Meet the man behind GSP

NEIL SPRINGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:18 PM ET

Behind every great fighter is a dedicated trainer working to ensure everything goes smoothly once the cage door shuts.

Meet Firas Zahabi, head trainer at Tristar Gym in Montreal, and the man whose job it is to prepare UFC welterweight champion Georges (Rush) St. Pierre for his fight with Jake Shields at UFC 129 Saturday.

Champions are made over years of training, not only practising the same techniques until they can be performed in your sleep, but continuing to evolve with the curve of the sport.

In this regard, Zahabi said nobody works harder than St. Pierre.

“He’s definitely the most dedicated guy I’ve ever worked with,” Zahabi said in an interview with QMI Agency. “It’s always been a pleasure to work with Georges. Every lesson for him is a new lesson for him. He’s always got that enthusiasm, that awe, that gleam in his eye when you show him something new or work with him on a strategy. He’s so motivated; he loves what he does. It’s always something positive to work with him.

“He’s really a great role model for the young kids. It’s a great honour and pleasure for me to work with him.”

Though Zahabi is normally busy going over technique with his stable of fighters, which also includes fellow UFC 129 competitors Rory MacDonald and Sean Pierson among others, he took the time to give a group of journalists a taste of the GSP workout at TKMT Academy in Toronto.

Along with fellow QMI writer Chris Doucette, I worked on a series of drills — kimura shoulder locks from side control, guillotine chokes from guard — and even hit the pads.

Though this offered a unique opportunity to receive instruction from one of the best trainers in the game, it also earned me the unfortunate distinction of being the first QMI staffer (that I know of, anyway) to have The Douce lay on top of him and crank his arm behind his back.

Getting ready for an opponent the calibre of Shields meant St. Pierre put a special emphasis on grappling. On top of working with his usual BJJ coach John Danaher, high-level black belts Roger Gracie and Braulio Estima were brought in to help St. Pierre prepare for the submission onslaught.

“The biggest challenge for this fight was to make sure Georges is very ready for Jake Shields’ ground game,” Zahabi said. “That is where Jake Shields scores most of his offensive attacks. I feel Georges is very well prepared for this challenge.

“I’ll tell you one thing: expect a lot of offensive attacks because they’re both high-pressure fighters. So expect a lot of dynamic attacks. The first guy to back off and start playing defence is probably the guy who is going to lose the fight. So keep an eye out for that.”

Though both competitors are heralded for their respective wrestling ability, they each employ a different approach in MMA.

St. Pierre likes to mix in an explosive shot with his striking game to secure a quick takedown. If he fails, he backs away to conserve energy and avoid leaving himself open to submission. Shields on the other hand, will dig straight into his opponent’s hips and work relentlessly until he’s gotten the fight to the ground.

Zahabi predicts the fight will go to the mat, but is unsure who will be on top when it does.

“I definitely think this fight will go to the ground eventually,” Zahabi said. “How long it will stay there and under what circumstances still remains to be seen.

“When it comes to wrestling, it’s a question of styles. If you look at Jake Shields, he’s a very good chain-wrestler. He goes from one move, to another move, to another move — his series just never ends. In the style that we teach (at Tristar), you have a good strong penetration step, then you go from one move to the next — maybe only one or two moves.

“We don’t believe in staying on (your opponent’s) legs for too long. It’s fatiguing and you’re vulnerable to guillotines, omoplatas and kimuras. Basically the focus is to get a quick takedown. If it doesn’t work, come back out and try it again.”

St. Pierre should have the biggest advantage in the stand-up exchanges but Zahabi said Shields’ striking is unjustly criticized. Besides, any shortcomings in Shields’ striking abilities are nullified by his stellar grappling.

“A lot of people criticize Jake for his standup, but I don’t see it as a huge factor because his expertise is on the ground and in wrestling,” Zahabi. “I know he works hard on his striking, but he has a natural talent for jiu jitsu and wrestling. He’s been extremely successful. Just because he hasn’t been winning the same ways as other fighters, doesn’t mean it isn’t praise-worthy.

“He’s definitely a fantastic fighter — look at his win record. I think if you have a problem with his standup, you should get in the octagon with him and figure out why he’s still winning. The guy is winning. That’s the bottom line.”

With an intense training camp behind him, all St. Pierre has to do now is stay focused, make weight and then go out and perform. Zahabi admits anything can happen in MMA, but feels St. Pierre is fully prepared to handle Shields.

“Don’t forget, nobody has a crystal ball,” Zahabi said. “Everybody’s working on their contingency plan. We have a plan A, we have a plan B, we have a plan C. Georges, when he gets in there, he knows where to go and what to do all the time.

“Georges doesn’t often get to plan C, but he’ll definitely use plan B, that’s for sure.”


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