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Building A Better UFC Fighter: Firas Zahabi Guides Kenny Florian Towards Featherweight Gold

Firas Zahabi has guided Georges St. Pierre to UFC gold. Can he do the same for Kenny Florian at featherweight? Jonathan Snowden talked to both men about Florian's featherweight debut.

Firas Zahabui (bottom right) with Kenny Florian and the crew at TriStar.
Firas Zahabui (bottom right) with Kenny Florian and the crew at TriStar.

It would be really easy for Kenny Florian to continue doing what he's done his whole mixed martial arts career. After all, his techniques, strategies, and training regiment earned him an 11-4 record in the UFC Octagon, two title shots, and enough notoriety to command a spot in the ESPN MMA Live broadcast booth. Beyond that, to be frank, Florian isn't getting any younger. At 35 most people are set in their ways. Most athletes have one foot in the competitive graveyard.

But Kenny Florian isn't a man to rest on his laurels. His time, if it's ever going to be his time, is right now. That's why he's hired a team of top professionals to prepare his body for the rigors of MMA. And why he's blown his own comfort zone into smithereens. If Florian is going out, it's with a bang. And it's side by side with Firas Zihabi, the head trainer at the Montreal based TriStar gym, home to welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.

"Firas Zahabi is one of the best minds in mixed martial arts today," Florian said. "He's a guy who is constantly studying, evaluating. You can see it in the cage with his athletes, how they are performing and what they are doing.  It's a different level of thinking, a different level of training. He's been a great addition to my team, inspired the other coaches around me and improved my overall game. He's working harder than anyone else and that's the way I like it. I want my coaches to be hard workers like myself. I don't want any of my coaches showing up late, I don't like any of my coaches saying they are going to do something and then not - this is a guy who's on top of everything, whether it is watching my practice video, studying my opponents, he's doing everything. He's taught me that hard work is king, that more is better."

Zahabi, like so many others, was caught up in Gracie mania after the early UFC's in the mid 1990's. He trained and fought as an amateur, then, while still in University, took over as TriStar's trainer. Thoughts of fighting soon evaporated. He had found his niche, found the training, the strategy, and the methodical grind of teaching mixed martial arts fit him like a glove.

"I like breaking it down to the smallest piece. When I look at a fighter, I look at all the little things he does. I fix the little pieces so they can come together and form big pieces," Zahabi said. "To do that you have to break things down to the smallest, finest parts you can get to. If you shoot a double leg there are several different steps. And you have to make sure each step is done correctly or the whole move will break down. I do that with every fighter with each discipline."

Florian, who has struggled with larger fighter as a lightweight, becomes the first bonafide star to drop down to the UFC's new featherweight division. Florian, who started on The Ultimate Fighter as a middleweight, will be fighting a full 40 pounds below those 185 pounds when he steps into the cage Saturday. Like the rest of the fighting world, Zahabi is curious how it will all work out.

"For Kenny, of course, the real X factor is the weight. I want to see how the weight affects him," Zahabi admits. "Because I really believe Kenny has it over his opponent in every realm. Standing, ground, wrestling, everything. For me, the biggest obstacle he faces is the weight cut. Whenever you do something for the first time, it's an X factor.  But I'm confident. I think you guys are going to see somebody who's really smart, really strong, and really big. He gave up that advantage at 155. Now he's going to be the big guy. Let's see how that plays out."  

It's not just his body that Florian needs to prepare for the new challenges at 145 pounds. Zahabi believes combat sports are completely different animals the further down in weight you go. Florian, he contends, may not be able to employ the same arsenal of techniques that worked so well at 155 pounds. He's fighting a different breed of fighter.

"It's not the same thing. Look at boxing at lightweight versus boxing at heavyweight. Look at wrestling at lighter weights compared to wrestling at heavyweight," Zahabi said. "The techniques change and it becomes very different. The lighter weight classes are quicker because they have less inertia to overcome. And the pace is much faster. And the techniques can vary. Look at Thai boxing. At 140 and below, the kickers are more successful. But when you reach higher weight classes, 155 and up, if you look around Europe or K-1 Max, guys who mix in boxing are more successful. Because the punch matters more. It has to do with physics. The bigger guys have more chance of knocking each other out and that makes boxing more important."

To Zahabi, this is where Florian's biggest weapon of all shines bright - his brain. Florian, who played soccer at Boston College, is razor sharp, something Zahabi believes plays in his favor.

"Kenny is a real smart guy, a real intellectual person. When a guy is very intellectual like Kenny, I like to add a lot of different techniques," Zahabi said. "Some guys are more intuitive, more driven on instinct. With them I teach a handful of techniques and how to combine them in different ways. With a guy like Kenny, I like to diversify. Because of the way his mind works, he's able to absorb a lot of different techniques. You can even introduce contradictory techniques or concepts and he'll find a way to make them work."

This afternoon we'll see if Florian can make it to 145 pounds. Saturday against Diego Nunes, we'll see if he can make it as a 145 pound fighter. Either way, Zahabi is the man he wants in his corner guiding him to victory.

"Firas is talented in all areas. Definitely one of the most talented and dedicated martial artists I've ever come across. You ask him about anything - whether it's the history of boxing or a Muay Thai technique and he'll give it to you. On top of that, he'll train right there with you in all aspects and give you hell," Florian said. "He's a guy, when it is all said and done, wants to make sure all the t's are crossed and all the i's are dotted. And he truly puts in the effort. It's almost as if he's fighting."