Opinion: Conor McGregor and the Death of Imagination

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Human imagination is a powerful thing.

It makes us aware of potential dangers and opportunities. It has shaped our sense of culture and informed our social organization. It is the cornerstone of preparation and the catalyst for innovation. It is no coincidence that the one creature on the planet in possession of imaginative capacity is also uniquely the only one inhabiting every corner of it. Imagination convinces us that if we keep moving forward we can reach that next horizon, even if all we are doing is marching forth across one big circular plane. An abundance of imagination is known more simply as “delusion.”

Conor McGregor has thrived off the power of his imagination. It is what cultivated the “Mystic Mac” persona and drove legions of fans and detractors alike to watch every step he took and hang on every word he uttered. Up until this weekend, McGregor’s achievements were fueled by his honest investment in his own imagination.

The video of a 19-year-old McGregor predicting, with 100-percent certainty, that he would become a UFC champion was the first sign of how his determination was forged from an unwavering belief in himself and his dreams. His run in Cage Warriors Fighting Championship validated the possibility of MMA greatness. His run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship made it more than reality; it felt like destiny.

With each UFC knockout, his ambitions grew larger, more imaginative. He said he’d take out the entire featherweight division, and he did. Then he said he’d have three championship belts in three weight classes by the end of the year. It was an improbable mission, no doubt, but not so far removed from possibility that it was dismissed outright. He had made good on his word thus far. Who could call his crazy goals empty bluster? Or as Steve Jobs would have said if he was an MMA fan: The people who are crazy enough to think they can win titles two weight classes above their own are the ones who do.

Picture yourself living on ancient Earth. If you do a rain dance and it rains shortly after, you might call it luck. Do it again and you’d call it coincidence. Do it seven times in a row with record crowds watching, each one yielding a more spectacular monsoon, and you’ll think you’re the chosen bringer of rain sent to quench the thirst of the masses. Welcome to McGregor’s mind.

His personality is dynamic, no doubt, but what separated him from the numerous wordsmiths and trash talkers was the aura of inevitability that surrounded him. After tearing through the best of the featherweight division with virtually no adversity, who can blame the guy for feeling invincible? The 13-second, one-punch win over the division’s G.O.A.T. only cemented the creeping belief that McGregor was as good as he said he was. He believed it, so we believed it.

His cock-of-the-walk confidence bordered on the edge of ambitious and delusional, but he landed squarely on the right side of that distinction every time. Then he made his welterweight debut and met that fine line separating imagination and delusion, and its name was Nate Diaz.

In retrospect, we can see delusional saplings sprout here and there. McGregor is an unabashed believer in “the law of attraction.” Then there was his assertion that “talent does not exist,” which was as inane as it was inspirational, especially coming from one of the most talented fighters on the UFC roster. This is the same man who disparaged opponents for being slow, plodding and predictable -- for being less talented.

Yet everyone’s imagination has its limits. You’ll probably never be a millionaire with a beach estate in the Bahamas; I’ll probably never be the canonical writer I’ve long dreamt of becoming; and McGregor will probably never be the UFC welterweight champion. We are all, in our own ways, just as guilty as “The Notorious” one of letting our dreams tumble into deluded fantasy. However, unlike us, McGregor never let that get in the way of his work. That’s why he captured our imaginations the way he did. He made reality seem a lot more malleable than it really is, which gave us a brief reprieve from the suffocating and oft-disappointing truth that we’re all a whole lot less important than we like to think we are. As is the calling card of all great sportsmen and sportswomen, McGregor realizing his dreams validated our own.

It was the crushingly conspicuous sort of irony we so often mistake as karma that permitted jiu-jitsu to be McGregor’s ultimate undoing. Martial arts has always existed with one foot in fantasyland, but jiu-jitsu was the cold, hard reality check for chi-force Kung Fu lore; you can’t land a monkey paw crane strike when you’re pinned on your back getting your arm snapped. Just like you can’t land a single straight left and expect every man to collapse in a jumbled heap or get into a war of attrition with a Diaz brother and emerge victorious. Getting choked out is the ultimate reality checkmate.

Fighting is a sport of rampant imagination. We watch Bruce Lee effortlessly dispatch a room full of attackers and wonder if he was really that good, even though the way that scenario would play out in reality would be an ugly, one-way beatdown orgy. We debate whether or not Jon Jones now could beat Chuck Liddell in his prime. We have pound-for-pound rankings. To be guilty of hokey imagination is not an indictment so much as an explanation. Imagination is the lifeblood of what we all have in common here, this heartbreaking, hilarious, frivolous foolishness of being a fight fan.

Whether McGregor’s loss punctured your imagination or Diaz’s win ignited it, the UFC 196 main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas was as spectacular and exciting as this game gets. McGregor may have lost more than an undefeated Octagon record, but in the end, fate is as imagined as astrology or the law of attraction. It is also as resilient and real as we allow it to be. It’s a funny, slippery thing.

Whether it’s Anderson Silva bending the laws of physics to his violent whims, or B.J. Penn campaigning to prove that weight is nothing but a number, or McGregor claiming three world titles before defending the one he actually has, I’ll always let myself get caught up. It’s why watching and being a part of this sport is as great as it is. I feel bad for the person who can’t -- or won’t -- believe in the magic of their imaginations.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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