The Quest For Perfection
At one of the entrances to Montreal’s Claude-Robillard Sports Complex, a sophisticated venue originally built for the 1976 Summer Olympics, light heavyweight Tom Murphy tells the story of meeting his current trainer. At UFC 58, Firas Zahabi was cornering Icho Larenas, whom Murphy stopped via TKO in the third round. Two years later at the GAMMA gym in Montreal, Zahabi recognized Murphy. As Zahabi stepped forward, Murphy got an unexpected reception.
“Zahabi said, ‘I know who you are. But don’t worry, you’re welcome to train here,’” explains Murphy, who later joined Zahabi’s MMA team.“I almost want to think of Zahabi like a father, even though I’m older than him. But that’s how you look at him,” Murphy insists. “You look at him like an elder because he’s so smart and he’s so wise.”
Starting from the age of 15, Zahabi was involved in boxing and Muay Thai, going 5-1 in amateur boxing and winning all 10 of his Muay Thai fights. He captured the Canadian Amateur Muay Thai title two times, but the word “amateur” is a misnomer.
“We didn’t have a pro league, because it’s illegal to do Muay Thai in Quebec,” Zahabi says. “There were no pros because there was no commission.”
Making several trips to Thailand, Zahabi worked with the legendary11-time Muay Thai champion Sagat Petchyindee, who is thought to be the inspiration for Sagat, the under boss character in Street Fighter.
Zahabi lucked out at 19 years of age when his wrestling coach, Angelo Exarhakos, discovered Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Exarhakos trained with Gracie Jiu-Jitsu founder Renzo Gracie three days a week, giving Zahabi the edge at a time when many Montreal schools boasted “jiu-jitsu” on their signs, but had no true knowledge of the discipline.
As Zahabi completed his philosophy degree in his mid-twenties, he contemplated pursuing the life of a professional fighter. Although he went 6-1 in amateur MMA shows, he rejected a life of chasing small purses in favor of teaching. Eventually, he became head trainer at Tristar Gymin Montreal.
The cornerstone of Zahabi’s instruction lies with a process he calls “daily decrease.”
“If you look at UFC fights, all the moves that are used, we pretty much know them all,” Zahabi says. “The guys at that level—the arm bars, the chokes, the right hands, the left hooks, the combinations—we’ve seen the mall. The errors—right now they’re the only place left for improvement.”
Friday afternoon, the pros spar inside Tristar Gym. At the tail end of the session, everyone wraps up except one pair. The lankier fighter gets stunned. His opponent senses weakness and rushes in for the kill, dropping him hard.
A figure rushes in to restore order. “What are you doing? He’s got a fight coming up next week! What are you guys doing?” yells Aiemann Zahabi, younger brother of Firas.
The aggressor points to his body, indicating it was a body shot that felled his sparring partner. Someone realizes there was no clock to signify the end of the round. It’s a gritty reminder of the day-to-day workings of the gym—always full tilt, always full of potential for danger.
Georges St-Pierre is in attendance, covered in sweat and smiling. As he devours a meal prepared by his personal chefs, he casually mentions, “I am trying to gain weight.”
Everyone who works with GSP speaks of his ability to constantly improve—day-to-day and fight-to fight.Right now he spends 70% of his time in Montreal, 20% in New York, and 10% split between Albuquerque and France.
In the wake of his shocking loss to Matt Serra in 2007, GSP decided to change things up. Zahabi had been a training partner of GSP for several years. After the loss, Zahabi became one of GSP’s main partners.
“I knew Zahabi was the best to train MMA,” explains GSP. “He’s well rounded and has a lot of knowledge. He has traveled all around the place, so he knows what he’s talking about.”
St-Pierre restlessly pursues his goal of being one of the greatest fighters of all time. He knows complacency is kryptonite for the ambitious.
“If you’re satisfied with what you have, you’re not going to go far,” GSP says. I’m never satisfied with what I have, so I always reach further.”
The modern MMA fighter needs to be extremely well-rounded, so crosstraining with different coaches is optional. The help given to Georges St-Pierre by New York-based Muay Thai trainer Phil Nurse and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu prodigy John Danaher has often been mentioned. However, Zahabi only began his household name status when the UFC produced a three-part primetime series promoting the B.J. Penn vs. GSP super fight prior to UFC 94.
Saturday afternoons, Bruno Fernandes runs a semi-private jiu-jitsu class at Tristar. Many MMA athletes concentrate on no-gi grappling, but GSP and David “The Crow” Loiseauare there, decked out in their gis, a show of their diligence in maintaining tradition alongside the innovation their team is known for.
Although Loiseau was the very first fighter from Quebec in the UFC, his worth to the organization is measured by his last performance. At UFC 97, he dropped a decision to Ed Herman in front of his hometown crowd in Montreal. Despite being cut from UFC after losing, he knows there’s more for him to give.
“I feel that the sky’s the limit for me. I’m 29 years old,” says Loiseau. “I’m very open-minded, determined to keep going strong and keep working on my weaknesses.”
Beginning his study of martial arts with Kyokushin Karate at 9 years of age, Loiseau has consistently evolved his training. He earned his black belt in tae-kwan-do at the age of 14, progressed to full-contact kickboxing, and began formal training for MMA at 19 years old. In college, The Crow had plans to become a sports psychologist, which made sense since he says he’s “always been interested in the power of the mind.”
During his time in college, a car accident fractured two discs in Loiseau’s spine and changed the way he looked at life. He became anxious about his recovery. Would he ever participate in contact sports again? The final answer: Yes.
“With faith, a lot of prayers, and a lot of dedication, I got to where I am today,” says Loiseau of his full recovery after a year of rehab.
The near-tragedy led Loiseau to pursue fighting professionally. He was given a second chance, and he was getting it right this time.
Currently, a big, bold question mark looms over Loiseau’s career. In an upcoming documentary entitled The Striking Truth, the camera compares Loiseau’s setbacks with GSP’s success. Such juxtapositions are inevitable in the fight game when athletes peak at different times, but it doesn’t make it any easier for Loise auto swallow.
Tom Murphy appears relaxed and composed. There isn’t a trace of anxiety to betray the fact that he’s competing at the inaugural Mixed Fight League card in a few hours.
Zahabi trained seven fighters for the card. The first match has Bruno Lurette making his professional debut against Fred Belanger in a middleweight bout. Wearing florescent green ankle guards, Lurette strides into the ring with the confidence you’d expect from a guy with Firas Zahabi and strength and conditioning trainer Jonathan Chaimberg at his side.
“Breathe, Bruno, breathe!” shouts Zahabi, as Lurette takes the first round, primarily a stand-up battle. In the second round, Belanger opens a nasty cut on Bruno’s forehead. Near the end of the round, Lurette takes his opponent down, gaining the mount and doing some damage.
The ring card girls—eight of them—circle the outside of the cage, continuing as the bell rings for the final round. During the final round, the stand-up battle continues, with Lurette getting the better of his opponent.
The judges give Lurette the decision,putting Team Zahabi up 1-0 on the night.
Welterweight Alex Garcia, who has been working with Firas for the last six months, makes his professional debut against T.J. Coletti. He wears agi and bows inside the cage. Coletti throws frantic and amateurish strikes as fear sabotages his composure. Garcia takes Coletti down, only to find a new hazard waiting for his coming out fight.
“Guillotine! Guillotine!” screams Zahabi. “Head in his face! Head in his face! He has nothing! He has no guillotine! Push his head down!”
Garcia escapes to side control and stops Coletti via strikes 3:34 into the first round. Zahabi’s score goes to 2-0.
After two more preliminaries, intermission: two girls from Magik Art Trapeze put on an aerial act reminiscent of the high-flying Cirque du Soleil.Their balance and precision garners loud cheers from the audience, enthralled with the aerobatics.
There’s also a furor as the show’s special guest, Georges St-Pierre, takes his spot next to longtime friend Eric O’Keefe at ringside. Fans mob St-Pierre, pleading for autographs and photos, paying no mind to the fence separating them from GSP’s seat.
Two fights later, Zahabi MMA fighter Dimitri Waardenburg faces Pierre-Etienne Marcoux. This is the closest bout of the night, with Marcoux attempting submissions from his back as Waardenburg continually struggles to escape. Marcoux seems to win the first round, and the second is also a ground battle. In the third round, Waardenburg drops Marcoux with a punch, mounting him and taking his back. The bell rings with Waardenburg pulling guard.
Though it was clear to the crowd that Marcoux deserved at least one round, the judges call this bout 29-28, 29-28, and 30-27. Waardenburg gets the nod, taking Zahabi MMA to 3-0.
Now comes middleweight Marcus Celestin, who failed to make weight on Friday afternoon. His opponent, Mark Blackburn, appears intimidated by Celestin’s size. Any hope for a weight-drained Celestin to fade in the later rounds evaporates the instant he nails Blackburn with a vicious left hook 1:24 into the first round. It’s a clean knockout, and the crowd loves Celestin for it.
Next up is Tom Murphy in a heavyweight bout against Jason Cecil. Although Murphy took this bout on two days notice, there’s little doubt that the former Division III wrestler and Ultimate Fighter contestant will win.
Securing a takedown to side control, Murphy lands knee after knee to Cecil’s body. Cecil gains half-guard, but he’s purely in survival mode as Murphy’s strikes continue to rain down, bloodying Cecil’s nose.
The second round opens with a devastating body kick by Murphy, followed by another takedown to side control. Getting Cecil’s back, it’s game over as Cecil taps to a rear naked choke at 1:29. Five fights, five victories for Zahabi MMA.
Dubbed “The Next GSP,” Derek Gauthier arrives with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. His welterweight match against Long Island’s Mike Medrano proves to be the fight of the night. Although Gauthier was trained by Zahabi for this bout, he has longtime coach Normand Grimard in his corner,with Zahabi sitting ringside.
Round one is fierce. Gauthier tries landing some low kicks, while Medrano simply wants to take Derek’s head off. The 5’5” American is built like a brick shit house and sports a psychotic gaze, seemingly amused that Gauthier believes he can hurt him. The ensuing stand-up battle grows more heated, the arena’s noise climbing several decibels with the action. Chaimberg and Zahabi shout for Gauthier to go for the takedown, but Gauthier will have none of it. He’s hungry for a knockout victory.
“Some people won’t listen,” Zahabi tells Chaimberg.
The second round sees Gauthier take more control as Medrano loses some fire. Gauthier gets takendown, but Medrano lets him backup, as he’s more comfortable on the feet. As Gauthier pours it on, he drops Medrano, looking to do some ground-n-pound.
The final round demonstrates Medrano’s toughness, as he gets stunned and trapped against the cage repeatedly. Out on his feet, the ref stops the fight and Gauthier earns his fifth victory. Zahabi’s internal scorecard reads 6-0.
When Thierry “The Surgeon” Quenneville takes the stage for the headlining bout of the evening, the crowd is catatonic from having beer to drink and no food available at the venue. The Surgeon’s opponent is Tim Tamaki. Witthin two minutes of the opening bell, Quenneville locks in the rear naked choke, while the partisan crowd sneers, “Goodnight!”
Reminded of his team’s seven-win evening, Zahabi glows, reflects. “My amateurs went 8-1 last week,” he says.
It’s time for dinner on Sunday night. Sitting around the table, among others, is Kenny Florian, who arrived straight off the plane from a Boston-Philadelphia-Montreal route. The obvious question comes first: Why did Florian break with Mark DeLa Grotte?
“I just thought that the effort put forward by Zahabi was very impressive,” Florian says. “We clicked, and what he said really made sense.”
A self-proclaimed late bloomer, Florian thrived while earning his bachelor’s in communications from Boston College. Training in BJJ helped solidify his discipline, but after graduating, Florian still straddled two worlds: office life and fighting. In the “real” world, Florian worked as a project manager at a translation agency. It paid the bills, but brought little satisfaction. Like Loiseau’s car accident, a near-death experience in 2003 during a training trip to Brazil would prove pivotal in shifting Florian’s focus.
As he was mountain climbing, Florian lost his footing and went headfirstoff a cliff. Thankfully, he fellon a rock. If the rock hadn’t caught Florian, the next stop was hundreds of feet below. Obviously, the experience opened Florian’s eyes to the finality of life.
“You can’t go living out someone else’s dream,” Florian insists. “You have to chase your passion, and chase what you love. I knew I had to do that. Otherwise I’d be the old guy in the rocking chair saying, ‘I wish I could have done that.’”
As driven as Florian has been in his career, coming up short against B.J. Penn was an experience that may not have put him face to face with death, but changed him nonetheless. He learned to trust himself and to commit to what he wants to do in the ring. And that sick feeling of not executing as planned still hasn’t left. But that’s part of why he is in Montreal.
It’s clear that Firas Zahabi is a father figure for the guys he works with. Tom Murphy easily explained the humanity and friendship provided by Zahabi, but struggled to relate the dichotomy of his trainer’s personality. Watching Zahabi offer his salad dressing-dipped finger as a treat to his infant son during dinner, the caring side is in ample evidence. But when it comes to survival of the fittest in MMA, Mike Tyson’s viciousness—minus the uncontrollable violence—is an adequate picture of the intensity of Zahabi’s instruction.
The victories earned by his teamare just temporary stops on a long road, and it isn’t long before hefinds himself contemplating the next battle.
“It’s exciting in a way, because you never know what’s going to happen. You’re opening up a new present, you’re opening up a new gift,” says Zahabi. “At the same time, it’s a little scary, because you never know what you’re going to get.”