The Allegory of the Cage

The Link Talks to Montreal Mixed Martial Arts Trainer Firas Zahabi

Graphic David Barlow-Krelina

Is there a logical leap between debating Plato’s metaphysical reality and slapping an armbar on someone?

Logical or not, Firas Zahabi made that leap when he went from Concordia University philosophy graduate to internationally renowned mixed martial arts trainer. Zahabi—whose students include UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and former featherweight champ Miguel Torres—is nominated for “best trainer” at the 2010 World MMA Awards, which take place on Dec. 1 in Las Vegas.

The Link caught up with Zahabi for a chat at his gym in northwest Montreal.

The Link: It seems as though climbing into a ring or a cage for hand-to-hand combat would be a daunting mental step. How do you psychologically prepare someone for a match?

Zahabi: Let me ask you a question. Would you be able to walk across a wooden plank if I put it on the ground for you? It would be pretty easy. Now if I suspended that plank 100 feet in the air could you walk across it now? That’s what fighting is. You do it in the gym, the plank is on the floor. You do it in a local league, the plank is five feet off the ground. You do it in the UFC it’s 100 feet off the ground. Same plank, same dude, the guy’s got two arms, two legs.

When you’re fighting in the UFC and the whole world is watching, it counts. You fall off that plank and you’re dead—same thing for your career.

I tell my guys [that] you can’t control whether you fall or not. Just put one foot in front of the other and do what we’ve prepared for.

John Makdessi is your latest pupil to make it to the UFC. Although he is a renowned kickboxing champion, Makdessi has only been fighting in MMA for about two years. How do you deal with the jump in competition he’ll face when he steps into the octagon on Dec. 11?

He’s dominated his first seven MMA fights. This is a big step, but when the big show comes calling you don’t want to say no because they won’t call again. It’s important for me to give him a shot, and regardless as to whether he wins or loses—and believe me, we’re going in there to win—but regardless he’s got international experience now. I can’t teach that kind of experience in the gym.

Win or lose, we’ll go back to the drawing board again. I try to cultivate a survivor instinct in my fighters. You have to be prepared for anything and all we can do is work on what we control, which is preparation.

After Georges St-Pierre defeated BJ Penn a second time, Penn accused St-Pierre of cheating. In Penn’s autobiography he writes that St-Pierre greased his body to stay slippery, a violation of the unified MMA rules. What are your thoughts on Penn’s allegations?

I’ve recently had a talk with BJ Penn and he initiated it.

He was very polite, we apologized for our past misbehaviours and it’s all water under the bridge between me and him.

He’s a good guy with a lot of pressure on him. He was a world champion with the hopes and dreams of his people on his shoulders.

Maybe the cheating thing got blown out of proportion, the greasing he’s referring to never happened. A little Vaseline got onto one of [St-Pierre’s] shoulders but the Nevada State Athletic Commission wiped it off and they gave us the OK. The cameras don’t show that.

St-Pierre is a devastating human being to fight and Penn jumped up a weight class to fight him. You have to respect that.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 12, published November 2, 2010.