Every fighter in the UFC’s stable—or at least the ones that last the test of time—take drastic measures to ensure they optimize their potential heading into the Octagon.
Rarely, however, does a tactical game-planner the ilk of Georges St-Pierre come along and routinely produce intricate blueprints that perpetually lead to monumental wins.
Since teaming up with head trainer Firas Zahabi following his loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69, “GSP” has reeled off 11 straight wins, including 10 in title fights.
The welterweight kingpin isn’t alone in his pursuit of perfection through means of strategy.
Here are the 10 best tactical game-planners in MMA.
Chael Sonnen, Rory MacDonald, Gilbert Melendez, Carlos Condit, Demian Maia
He couldn’t have pulled it off without help from Renzo Gracie and Ricardo Almeida, but Frankie Edgar used brilliant fight schemes to outduel the seemingly unflappable B.J. Penn in back-to-back lightweight title fights at UFC 112 and UFC 118.
Although he’s gone just 1-3-1 in the five fights since besting Penn, “The Answer” didn’t drop his two fights to 155-pound champ Benson Henderson or his fight with 145-pound king Jose Aldo because of faulty game plans.
Edgar simply got nipped on the scorecards by two equally brilliant game-planners. Given a third fight with Henderson or a second fight with Aldo, The Answer could conceivably vindicate himself.
Roughly eight years ago, Brazilian drifter Junior dos Santos wandered into the gyms of Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Yuri Carlton and boxing coach Luiz Carlos Dorea. Not long after meeting Dorea, who affectionately nicknamed him “Cigano,” or gypsy in Portuguese, “JDS” wisely linked up with former Pride heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
With the influence of Nogueira, Dorea and Carlton, Cigano has developed a Chuck Liddell-like style in which he attempts to use his flexible hips and newfound wrestling dexterity to stuff takedowns and keep fights in the upright position.
Cigano used his recipe for success to perfection in his first nine UFC fights, garnering the heavyweight belt in the process.
Cigano’s only taste of defeat in the company came at the hands of elite wrestler Cain Velasquez in their rematch at UFC 155, a loss he yearns to vindicate in the near future.
The vicious beating that Cain Velasquez delivered to Antonio Silva at UFC 146 illustrated precisely how efficient the former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler can be in the Octagon at his peak.
Velasquez, who's trained by American Kickboxing Academy coaches Javier Mendez and Bob Cook, among many others, caught a Silva low kick in the fight’s opening seconds and planted the massive Brazilian on his back.
Silva squirmed for a little more than three minutes before succumbing to a TKO from devastating punches and elbows from Velasquez in the guard.
A gifted striker and grappler with a motor to match, Velasquez utilizes his skills as well as any fighter on this list, thanks in part to his stellar teammates and coaches at AKA.
Only a small cluster of fighters in the world can say that dueling with Lyoto Machida wasn’t a frustrating and eye-opening experience, mainly because of the Brazilian’s ability to enact sophisticated strategies.
An expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, Karate and wrestling, “The Dragon” was molded by trainer and father Yoshizo Machida, and fine-tuned by his coaches and teammates at Black House.
Former Pride and Strikeforce champ Dan Henderson got a taste of how mad Machida can make a fighter in the heat of battle at UFC 157. Henderson continuously moved forward and chased The Dragon for the better part of their three-round scrap, only to watch the cunning Machida use tricky footwork to effectively counterstrike his way to victory.
Lightweight champ Benson Henderson hasn’t finished fights in the UFC like he once did as a raw up-and-comer in the WEC.
Instead, Henderson, because of refinements made to his game at the renowned MMA Lab, has hit his stride using a style akin to St-Pierre.
Outshining Frankie Edgar in a pair of highly technical lightweight title fights at UFC 144 and UFC 150 were colossal moments for “Bendo.”
But the 29-year-old Henderson didn’t get to truly silence any critics until he handed Nate Diaz a thorough shellacking at UFC on Fox 5.
When Jose Aldo strategically thumped Urijah Faber at WEC 48, featherweights around the world took note that the team Nova Uniao product wasn't purely a knockout artist.
Before the Faber bout, Aldo had KO’d each of his first six opponents in the WEC with relative ease.
But Aldo and Nova Uniao head trainer Andre Pederneiras formulated an ingenious plan to stay away from the many strengths of Faber, a dominant wrestler and submission artist with a solid chin.
Instead of brawling, Aldo danced out of Faber’s range to take shots and stayed in the range to launch venomous leg kicks. Faber valiantly ate Aldo’s chopping kicks for the better part of five rounds, only to lose a unanimous decision and walk away with two severely brutalized limbs.
Regardless of his opponents’ skill set, UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz always employs the same fast-paced game plan.
With guidance from coaches like Lloyd Irvin, Alliance MMA team member Cruz learned to utilize his speed, footwork, wrestling aptitude and cardiovascular superiority to rise to top the WEC's bantamweight division.
Once in the UFC, Cruz got pitted against a pair of fighters with parallel styles in bantamweight title fights in Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson.
Cruz didn’t deviate from his typical scheme, constantly moving in and out of range and wrestling and boxing with precision en route to a pair of unanimous-decision wins that solidified him as one of the sport's pound-for-pound kings.
Like many renowned coaches in the sport, Jackson’s MMA trainers Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn have a knack for molding world-class athletes into champions in mixed martial arts.
Jackson and Winkeljohn helped former light heavyweight champ Rashad Evans develop after The Ultimate Fighter Season 2. Soon after, the duo began grooming the next UFC light heavyweight king, Evans’ protégé and an even more freakish athlete, Jon Jones.
With an 84.5-inch reach and equally gangly legs, plenty of Jones’ strengths are predicated on his advantages in the range departments.
When "Bones" senses he has a wrestling edge, like he did in tilts with Vitor Belfort, Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko, he’ll liberally score takedowns and employ nasty ground-and-pound.
In the case that Jones doesn’t want to wrestle—like in the Evans’ tilt—the 25-year-old New York native will stay at a safe enough range that he can avoid big strikes but fire his own bombs at will.
Jones loves roaming on the edge and throwing jabs, spinning elbows and punches, jumping knees and a slew of front kicks—a bag of techniques that have baffled the world's best for more than four years.
Unlike St-Pierre, who tends to control the tempo of his fights with his wrestling prowess, Anderson Silva doesn’t thrive off of controlling opponents on the ground.
Silva, on the contrary, continually prepares to counter the strengths of his foes, a skill that he’s nearly perfected in his unbeaten 16-fight UFC career.
A teammate of Machida at Black House, “The Spider” prefers to keep the fight standing in an attempt to apply his 77.6-inch reach and his tricky footwork.
Silva has also lured plenty of unfortunate victims, like former middleweight champ Rich Franklin, into his ruthless Muay Thai plum, and he’s finished opponents like Stephan Bonnar and Chael Sonnen on the strength of knees to the body and subsequent ground-and-pound.
Although brilliant in the art of improvising, Silva devises clever schemes that fit his style by preparing to counter anything and everything that's thrown his way.
Once St-Pierre linked up with Zahabi, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and a former training partner of the welterweight champ, GSP tightened up the flaws in his game, most of which stemmed from issues in game-planning.
Under Zahabi’s tutelage, the St-Pierre that emerged following the loss to Serra was a much more refined and disciplined beast. Rather than taking risks like he did in his loss to Matt Hughes at UFC, St-Pierre morphed into the world’s most disciplined fighter, treating each bout like a physical chess match.
Granted, St-Pierre’s fans certainly have reason to groan about the radically more conservative version of GSP that Zahabi built. But regardless of how many fights he’s won in a row via unanimous decision (six), GSP can thank Zahabi for his transformation from reckless up-and-comer to cerebral future Hall of Famer.