The place that could very well be the finest mixed martial arts gym in the world — and also the home gym of UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, who this weekend will return to the Octagon after a 1½-year hiatus due to a torn ACL — sits on the third floor of an old office building near Mount Royal, north of downtown Montreal.
If you didn’t have the address for Tristar Gym, you’d walk right past it. The gym doesn’t advertise. There’s no sign outside. The only indication that something special might be going on upstairs is the big red stars on the third-floor windows. When you walk past the wood-paneled walls straight out of the 1970s and into the spacious third floor, you walk into the place where five of the 26 fighters on this weekend’s UFC 154 card train.
A bulky man is slamming a sledgehammer, over and over, against a giant tractor tire on the cement floor. A teen is sparring in one boxing ring, while a middle-school boy works on his Muay Thai in the other. On one side of the gym is Mike Ricci, who stars in the current season of The Ultimate Fighter; on the other side is Alex Garcia, a blossoming 25-year-old fighter working his way up to the UFC.
When the 32-year-old Firas Zahabi, the gym’s owner and St-Pierre’s trainer, walks in, the 50 men who are sparring and chatting get silent. They circle around him on a wrestling mat. Zahabi instructs what these intermediate and beginning jiu-jitsu classes should be working on today, from arm locks to guillotine chokes to kimuras. They split off in pairs, students following the words of their oracle.
“Here we’re real martial artists,” Zahabi says as his pupils wriggle and grapple on the mat. “We train the true, effective art of combat. We try not to water down the martial arts experience, even for beginners. There’s no McDojo here. No McTraining. We’re really cooking here.”
This, you can tell, is a stock quote. Zahabi has likely said this exact sentence hundreds of times before. He’s not a man given to sound bites. He’d rather philosophize and rhapsodize. That may be the defining feature of this gym, which was recently ranked as the second-best mixed martial arts gym in the world, behind Jackson’s Martial Arts & Fitness Academy in Albuquerque, NM.
This is a place where Zahabi and his star pupil, St-Pierre, despise trash-talking, strutting and overconfidence. Instead, in the middle of a training session, they very well might be quoting Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to each other.
After all, Zahabi, who bought this gym five years ago, was a philosophy major in college. He’d planned to get his doctorate and become a professor. That’s still the plan, actually.
He wants to turn Tristar Gym into a chain of gyms, capitalizing on the fame of not just St-Pierre, but pupils and colleagues like UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, former lightweight contender Kenny Florian, welterweight Rory McDonald, who is one of the most up-and-coming fighters in the UFC, and any number of UFC fighters from around the world who’ve buzzed through here to train with the best.
“Just do martial arts and philosophize every day — that’d be the dream life,” he laughs.
An interview with Zahabi goes in short bursts. You’ll be sitting on top of a few heavy bags stacked on a wrestling mat, talking about one of his favorite books, Robert Greene’s “The 33 Strategies of War,” and he’ll see something in one of his students that he doesn’t like.
“I’ll be right back,” he says, then springs up. “Hey, guys, bring it in!”
The men circle around Zahabi as he grabs his little brother, Aiemann, to demonstrate a proper chest sweep.
Then Zahabi sits back down on the heavy bags and says, “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
No, you weren’t saying. He was saying: Jiu-jitsu isn’t just chaos on the mat in front of you. Where the untrained eye sees a tangle of arms and legs engaged in some strange form of ground ballet, Zahabi sees flurries of tactical movements.
“It’s like human chess,” he explains. “It’s like a puzzle. It’s mind-boggling to see all the new possibilities that can be created in jiu-jitsu.”
He thinks a moment: A connection between philosophy and mixed martial arts?
“I just like to know how things work,” he says. “Philosophy is the study of finding out how we know what we know. And a true martial artist attempts to reduce each movement to its smallest component, what we call reductionism. How can you defend a movement? You find its essence.”
To outsiders it might seem like mumbo jumbo. Mixed martial arts are about bloodlust and crowd-pleasing knockouts and kicking ass in a cage, right?
Inside Tristar, things are different. This is a place where over-aggression is kicked out, where mutual respect is expected, where parents bring teens for some discipline and are amazed when the teens come out acting like angels.
A big part of that can be seen next door, where 13 fighters are currently living in six spartan dorm rooms in a mixed martial arts monastery.
“It’s definitely not a five-star hotel,” Aiemann Zahabi, Firas’ 24-year-old little brother, says as he opens the dorm door.
Cement floor. Jugs of protein powder next to blenders. Secondhand couches, and a set of rules dictating that, among other things, you have to shower before you sit down on a couch. For $500 a month, aspiring young fighters pay for a single-minded focus on fighting.
Zahabi prides himself on training a world-class fighter like St-Pierre. But he also prides himself on being able to reach the wayward kids and teach them discipline.
Ricci, the competitor on the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, remembers when he first came into this gym as a cocky, thuggish 20-year-old Montrealer. He’d come from a bad part of town, he’d gotten caught up with the wrong crowd, and he just wanted to brawl.
Zahabi saw something in him: A fire, a talent, a lack of direction.
“One day Firas saw me, saw me and my demeanor, and asked me to spar with him, that Saturday at noon,” Ricci recalls. “Saturday at noon — I’ll never forget that time. It was just a vicious, brutal beating. From that time on, I pledged my allegiance to this trainer. And it’s given me a career. It’s given me a life, helped partially define who I am.”
It sounds like the military: Taking a wayward young man, breaking him down, building him back up. Sequestering young men in barracks-like quarters. Most of all, preaching a no-nonsense, no-trash-talk philosophy built on teamwork and mutual respect.
It’s places like this that are taking the sport of mixed martial arts, once written off as a brutal game of human cockfighting, and turning it into the most popular combat sport in the world. In two decades this sport has built its own code of respect while mashing together all of the world’s martial arts.
It’s not human cockfighting; as Zahabi says, it’s become human chess.
As the intermediate jiu-jitsu class winds down, the gym door opens. In walks St-Pierre, his shoulders a little thicker than the other fighters, his walk a little more confident. He says hi to Zahabi, heads past a life-sized poster of himself, then wraps his hands for a late-night training session.
A few of these fighters look up at St-Pierre, one of the greatest mixed martial artists in history. But most don’t. They just stay on the mat and keep on practicing.