Firas Zahabi Storms Toronto With Four Battle-Ready Fighters
By Bryan Levick
As far as Firas Zahabi, the head coach of the famed Tri-Star Gym in Montreal, is concerned there is no rest for the weary. When you are considered one of the best at what you do you are bound to always be in demand. Fighters from all over the world make the trip to Canada with the hope that Zahabi will be able to train them and maybe they can become the next Georges St. Pierre.
Tri-Star is not only home to the current UFC welterweight champion, they also house top welterweight contender Rory MacDonald, top lightweight Mike Ricci, middleweight Francis Carmont and so many other top of the food chain mixed martial artists. As one can imagine there is very little time in between fights for Zahabi and his crew. With the UFC and Fox relationship there are more cards than ever and that means more work for Zahabi.
This week Zahabi finds himself in Toronto as he has four fighters competing on the UFC 165 card this Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre. That’s quite a task to put in front of anyone, but for Zahabi it’s just another day at the office. He broke down all four of his fights beginning with the middleweight match-up between Costa Philippou and Carmont.
“As the fight gets closer I like to look at the strengths of the opponent and see where we can take him where he is at his weakest,” Zahabi told Alchemist Radio. “He’s (Philippou) a great boxer and you don’t want to box with a guy who has 25 pro boxing fights. You want to take him to the ground or you want to use Muay Thai against him. You want to get him into a Muay Thai fight using clinches, knees, elbows, kicks. You want to do everything but box with him because that’s where he is most comfortable.”
Zahabi then discussed Ricci’s bout against the Myles Jury who is undefeated in 12 career fights. This is a huge step up in competition for Ricci who was last seen defeating Colin Fletcher at UFC 158 via unanimous decision. At UFC on Fox 7, Jury scored a devastating second round knockout victory over Ramsey Nijem. That win put a lot of eyes on Jury including fans and UFC executives. This is also a big litmus test for Ricci as the UFC is putting him in a high profile bout in just his third fight in the organization.
“Ricci has excellent wrestling, he’s been working with the Olympic team at the Montreal Wrestling Club for quite a few years now,” said Zahabi. “His wrestling is excellent and I think he’s going to showcase that. He has excellent takedowns and I think he’s going to look to mix up his striking with the takedowns. It’s not going to be purely striking even though he has the reach advantage and he has very experienced stand-up. He loves to wrestle and he’s going to showcase that.”
“When Ricci did the reality show it really matured him a lot. He had to fight a lot in a very hostile environment and he made it to the finals. He really grew a lot so I think this is something he’s going to be able to handle quite easily. I’m not talking about the fight I am talking about the pressure of the fight. This match-up is going to be a tough one, it’s a 50/50 fight. Both guys are very talented and it’s going to be who plays the game best. In terms of pressure of the fight I’m quite confident he’s going to be able to handle it.”
Two other Tri-Star fighters are competing Saturday night. Bantamweight Ivan Menjivar will face Brazilian Jiu_jitsu blackbelt Wilson Reis. In a battle of lightweights John Makdessi will take on Renee Forte who is 1-1 in the UFC. Both Menjivar and Makdessi may not have the big name recognition that some of the other Tri-Star guys do, but they can certainly bring it.
“Wilson is a great jiu-jitsu practitioner,” offered Zahabi. “He’s very wild on his feet and throws a lot of bombs and is very aggressive standing up. Ivan has to make sure he doesn’t get caught with one of those bombs. Obviously Ivan doesn’t want to go to the ground with Wilson because he is such a great ground guy, but Ivan is great at ground and pound. When you get on the ground with a jiu-jitsu expert you want to use more ground and pound, knees and elbows. You want to make sure you don’t get into a jiu-jitsu match. If you get caught on the bottom you have to try and get up, you can’t play in your guard too much. You have to get up and take him down and make it an MMA fight and not let it transition to the jiu-jitsu world.”
“Makdessi is a credible striker and his wrestling has improved over the last few years. Look for him to try and keep it standing. I think Forte is going to have a very hard time taking Makdessi down. His (Makdessi) striking is excellent; he’s an undefeated kickboxer with a phenomenal striking background. He took Tae Kwon Do when he was young and has been striking his whole life. Now he has the wrestling to back it up and make sure his striking is showcased. I think Forte will swing with some big punches and then try and take Makdessi down.”
Bellator 100 takes place this weekend and so does the beginning of their latest welterweight tournament. Rick Hawn has had a lot of success fighting for the organization since signing with them in 2010. He made it to the season 4 welterweight finals before losing a close split decision to Jay Hieron. He then decided to drop down to lightweight and subsequently won the season 6 tournament before losing to Michael Chandler at Bellator 85. He is once again trying his hand at 170 and while Zahabi feels he is better off at lightweight he also feels Hawn can do some damage at welterweight.
“I’ve been working with Hawn a lot and I feel like he’s really a 155’er,” Zahabi admitted. “I think he’s so good that he can go to 170, cruise around and have some big fights there. He can win the welterweight tournament, he’s proven that when he went to the finals a few years ago and I think he won the fight even though he was handed the loss. He’s so talented, he’s an Olympian and he’s made of steel this guy. He had 10 days notice so he decided to do it and we said it was a good idea to keep him active. There’s really no room at 155 as there’s a long waiting list. He wants to stay busy and he’s that good that he can go up to 170, I believe that.”