As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, fans and the general public are starting to understand mixed martial arts (MMA) more and more.
One of the most underrated aspects of martial arts is a fighter’s ability to incorporate cerebral strategies and game plans into his/her games. In MMA, the smarter fighter is quite often the one who wins consistently. We credit a smart fighter as having a high fight IQ.
From deconstructing an opponent’s game plan to predicting the next stage of his/her attack, a competitor with a high fight IQ can often be steps ahead of his/her opponents inside the cage. Over the years, we have all witnessed fighters blast through divisions only to have their “hype trains” derailed by opponents with a comprehensive understanding of how to negate their powers and nullify their weaponry.
Below, we take a look at five fighters who exemplify the benefits of having a high fight IQ.
5) Tyron Woodley
UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley has caught a lot of slack over the years for being outspoken. From lashing out at other fighters to falling out with UFC President Dana White, what we have learned from “The Chosen One” is that he is not afraid to speak his mind.
Woodley is one of the smartest fighters on the UFC roster. A Missouri University Agricultural Economics major, the 36-year-old has directed his own career superbly. Even more, his fight IQ is criminally underrated and deserves far more respect than it gets.
Let’s consider his brutal 2-minute, championship-winning KO of Robbie Lawler. Woodley controlled distance superbly, employing feints and movement to set up Lawler before poleaxing him with a superb right hand. Woodley then beat striking-extraordinaire Stephen Thompson in 2017 following a closely fought draw a few months earlier.
Woodley then wrote the blueprint on how to beat the resurgent BJJ standout Demian Maia at UFC 214 (handing him his first loss in 8 fights) before derailing the Darren Till hype train at UFC 228. Woodley’s ability to strangle an opponent’s strengths, make mid-fight adjustments, and deal with pressure all contribute to an advanced intelligence inside the cage.
4) Jon Jones
While Jon Jones is a controversial inclusion on this list, he still deserves his place. If run-ins with the law and failed drug tests have sullied his legacy, Jones still remains one of the most fascinating and intelligent fighters in the history of MMA. While he won’t go down as the Muhammad Ali of mixed martial arts—perhaps as some would have thought—he has one last chance to prove to the world that his raw talent is exceptional.
Jones is genetically gifted with exceptional long range and natural athleticism that saw him beat everyone ever put against him (yes, we are aware that he lost once by DQ). Leaving any debate regarding performance-enhancing drugs aside, Jones’s greatest talent was combining his genetic attributes with an extremely high fight IQ to nullify seemingly stronger, more durable opponents. Having the brains over at Jackson Wink MMA in his corner certainly helped too.
Jones’s ability to make necessary adjustments during fights makes him one of the smartest fighters inside a cage. Jones adapted and overcame the challenges of “Shogun” Rua, Brandon Vera, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, and Daniel Cormier throughout his career by nullifying his opponents’ strengths and understanding how to deal with everything they had to give.
The way he walked Cormier into that head kick in their UFC 214 rematch in 2017 sums up just how smart he is inside the cage.
3) Max Holloway
UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway is arguably pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world. He is an excellent striker and has a game with no discernible weaknesses, not to mention a relentless engine. He is also one of the smartest fighters in MMA. It is quite fitting that “Blessed” is a fighter who seems to be in a constant state of evolution inside the cage just like the sport continues to evolve around him.
Holloway lost three of his first seven fights under the UFC banner, with the last of his defeats coming at the hands (and feet) of Conor McGregor in August 2013. Since then, the Hawaiian has blown through the 145-pound division like a petard, blasting everyone in his way. Two incredibly impressive victories over Jose Aldo in 2017 and a dominant win over previously unbeaten Brian Ortega in 2018 have put him in consideration for being the greatest featherweight of all time despite only turning 27 in December.
For all of Holloway’s easily identifiable skills and attributes, the one that seems to get the least amount of attention is his sky-high fight IQ. The champ is a master at unsettling and overwhelming opponents inside the cage, limiting their presence and potency with flurry after flurry of shots. His proclivity for going to the body is something that makes him stand out from his peers, and his ability to close the distance and read his opponents’ attacks is awesome to watch.
One of his greatest performances in this regard came against Cub Swanson in 2015. Watch how he switches his stance and throws incredibly creative combinations. His relentless pressure and volume make it incredibly difficult for Swanson to counter or launch an attack of his own. Holloway did this with lead hooks to the head, body shots, kicks to the midriff, and much more.
In 2018, we’re seeing the full extent of what Holloway is capable of. His fight IQ is extraordinary.
2) Georges St-Pierre
As arguably the greatest fighter in the history of MMA, it is perhaps not surprising that Georges St-Pierre has one of the highest fight IQs of any fighter in the history of the sport. GSP seemingly has it all. While he has fought only once in more than 5 years—a UFC middleweight championship victory over the tough Michael Bisping—he is still someone who is capable of beating anyone on his day.
It would be very easy to talk about everything the Canadian has to offer inside the Octagon, but it is his razor-sharp fight IQ that is most pertinent here. A master of reading his opponents and turning their advantages against them, St-Pierre was ruthlessly efficient inside the cage against most of the men he fought throughout his career. Rather than being an instinctive genius, he was a thorough planner and always had a plan B, even if he was capable of adjustments under pressure.
“Martial arts is not about who’s got the biggest balls,” St-Pierre told Joe Rogan in the post-fight interview following his victory over Bisping at UFC 217. “Sorry for my language. It’s about technique, setting traps, and intelligence. I was fighting a bigger man, and I was trying to prove it tonight to all my fans.”
St-Pierre’s complete efficiency and understanding of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses enabled him to set a number of traps for them over the years. His two losses in competition—to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra—were avenged in brutal fashion, thus demonstrating his total commitment to overcoming any challenge.
His resume is a testament to his incredible knack for noticing the smallest of details and preparing a plan A, B, and C to ensure victory. St-Pierre is the atypical nerd of the sport (meant in the most praising way possible) and should be studied by any fighters with aspirations of improving their own fight IQs in MMA.
1) Demetrious Johnson
In 2018, the UFC’s loss became ONE Championship’s gain as multiple-time MMA World Champion Demetrious Johnson from the Evolve Fight Team joined the Asian sports media property.
With awesome speed, a well-developed all-around skill set, and great defense, he is one of the best to ever do it, especially when you consider the strength of one of Johnson’s greatest attributes: his high fight IQ.
Throughout his record-breaking run of 11 title defenses in the UFC, Johnson displayed a peerless ability to make mid-fight adjustments early on during his reign as champion. For example, in 2013 against John Dodson, Johnson was knocked to the canvas three times in the first two rounds, seemingly struggling with the speed and dexterity of the southpaw. By round three, however, Johnson had worked his way around the problem and battered his way to victory.
As time went on, the greatest flyweight of all time beat the best of the best in the division, showcasing his iron will and computer-like brain. Even if he started slowly, he would work through the early rounds, absorbing patterns and movements before answering any repetition with convincing aplomb. How much does he owe his success to his awesome fight IQ?