, especially in the grappling game.
Both Macfarlane and Ducote have also begun embracing the marketing side of MMA, which is key to becoming a face of the Bellator brand:
— Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (@ilimanator) September 7, 2017
Thank you to the amazing ladies at Encompass Wellness for the awesome recovery session today! 😊🙌🏼❄️ pic.twitter.com/GMCK1dkpyd
— Emily Ducote (@ducote_brunette) February 3, 2017
A fact of life for female athletes, and for women in general, is that they’re often judged by their appearance – moreso than for their skill. Whether this helps or hinders female athletes is still up for debate, and there are valid points on both sides of the argument. Macfarlane and Ducote both have the look that lends itself to stardom.
Both fighters are active on social media, especially Macfarlane. Her appearances on Bellator programming have slowly become more frequent lately as she prepares to face Ducote on Nov. 3. Is it possible that Bellator is secretly banking on Macfarlane defeating Ducote, and becoming the first Bellator flyweight champion and someone for the promotion to market to the public as it continues to fight for the MMA spotlight with the UFC? Sure.
What sets Bellator’s apparent marketing of Macfarlane (and I’m sure Ducote as well, if she wins) apart from the UFC marketing fighters like Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt (who is obviously a male), is that we’re sure Macfarlane and Ducote are known first for their fighting skill before anything else. We can’t say the same in the case of VanZant and Northcutt. They both just look a little too chiseled, a little too perfect. Are they really fighters? Or just fitness models masquerading as fighters?
Regardless, the fight between Macfarlane and Ducote at Bellator 186 is the card’s co-main event, but it’s the fight you should pay attention to the most. Because you might be seeing a whole lot more of the winner in the future.
Photo Credit: Cageside Press