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One word — one name that conveys feelings of excellence and mystique to both mixed martial artists and MMA fans around the world.  Chances are you first became familiar with Tristar Gym while watching various UFC pre-event video montages of welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre as he readied himself for battle inside Tristar’s cages and on it’s mats.

Located on the entire top floor of a squat, industrial looking building on Rue Ferrier in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Tristar was founded almost 25 years ago by ISKA world kickboxing champion Conrad Pla, who used the gym as his training centre, as well as an avenue to finance his kickboxing as he traveled around the world.

Tristar has had several owners throughout the years after Pla decided to change his focus from kickboxing to acting (see Pla’s acting resumeHERE), but since 2007 it has been in the hands of one man who has forced it to evolve from a straight up kickboxing gym, into one of the best, if not the best MMA gym in the world.

That man is Firas Zahabi.

Born in Montreal to parents of Lebanese descent, Zahabi’s entry into mixed martial arts is very similar to many others in the sport.  After watching the original Ultimate Fighting Championship, the inquisitive Zahabi was curious as to how champion and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie was able to defeat opponents who dwarfed him in physical stature.

“My mind was perplexed.  I couldn’t believe that the smaller guy was able to beat these monsters.”  Zahabi told MM-eh.  “That was a life changing experience for me.”

At the time there was no Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Quebec, so the 17-year-old Zahabi started studying traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu, and while he kept at it, he realized that it wasn’t really what he was expecting.

“A lot of people at that time were just doing jiu jitsu, but traditionally, which was 90% standing up.”  Zahabi explained.  “There was no ground game – it was all wrist-locks and throws.”

Then one weekend when he was 19, Zahabi went to a grappling tournament and met Angelo Exarhakos, a comic book distributor who had earned his purple belt in BJJ by traveling to New York city on weekends to train with Renzo Gracie.  Exarhakos offered twice weekly private lessons in Montreal, and Zahabi, along with friends David Loiseau and Ivan Menjivar jumped at the chance to learn from him.

“He came and showed us what real sparring was, what real armlocks were, what real chokes were – it was fascinating.”  Zahabi said.

The small group of enthusiasts needed a place to train, so they somehow ended up at Tristar, which was still predominantly a kickboxing gym.  When Exarhakos decided to take some time off to expand his growing business, the group, which now included St-Pierre, needed a leader, and Zahabi stepped in to fill the void.

“I was elected to take over training temporarily until he came back,” Zahabi said, “but I was never planning on being a coach.”

Although being a coach is indeed what he now is, and it has taken him farther than he ever imagined, Zahabi credits Exarhakos with being the catalyst for the success of MMA in Montreal.

“Without him there would have been no Tristar Gym the way it is today.  There wouldn’t have been a Georges St-Pierre I think.  There wouldn’t have been a Firas Zahabi or a David Loiseau.  He was the one who brought us together and taught us and gave us an edge.”

In those days mixed martial arts was nothing like it is now, with massive pay-per-view events happening every weekend, and MMA gyms in every town.

“I didn’t think it was going anywhere.” Zahabi explained.  “It was just a hobby and just for fun.  I always thought I would go back to school.   But it just kept snowballing and kept growing and now I’m earning a living and I’m really happy I gave myself that chance to do what I love and I’m really happy that it worked out.”

2007 was a momentous year for Zahabi.  Not only did he decide to make the leap of faith and purchase Tristar, but after a shocking loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69, his friend Georges St-Pierreparted ways with his previous training team and asked Zahabi to take the responsibility of being his head trainer.

Following that decision St-Pierre got back on a winning track that has seen him remain undefeated in his last nine fights — essentially clearing out the top contenders in the UFC  welterweight division.  As St-Pierre’s stock rose, so did Zahabi’s, and fighters from all over the world started to flock to Tristar to train.

Now, Zahabi reckons that he has roughly 20 fighters who compete in the UFC that train with him, as well as numerous others from Strikeforce and Bellator and other organizations as well.  On any given day there will be fighters from Canada, the United States, France, England, and many others from the highest levels of the sport who are inside Tristar’s walls and pushing each other to reach for greatness.

This concludes Part 1 of MM-eh’s profile of Firas Zahabi.  Make sure you come back later this week to find out what Firas learned in University that has helped him to become one of the preeminent trainers in MMA, his relationship with Greg Jackson, and of course, about his partnership with Georges St-Pierre.