Hard by the sunken, concrete scar that is the Décarie expressway squats an unremarkable three-storey building.
It’s just opposite the 40-foot fibreglass orange – that would be Gibeau Orange Julep, a fast-food joint – and when you reach the glass front doors there are few obvious signs of what’s housed inside.
Trudge up a staircase painted in institutional yellow, past the offices of a women’s clothing wholesaler, and you’ll find what you’re looking for – a place everyone in the world of mixed martial arts has heard of.
Fight gyms are supposed to be dank and scruffy, it wouldn’t be right, somehow, if it didn’t smell of sweat, spent aggression and broken dreams. The airy, brightly-lit room – high concrete ceilings, wrestling mats, free weights, boxing rings, and a chain-linked enclosure that runs the width of the rear wall – is at the chic end of the shabby scale.
It’s nice, but not overly so.
“What I like is it isn’t too flash. I’ve been in places where it was so nice I almost felt bad sweating there, it doesn’t work,” said James Polodna, a featherweight MMA fighter who trains at the gym.
Polodna, a compact muay thai specialist with slicked-back hair and an easy manner, came here from his native Australia a little more than two years ago.
Across a small table in the lobby sits Kajan Johnson, a voluble 28-year-old from tiny Burns Lake, B.C., who arrived 18 months ago.
The reason they’re here is a 33-year-old Montrealer named Firas Zahabi.
Better known as the head trainer and coach for Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title-holder Georges St-Pierre, Zahabi’s reputation for moulding champions has aspiring fighters flocking from around the planet.
“It’s the best gym in the world, it’s been proven multiple times now, in my opinion anyway,” said Johnson, a promising lightweight who considered facilities in New Mexico and Las Vegas before moving to Montreal. “Before my last fight, I came out here for two weeks. After my first day, my first training session, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m staying.’”
The fact a fighter of St-Pierre’s stature trains at Tristar is certainly a magnetic draw, but athletes stay because of Zahabi’s expertise and methodical, structured approach.
Unlike many MMA trainers, Zahabi has a detailed knowledge of the constituent disciplines – chiefly wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and boxing – and is famous for developing technically accomplished, well-rounded fighters.
“He won’t let you go out there until he thinks you’re ready,” said Polodna, who once ignored Zahabi’s warnings not to accept a fight and took the battering of his lifetime as a result.
It’s an approach that befits a man who holds a philosophy degree from Concordia University (he specialized in the ancient Greeks).
Zahabi gets the sport – he was a national amateur muay thai champion, and also won medals in provincial-level wrestling competitions – he was attracted to mixed martial arts as a teenager.
“My first one was an amateur MMA fight, it was in Quebec City, it was totally underground, it was illegal back then. The prize money was $250 for the absolute winner,” Zahabi said. “We were doing it for the love of the sport … there was no doctor, no medical, it was just a bunch of young kids who wanted to prove themselves.”
He won that bout, and later became an amateur MMA champion; it’s around that time he met a kid from the south shore suburbs of Montreal named Georges St-Pierre.
Zahabi was in his early 20s, and still competing, but he was also training a friend, David Loiseau, who would become the first Quebec fighter to sign with UFC (Loiseau now coaches at Tristar).
“He was really shy, he came in and asked if he could work with us. … I usually say yes to everybody, especially if you’re a nice guy who bows to everybody, from the karate discipline. We clicked from day 1,” Zahabi said.
As St-Pierre began his ascent in the UFC, Zahabi joined his training staff in a formal capacity, and after he lost his crown to Matt Serra in 2007, Zahabi was promoted to head trainer.
In a sense, he’s an overseer – Zahabi devises strategy with St-Pierre (who has called him the most cerebral trainer he’s ever encountered) but leaves some of the details, say the stand-up game, to specialists.
And if you suggest to him training a champion is the next best thing to holding the belt yourself, he’ll gently correct you.
“It might be a better thing. The fighter’s lifestyle isn’t for everybody … I live a more balanced life, it’s not a lifestyle I could really get used to,” said Zahabi, who is married and has two young sons.
Though he’s been involved in the ownership of Tristar since 2007, Zahabi’s links to the gym go back a great deal farther; he used to train there as a beginner, in the days when it was housed in more humble surroundings.
It’s fight week (St-Pierre is facing off against Nate Diaz, his hated rival, at the Bell Centre on Saturday) so it’s a little quieter than usual at Tristar.
Former pro boxer Hercules Kyvelos is schooling a fighter in one of the rings, a few feet away, Olympic silver medal-winning wrestler Guivi Sissaouri is tutoring a couple of fighters in pidgin English.
Zahabi is at a UFC hype event, but were he on hand he would likely be working up a sweat in one corner or another.
Polodna, who briefly lived in a back room at the gym when he first arrived, says: “I would do anything for him and his family … he really has a heart of gold, which is rare in our business.”
Small wonder, then, that his gym has become one of the epicentres of the sport.