Firas Zahabi Exclusive Interview: GSP’s recovery, Rory MacDonald, how to train, and much more…

I’ve known Firas for not even a year at this point, but can tell you he is one of the most passionate, caring, honest people in the business. The first time I ever had the chance to talk to him was in Vancouver for UFC 131. It was the morning of the event and we were out having breakfast together. During breakfast, I mentioned to Firas a charity event I was running in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation and asked if Firas could donate a training session at Tri-Star for our auction. He’s response: “Of course man, whatever you need”. Later on that summer, famed MMA coach Shawn Tompkins passed away of a heart attack and not long after I received an email from Firas’ wife stating that Firas wanted to play a bigger part in my charity event. He wanted to deliver training sessions at no charge to the event and make himself available for an autograph session. I thought “Wow, what a caring man”. Then in Houston before UFC 136, we had breakfast again. Here Firas mentioned that we should make the event in memory of Shawn Tompkins, which then lead me to get in touch with Mark Hominick, which lead me to Shawn’s wife Emilie and it was so. The event: Martial Arts For Heart- In memory of Shawn Tompkins. When it was all said and done, we raised close to $5000 for Heart and Stroke research in Shawn’s name.

So when I decided to pursue a career as a MMA journalist I asked Firas if he would be my first exclusive. His response “ Sounds good, let’s do this”. That’s just the type of guy Firas is and it’s why so many of the world’s top fighters have elected to take up camp with him in Montreal.

During our interview we touched on many subjects, including: How he got involved in MMA, GSP’s recovery, a hypothetical Georges St. Pierre vs. Rory MacDonald title fight, how a fighter (or aspiring fighter) can receive training from Firas and much more. Full interview below:  Welcome Firas and thanks for the interview. Why don’t you give us a bit of background in how you got involved in MMA and the Tri-Star gym.

Firas:  I saw Royce Gracie fight in UFC 2 and was extremely intrigued in seeing a smaller man beat a bigger muscular guy. I was wondering how he did what he did. That lead me to take up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, then Muay Thai, then wrestling and finally MMA as a whole. That was 12 years ago. At what point in your career, did you start working with GSP full-time?

Firas: I have been working with GSP for 10 years now. We started out as training partners. I was amateur champion at the time and GSP was on his way to becoming pro, a big prospect. Georges walked into Tri Star and we started training together. We got along very quickly and become very close. I was a muay thai/jiu-jitsu guy and GSP was a jiu-jitsu/wrestling guy. Even though he had a karate background he was very heavy into wrestling at that time. We started sharing techniques and built a great relationship right from the start. He had a kickboxing coach that started managing his training. But that didn’t work out very well and only lasted for two years. After that Georges asked me to be his head coach and take his training more seriously. He wanted me to oversee all his training as we have similar mentalities on how to train. He trusted me to make his training and career a priority. We have been training together ever since. Speaking of Georges, how is he recovering from his knee surgery last week?

Firas: GSP is recovering very well, although it’s only a little over a week since the surgery. The Doctor said the surgery couldn’t have gone any better. Georges will start rehab at The Sports Science Lab, has been in contact with me regularly and is motivated to start rehabilitation. Everyone is very confident on a full recovery and we are all looking forward to the next training. After rehab its back to MMA training and everyone can’t wait for that. You coach one of the top young prospects in the welterweight division (Rory MacDonald). In a hypothetical situation, if GSP successfully returned as champion and Rory had earned himself a title shot by that point, how would your team handle such a scenario?

Firas: Rory and GSP are very very close. All of us hang out together all the time and although we fight each other constantly, wrestle, roll, box with each other. We would never entertain the thought of fighting each other in front of the world for money. The camp doesn’t work like that. Our fighters don’t fight each other professionally. Its not something the camp would be comfortable with. We’ve said no to smaller organizations who asked us put two of our guys together. We’re very close with each other and I don’t see Georges and Rory ever fighting. Speaking of young prospects, how do you go about recruiting new talent to your gym?

Firas: Honestly I don’t. I don’t go looking for new fighters. The fighters come to the gym and say that want to start training. A lot of them come in with experience and maybe they feel their club can’t take them any further and want to come to a club that does it very competitively. Don’t forget a lot of clubs do it more recreationally. We’re really more of a competitive club and we also have amateurs and people who do it for fun. But we have a professional atmosphere, for professional fighters, which is very serious. It’s a lot of time on a trainer’s hands. I spend all my day prepping workouts and getting things organized. I don’t know that many people out there prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. It’s a very long process and a lot of work. I think fighters are looking for a camp that does that. Fighters are looking for somebody that will make their fighting a priority and the lifestyle of preparing for a fight a priority. I often do bump into fighters at the shows, other professional fighters who are already established. Sometimes we chit chat and sometimes they show interest in coming to train and sometimes I show interest in training with other fighters. We mingle and we talk and we all travel a lot so sometimes it happens where we cross paths and we work out together. Sometimes we click and sometimes we don’t and sometimes relationships are built that way. For the most part though it’s just guys walking through the door looking for a place that can cater to their needs. If an aspiring mixed martial artist is reading this right now and wanted to show you his or her skills. How would they go about getting in touch with your gym?

Firas: That would be very simple actually. Just show up to the Tri-Star gym sign up and start working out. Everyone goes through an evaluation. So you go through the basics class and if you’re beyond your basics you obviously immediately graduate to intermediate. From intermediate you can graduate to advanced and from advanced you can graduate to the professional training. So anybody who walks in the door is going to get funneled to whatever level they belong to. We have a basics class for people who have never trained before and we have professional class for people who are at the world championship level. You know, the professional, international, elite level. So that’s how you do it. Just show up to the gym. It’s not necessary to call or reserve. It’s really that simple. Of course we have the Tri-Star dorms so if fighters are already seasoned and have a professional record. All they have to do is contact the gym and ask about our dorms. Or if they just want to stay for a week or a weekend even and they have their own arrangements. They can just show up to the gym and ask about the intermediate and advanced class. Of course the people at the front desk will question them and see where they fit in. And see if they should pass the basics and intermediate. Obviously, if someone has an established record, they don’t need to be evaluated and we already know what they can do. But for someone without a professional record, they have to go through an evaluation. In comparison to some of the other head coaches who train championship level fighters, you’re quite young. Have you ever thought about competing yourself inside the Octagon?

Firas: I get that question asked to me a lot and you know before I become a coach I was fighting and had interest in fighting. I had over 20 fights and was really motivated to continue competing, but I was only competing at the amateur level although I was a big prospect to turn professional. But, you know, that got sidelined when I started training more and more guys. Our head instructor at Tri-Star at that time had left. Which left a need for a new instructor to take his place. I was elected to do so, I was asked to do so. So then I became the instructor, putting my fights on hold just for a little bit. You know, it’s been 10 years later for me and I’m still putting it all on hold. I like what I do, so I don’t think I’ll ever fight professionally in a cage. But who knows, one day if I get the itch, or I’m fed up with coaching or I just don’t have the passion for it anymore. I might look for something new and that might be there. But for now I leave the fighting to the fighters and I just do what I like to do right now. And what I like doing right now is helping guys prepare for fights. Last but not least, what has been your proudest moment as a professional MMA coach and trainer?

Firas: That would have to be UFC 94 when Georges beat BJ Penn and it had a lot to do more with the preparation. At that time the preparation was very difficult and there was a lot of pressure. It was just the way our team all pulled together. I was really happy with how everyone came together to support Georges. That was the first time we had so many people reach out to help. So many fighters were eager to come and help and push Georges. We were very united at that point. I really feel that fight made a big difference. That fight set the atmosphere in the gym for a long long time to come. It’s still there and it’s still going to be there for a long time to come. It’s a great atmosphere In the gym, we’re a united group and we’re focused on one goal. That goal being the best we can be for all the fighters. That was one of those camps where there was just something electric in the air. Getting that victory for Georges, when I saw Georges get that victory. That for me was the best moment as a coach.