(GSP works the pads with Firas Zahabi.)
By FIGHT! contributor Brian D’Souza
Fresh from his latest success in cornering Kenny Florian to a second round submission against Clay Guida in December, Firas Zahabi is gaining well-earned notoriety as a top trainer in the MMA community.
Firas is the second of three brothers—all of whom are involved in the martial arts. His youngest brother, Aiemann, won his first Muay Thai bout last October, and his older brother, Ahmad, is a brown belt who teaches in Toronto and Burlington, Ontario. Sitting down inside Ahmad’s home, Firas explains more about the unique training methods implemented at Zahabi MMA.
“I train all the fighters differently,” says Firas, who contrasts the speedy style of Muhammad Ali against the explosive approach favored by Mike Tyson, “Mike Tyson had to fight on the inside—he had very short limbs. Muhammad Ali—he never threw any body shots.” Therefore every MMA fighter he works with, from elite professionals to amateur fighters, requires a tailor-made approach suited to their individual attributes. For example, Firas focused on tightening up Kenny Florian’s boxing against Clay Guida.
Being very close to renowned trainer and affiliate Greg Jackson, it was a collar-tugging situation when Jackson was responsible for cornering opponent Clay Guida opposite Zahabi at UFC 107. Firas explains that neither trainer was supposed to be put in that awkward position.
“It was either me or him that was going to be there,” says Firas, “I was the one that was going to step down first, but he wanted me to be there.” Guida was adamant about having his coach there, so the two trainers did what was best to support their fighters.
Working across different cities with affiliate trainers, Zahabi stresses the combined experience and acumen available for his fighters, “We network all of our fighters together—so if one of us needs a certain kind of sparring, I can provide that for them. I’ll send my guys over there and vice-versa.”
Besides traveling to Jackson’s camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fighters can be sent to Renzo Gracie Academy in New York where elite BJJ black belt John Danaher has forged strong ties with Zahabi MMA fighters. Danaher, who has a longstanding relationship with Georges St. Pierre, even recently accompanied GSP on a trip to Abu Dhabi.
With regards to New York trainer Phil Nurse, who like Zahabi, specializes in Muay Thai, Firas explains how they work together, “Our styles are very different, but complimentary.” The core of Zahabi’s Muay Thai, is in fact, boxing, “I really believe in boxing as a fundamental base because of the smaller gloves used in MMA and the nature of the kicks makes you vulnerable to takedowns.”
Zahabi cites extensive training in Thailand with numerous Thai fighters as part of resume. He was two-time Canadian amateur champion and also was involved in amateur boxing bouts. However, he notes the complications when transposing their system as most Thais are lightweights—at the higher weight divisions, knockouts are more likely as bigger fighters are capable of generating more power. For Zahabi, the jab is the primary weapon in a fighter’s boxing arsenal, which is then supported by Muay Thai.
“I’m a huge believer in the jab. Kenny started to jab a lot in his fight with Clay Guida. Georges St-Pierre has always been jabbing since we’ve been together—his whole style is based on the jab.”
Listening to Firas argue with his brother over a variety of subjects from the merits of CrossFit to yoga, I realize that Zahabi’s approach to MMA is about logic and efficiency. Firas takes the position that a workout shouldn’t burn an athlete out too much, whereas his brother Ahmad counters by saying that if you scaled the workout appropriately, it would be beneficial. Firas hashes and rehashes ideas with those around him until he finds the right way to apply a program. After all, it’s most critical to know where you’re going before you start the journey—and with the next great innovation in mind, Zahabi MMA will continue to pick up steam as the sport evolves into the future.