Georges St-Pierre’s training secret: Firas Zahabi and the TriStar gym

A victorious then-UFC champion Georges St-Pierre on the shoulders of his longtime head coach Firas Zahabi.

Jiu Jitsu class – The technical chain

Developing home-grown fighters has to be one of the most challenging accomplishments a coach can achieve. Zahabi has done it in scores, and it immediately became clear how he was able to do that.

I’m of the belief that painting in too broad strokes during instruction reveals poor coaching. Anyone, qualified coach or novice spectator, can tell a long-armed fighter to keep their distance or instruct a great wrestler to "take him down."

A real coach can teach a fighter how to do those things, step-by-step. And they teach by doing.

Throughout the night, Zahabi quietly gave a powerful indication of the characteristics that have allowed him to help mold so many fighters from virtual scratch. On the ground and on the feet, he proved technical and demonstrated the type of understanding that is only born out of real fighting and training.

Zahabi started out as a kickboxer but is also a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. As fighters know, however, there are black belts, and then there are black belts.

Zahabi showed from the start with his ground teaching that his stripe was not one earned through celebrity or as a courtesy. In his Jiu Jitsu class he showed technical position switches and submissions, chained together in practical ways, and explained (and demonstrated) in nuanced detail.

Working from the side mount, Zahabi showed his students, and his lone gi-less visitor, how to control the wiry arms of a defending opponent (important), and also their hips (even more important, he wisely taught).

Sparring – Do as I do

After Jiu Jitsu class, Zahabi moved on to leading his advanced team sparring. Zahabi didn’t simply preside, he partook. 

The coach wrapped his hands, padded up and went, round after round, with his young and excellent stable of fighters. He showed quick kicks, excellent angles and tricky trips from the clinch.

Perhaps Zahabi doesn’t have an official MMA record, but there truth was plain to see there, in private, against bigger and skilled fighters. Zahabi is always talked about as a fighter by those who have trained with him, and it is because he is one.

Coaches of other sports like football or baseball may not all have been hall of fame players. However, all of them did throw the ball around more than a few times, in high school, college and often the pro ranks, before they decided to start telling others how to play the game.

Some fighters will make better coaches. That has always been clear.

Real fight coaches don’t have to be the best fighters in the world, but they do have to be fighters. The reason being that you simply can’t teach skills you yourself don’t have.

And you can’t develop skills in something without actually doing it. Free tip – don’t take swimming lessons from an instructor who won’t get in the water and don’t think you can learn fighting from a guy who won’t square up.

As an able-bodied person under 70 years of age, Zahabi does the right thing and works with his guys. He didn’t lead with platitudes or pseudo philosophy stripped down to cliches.

For an hour or more, I watched Zahabi show what to do by doing it, because he can. Afterwards, he explained it all to his fighters.

No longer skeptical or curious how TriStar had gotten the success they have, I saw for myself and found it easy to then understand how Zahabi earned the respect of top fighters. I finally understood how he, St-Pierre, Loiseau and doubtless many other solid coaches and teammates developed a team from the ground, up.

They did it the way any real fight team has — they worked their asses off, got good and then taught each other.

Rory MacDonald (R) sharpens his tools with training at TriStar gym

After an hour of very controlled, and technical sparring, Zahabi took another hour for technique instruction and drilling. Prodded on by a coach who had just sweated and traded blows with them, the fighters worked, and worked. 

They drilled without ceasing, without excessive banter. With commitment. 

Included in this class was Rory MacDonald, who will fight for a the 170-pound world title in July against a man who has already beaten him, Robbie Lawler. Despite his previous close decision loss to Lawler, many favor the Canadian to win this summer, as he constantly improves.

Those picking MacDonald include former champ Johny Hendricks. The reason why being the coaching I observed that night.

"He’s got great coaches," Hendricks said earlier this month, of MacDonald and TriStar.

"He’s going to figure out a way. They’re game-planners. They’re guys that are going to do this, this, and this. They’re going to make sure tha everything runs to a ‘T’."

Watching MacDonald and the rest of his team, Zahabi switched back and forth from student to student, using keen perception. In one 10-second snippet, the coach went from demonstrating how to work on the inside with punches and elbows to one fighter to, having watched MacDonald’s partner attempt a leg lock, instructing him how to properly execute a leg-scissors takedown into a heel hook.

The fighter was kind of just dropping to the mat and then reaching for the legs, instead of really propelling himself downwards and towards MacDonald, as he should have, Zahabi explained. He noticed that at the same time he was throwing punches in demonstration at another fighter.

After an hour of that, Zahabi worked one-on-one with MacDonald inside the long, caged and matted rectangle training space near windows on the second floor gym. Lawler is a left-handed fighter, a Southpaw.

Zahabi, in round increments went over techniques he believes will work well against a lefty. The technique is fundamental and based off of observations of Lawler tendencies made by the coach.

Georges St-Pierre (top) has stayed loyal to his original coaches.

He explained a concept and connecting technique and MacDonald drilled it over and over on him, creating muscle-memory. After the work is done, the fighter and coach sat on the mats and Zahabi went over strength and conditioning notes with MacDonald.

Young, with an old-school attitude

It was only one night’s training, but I could’ve reached the same conclusions after 10 minutes instead of the three hours I had. Firas Zahabi is a young coach with an old-school attitude and ability.

He gets in there and does, and so he is capable of showing as much as telling. That’s the old-school way.

So is taking care of a fighter’s training needs, completely. Different coaches for different areas (striking, wrestling ground work, conditioning, etc.) can be blessings, to be sure.

And MacDonald no-doubt has several different coaches, as well as nutrition staff to help him put everything together before fights. However, he is well-served by having a head coach who can at least break him off a piece of knowledge in every area, including conditioning.

MMA is a young sport where the stakes for fighters has often out-paced the development of their coaching. Meaning, it is very important for fighters to figure out a way that works, though they themselves may not know enough about what does and does not, and so are at the mercy of coaching which, they hope, will not miss the mark.

It isn’t an accident that many top fighters change coaches more often than they do their jackets. In an age of over-specialization, at best, and outright unqualified instruction, at worst, it was refreshing to see a rare case of a guy, a gym, having success by doing things the right way. 

Curiosity of how good TriStar could actually be first brought me to the gym. Now knowing how good it is will bring me back.

Young guns like Olivier Aubin-Mercier (L) get work in at TriStar gym, as well.