A recent fanpost made the point that Henderson-Shogun has quickly been elevated - incorrectly, in the author's viewpoint - into one of the greatest fights in UFC history. It is not my intention to show that he's wrong; in fact, his definition of a great fight as one that displays the highest level of technical mastery is perfectly reasonable, though I would disagree with his characterization of that particular fight as untechnical. I've argued before that if we look at MMA fans as representing a continuum of viewpoints whose enjoyment rests at one end on seeing pure technique and at the other end on seeing pure heart, most would fall somewhere in the middle. This gentleman happens to fall much more toward one end of the spectrum than the other, and I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that.
Most fans, however, place much greater emphasis on heart. Both Henderson and Shogun displayed the kind of sheer willpower that we mere mortals can only dream about. I say that seriously: what they did in the Octagon that night is out of reach of the vast majority of human beings on the planet, even those of us who train seriously in a combat sport, and even those who fight for a living. Achieving technical mastery of an art form is theoretically not out of anyone's reach, given the time and desire to do so. If you practice long enough and hard enough, with the right trainers and training partners, it's possible to achieve a black belt in BJJ, mastery of Muay Thai, or a complete knowledge of wrestling. I'm not talking about competitive success, but simply control over a discipline's full range of techniques. Applying those techniques to perfection in a fight is of course much more difficult, but it's still something that fans can see on a fairly regular basis. GSP anywhere, Sonnen's wrestling, Werdum's BJJ, Junior's boxing, Anderson's Muay Thai: we're privileged to see these amazing athletes showcase their hard-won talents, and they show us just what's possible within the limits of human performance and the strictures of a given form.
Hardcore fans watch hundreds or even thousands of fights in a year. In many of those matches, one or both fighters display technical mastery of a skill set. Real heart, on the other hand, is a much less common phenomenon. The ability to recover from a horrific beating and give it right back is something special, and we only see it a few times a year. Edgar's two fights with Maynard showed us the sheer depth of his willpower, for example, as did Carwin's performance against JDS. It's rarer still to see that much heart on display in a high-profile match between two of the greatest to ever step into a ring or a cage.
While our less-than-ideal tag team of Goldberg and Rogan commented on the special nature of what they were watching as it happened, the process of mythologizing began after the fight was over and articles about its greatness began to fly across the internet. This feeling grew and grew, until it snowballed with proclamations of its status as the "greatest fight in history". This is where the myth began: not during the fight itself, but in the process of discussing it with our friends, reading articles talking about what an amazing fight it was, and writing in the comment sections of those same articles.
The point here isn't that all of the thousands of words written about the fight portrayed it in a misleading fashion. On the contrary: we're the ones who make myths. The events themselves simply happen, and it's up to the viewers to make meaning out of them by narrating them, expounding upon them, and contextualizing them. A culture's myths tell us a great deal about its values, and in this case, it tells us that as participants in a distinct subculture, we collectively esteem people who are capable of displaying that level of commitment to winning. The vast majority of hardcore fans and writers (and fighters, for that matter) recognized the true rarity of that kind of willpower from both parties involved in the fight. A myth was born because we, as a community, decided that Henderson-Shogun met our conscious or unconscious criteria for what makes a fight great and then actively set about mythologizing it.