Behind the Fight
GSP’s striking coach, Firas Zahabi. gives us some insight into what it takes to build a champion.
On the shortlist of highly sought after MMA trainers, Firas Zahabi is one of the names at the top. The Montreal-based guru operates out of the heralded Tri-Star Gym, which is the current home of Georges St-Pierre, Rory MacDonald, Kenny Florian, Miguel Torres, Yves Joubin, Ivan Menjivar, and John Makdessi. FIGHT! caught up with Zahabi to discuss his road to success, what it will take to generate the stars of the future, and whether or not a highly publicized grudge with B.J. Penn has ever been put to rest.
What is the philosophy behind your training methods?
My specialty is that I really am an MMA coach. I have a background in Muay Thai, going undefeated and becoming a Canadian Muay Thai Champion. I have a few medals in freestyle wrestling and won titles in BJJ. I really have experience in every aspect, and the first thing I do is assess each fighter I’m working with. Every fi ghter needs something different, and you can’t expect somebody to adapt right away. You have to assess it properly and have an in-depth knowledge of all the arts. When I work with guys, I can really pinpoint their weaknesses a lot easier because I have such a broad perspective of what is happening.
Your gym has long been one of the most heralded MMA camps. What do you attribute this notoriety to?
We have some of the best fighters in the world, and every time we go into a fight in the UFC, we treat it like it is the Olympics. There is tremendous preparation that goes into it, and these guys are truly the Ironmen of sports. They have to learn to do everything. They have to wrestle one day, box another, and then do strength and conditioning. There are a lot of pieces to put together. I believe in my formula. I believe in assessing each fi ghter and targeting their weaknesses first. That’s notalways easy to do because people don’t want to work on their weaknesses. They usually want to do what they’re good at because it is fun and they enjoy doing it. When you are not good at something, you don’t want to do it. Motivation becomes a key factor. You have to be able to connect with your fighters and communicate with them.
Tri-Star has a unique way of developing young talent by housing them. What’s the benefit?
Tri-Star gym has a dorm on-site, and fighters can come and rent a dorm for an extended or short stay. It helps them really immerse themselves into their training. That’s very important. I trained in Thailand in training camps and spent my summers there. I found it to be a good way to truly immerse myself in the art. That is what we are trying to bring to Tri-Star.
Over the course of producing champions such as Georges St-Pierre, you have been pulled into the limelight. How comfortable are you in the spotlight?
I get that question a lot, and, to be honest, I just don’t think about it. I just focus on the training and preparation of the fighters, and I don’t focus on whether or not I’m gaining popularity. The primary focus is preparing fighters so they can perform and be successful. It’s also important for the gym to be successful. Everything else will take care itself.
B.J. Penn once famously threatened you on UFC Primetime. How do those things affect you, and has the beef between Tri-Star and Penn subsided?
The tension has absolutely subsided. B.J. and I have talked about it, and it is water under the bridge. There was friction on both our ends…but that’s fighting. We are good friends now, and we talk. I think he’s a great person, and his whole camp is full of good people. Just being put in that spot makes people act differently, and, of course, with there being a show involved, there needed
to be that back and forth. You can’t just say nice things all the time.
What is the one constant you use when dealing with big superstars to the guy who just started training professionally at Tri-Star?
I stress the basics to everyone. The fundamentals can never be good enough.
If you had to look five years down the road, where do you see this sport going?
I believe this sport will rival the NFL one day. I think fighting is more intriguing than any other sport, and it is just a matter of time before it becomes on the same level as the NBA and NFL.
What one thing do you want fans to know about you?
I’m a full-time trainer and a full-time family man. That is what I do, and I don’t do much else. That is who I am. I spend a lot of time with my fighters, and as soon as I’m free, I go spend it with my family.