One-on-One with Firas Zahabi: Part 2

By Patrick Wyman Nov 30, 2014
Firas Zahabi draws on a wide range of techniques and philosophies.



MONTREAL -- Home to some of the finest fighters to have ever strapped on a pair of four-ounce gloves, it is an unassuming-looking facility in the suburbs of Canada’s second-largest city. On the inside, however, it houses a wealth of experience, knowledge and some of the most forward-thinking coaching and training practices in modern-day MMA.

Firas Zahabi is in large part what makes Tristar Gym a special place. His approach, uncommon in a sport that is often rife with emotion and ingrained practices, is exceptionally analytical, in-depth and innovative. In part two of this exclusive interview, Zihabi discusses his influences, what future mixed martial artists might look like and the jiu-jitsu world’s resistance to wrestling:

Related: One-on-One with Firas Zahabi -- Part 1


Sherdog.com: In terms of the influences on your striking style, what would you say those are? You have talked about Bruce Lee, muay Thai and western boxing. Would you describe it as a synthesis? Are there some things from which you have pulled more heavily than others?
Zahabi: Definitely a synthesis. Over the years I’ve worked with so many great coaches, from Freddy Roach to Sagat Petchyindee -- the guy was a phenom, and I got to train with him personally for months at a time in Thailand. I trained with many great Thais, too many to name: John Wayne Parr, [Lucien] Bute. I’ve trained with so many great guys in different combat sports. I’ve trained with many great Dutch kickboxers. I’ve worked with [Duane] “Bang” Ludwig over the years. I’ve had so many great coaches that over the years, I’ve just tried to work with the best of the best [and take away] the best of what I’ve learned from everybody; and, of course, I’ve blended in my own style, as well. I’ve worked with [Stephen] “Wonderboy” Thompson, as well, [and] of course the entire Thompson family. I’m doing karate, boxing [and] kickboxing. I believe that there are so many ways to fight that you have to find the way that’s best for your student, not for you, you know; if you only know one way, you’re going to train a hundred guys, and only three are going to be good: those three who fit your style. I don’t want to be that kind of coach. I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter coach. Imagine you went to the doctor and he always gave you the same three medications. Some patients would die and some patients who have that illness would survive, and they’d say “Oh, he’s a good doctor.”

Sherdog.com: You talked a while back about the game changing. In what particular ways do you see the overall game of MMA shifting? You have been in the game for 14, 15 years, and you have seen trends come and go. You have seen particular archetypes of fighter come and go: the sprawl-and-brawlers, the wrestle-grapplers and the rise of hybrid, three-dimensional guys. In what ways do you think the game is changing?
Zahabi: I think the guys who come next are going to have no style. They’ll start in all the styles, so they won’t have a prejudice. Now we see a particular fighter with a great double-leg. We see that guy with the great armbar. It won’t be like that anymore. The MMA fighters are going to beat the grapplers in grappling and the wrestlers in wrestling, and they’re going to beat the jiu-jitsu guys in jiu-jitsu. Why? Because, to them, it’s going to be seamless. They’re going to be more creative, they’re going to be more athletic, they’re going to be more creative because they have less boundaries. They’re going to be more athletic because they’re going to be constantly training their neurological patterns through all the arts. They’re going to learn more skills, more motor patterns, than their counterparts who have specialized in one thing. Of course, an MMA guy isn’t going to go win in the Olympics in wrestling -- no, because that wrestler is playing the rules for him, in his environment; but once that wrestler goes into MMA, then his style of wrestling will no longer translate as much in MMA, because the wrestling style of the MMA fighter will be superior. You noticed in our jiu-jitsu class that we had both wrestling and jiu-jitsu, so what happens when a wrestler grabs my leg is that I use jiu-jitsu against him, and when a jiu-jitsu guy grabs my leg, I use wrestling against him. Either way, I counter him. I counter him with something he doesn’t know, so that’s what’s going to happen when a wrestler or a boxer comes into our environment. He’s going to get beaten with the rules that he’s not used to, and therefore it will shut down his game.

Sherdog.com: I noticed that as you were teaching tonight, and it was one of the most striking things I noticed -- the way you were integrating wrestling and jiu-jitsu into a seamless whole. So, for example, working scissor sweeps off a single-leg.
Zahabi: We started everything -- [all the rolls] -- standing today. We all started with a single-leg or body lock. Why? Because jiu-jitsu guys wait for the fight to go to the ground before they start attacking. Me, I’ll throw you with a wrestling technique and guillotine you on the way down. I’m not going to wait. That’s the Achilles’ heel of today’s jiu-jitsu, because when they do finally get you to the ground and start fighting, they’re not used to the guy trying to get back up. So you noticed today when I was rolling with one of my guys, I got back up. You’d better be able to hold me down, because when we go to MMA, the guy’s not trying to play guard, not necessarily; he’s trying to pop back up to his feet. It’s a whole different ballgame when a guy’s trying to get back to his feet instead of play guard.

Sherdog.com: I noticed that you were repeatedly saying as you were going around, “Sweep, submit or stand up.”
Zahabi: It’s what I call the 60-second guard.

Photo: Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com

Aldo is a model martial artist.
Sherdog.com: So do you do that as a straightforward adaptation to MMA rule sets that just do not tend to reward playing off your back?
Zahabi: The Achilles’ heel of jiu-jitsu is, one, that they insist on the gi. Every attack has to have a counterpart. I always tell my students, let’s play rock-paper-scissors. You’re not going to be allowed to use paper. I have the option of rock, paper and scissors, [and] you have the option of scissors and rock. I’m going to beat you 90 times out of 100. When I do jiu-jitsu with the gi and then I take it off, you’re taking away my paper. I have no counterpart now to my armbar, because when I do the armbar I have no way to pull you in. Without a gi, if I try to pull you down and you pull back, then I get back up [to the feet]. If you try to hold me down, I pull you even deeper, so wherever your energy’s going, I go with it; but in jiu-jitsu with a gi, if you pull back, I can hang on and pull myself forward. Without the gi, I don’t have this option; I can’t pull you in. I have to push you away. If you look at Jose Aldo, he adopted this philosophy. He doesn’t play guard -- he gets up -- and when guys try to hold him down, then he uses the guard. Sweep, submit or get up; he doesn’t just try to sweep or submit, so he has rock, paper and scissors.

Sherdog.com: The style of jiu-jitsu that Aldo’s been doing since he was a kid, the Nova Uniao style, is largely focused on top control anyway, so it makes for a seamless blend between the style of wrestling he’s learned -- straightforward things like the hip-out and floating his hips into takedown attempts -- and his jiu-jitsu.
Zahabi: He’s not just a grappler -- he can wrestle, too -- but he uses his jiu-jitsu in reverse, where 99 percent of the jiu-jitsu community believes that you don’t do that. You hit the ground and they start pulling you into guard, and then it’s just a punch to the chin, a punch to the chin. Me, if you pull back to punch me in the chin, believe me, I’m getting back up, and then you’re going to have to use your hands to grab me. Now we’re doing jiu-jitsu, because you’re grabbing me and I’m not grabbing you. Now I’ve got the connection that I need from you.

Sherdog.com: That kind of development, that move toward “sweep, submit or get back up,” creates its own little meta-game in and of itself. You see guys who are getting better and better at getting to the back in those situations, as a guy is standing back up, which creates a chain reaction of move and countermove.
Zahabi: I have black belts who come here who can’t hold down my blue belts. They get them to the ground, and my blue belts pop back up. They know nothing about the breakdown; that’s what we call it in wrestling -- we break you down to the mat. I don’t want to name names, but today I was wrestling a very seasoned guy and I took him down and held him down. This is half the battle; then you can worry about passing the guard, mounting, armbars, the jiu-jitsu part. That’s why I believe that your style of jiu-jitsu should work in any situation. That’s what I tell my students, that our jiu-jitsu is for any situation. Today I was teaching leg locks, telling them that it’s illegal here, it’s illegal there and very good for this type of situation, because I don’t want my jiu-jitsu to only work if you’re wearing a gi or if we’re in an environment where there’s no striking allowed. My martial art is supposed to defend me in any situation: gi, no-gi, slippery, not slippery, fight or no fight, on a wrestling mat. I want it to work everywhere, but the problem is that they train fighters to mold them to the competition particularly. So they’ll say, “This guy is the best in jiu-jitsu.” No, he’s the best at competing under a set of rules. There, he’s the best. Put him on the ground in an MMA fight, and he sucks. His jiu-jitsu sucks; and I’m not naming any particular guys, but he’ll get his ass kicked. His jiu-jitsu’s not the best. It’s a lie. His competitive jiu-jitsu under these particular circumstances is the best -- I would agree to that -- but his jiu-jitsu for fighting? Not so good.

Sherdog.com: You see that kind of difficulty in adapting to rule sets, not just in jiu-jitsu but in wrestling, too. American folkstyle wrestlers who have relied heavily on mat control -- things that are specific to the style, like the cradle -- and have really struggled when they have gotten to the international scene.
Zahabi: Because the rules are different. Some great wrestlers could never adapt to the freestyle game.

Photo: One FC

Askren’s style translated to MMA.
Sherdog.com: Look at a guy like Ben Askren. He is obviously an incredible wrestler -- and it is not like he flamed out at the Olympics -- but there were bits of his style that worked so much better under folkstyle rules than with freestyle.
Zahabi: I think folkstyle -- collegiate -- is better for MMA, but if America wants more gold medals in freestyle, then they have to convert to freestyle, because they’re teaching their kids a different set of rules; and then they get to the Olympics and they have to re-train them. It’s crazy. I think Ben Askren could’ve done much better in freestyle if he’d competed in it his whole life, but maybe not as good in MMA, because he wouldn’t have been able to do as much funk and work that kind of scrambling style. I think his style is better for MMA than for freestyle.

Sherdog.com: It seems like there has been a real split in the way that jiu-jitsu is practiced and taught, between people who are focused on International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation rule sets and this kind of no-gi, MMA grappling that incorporates things from wrestling and sambo and catch-wrestling, which is much more practically focused. Do you think jiu-jitsu eventually just becomes two entirely different things or do you think there is going to be some kind of meeting in the middle at some point?
Zahabi: Well, I always tell my students, let’s look at all the jiu-jitsu guys and analyze them one by one. Who’s the most successful jiu-jitsu guy in the world? Well, I’d have to say Demian Maia. He won the world championships in the gi. He did well in MMA, fought for a world title, smoked everyone at welterweight until he ran into Rory [MacDonald] and had a close match with Jake Shields. I mean, the guy is unbelievable. Hs jiu-jitsu works in the Octagon, and his jiu-jitsu works on the mat. Why would I copy another man’s style? We’ve had many world champions who go into MMA at a preliminary level and get their ass kicked. Why would I follow that man’s jiu-jitsu when a guy like [Rousimar] Palhares did well in MMA and got second in Abu Dhabi and nearly beat [Andre] Galvao? When Galvao lost against Tyron Woodley, he got knocked out of the ballpark; he wasn’t even in the game. If I have a guy whose jiu-jitsu is effective in both worlds, why would I emulate the guy whose jiu-jitsu is only effective in one world? We have to put things in order. The guy who wins with jiu-jitsu in the Octagon and wins in IBJJF, his jiu-jitsu has to be first because it has more dimensions. If I’m doing these berimbolos -- and I like berimbolos, but they’re not tested in MMA -- then how can I put someone who’s doing those ahead of someone who is tested in MMA? If everybody in jiu-jitsu emulated Palhares, we’d have a lot more jiu-jitsu champions [in MMA]. Jose Aldo was world champion on the mat, and he’s world champion in the Octagon. His jiu-jitsu, I would say, is number one, because he’s used jiu-jitsu in his fights. He uses jiu-jitsu in reverse. Why don’t more jiu-jitsu guys do that? Why is it that only wrestlers are smart enough to use their skill in reverse? I’ll give you my answer to that question, because I’ve thought about it intensively. One, BJJ guys are s--- athletes. No offense to the BJJ world. I love BJJ; I’m a BJJ fanatic. I just think that their counterparts -- the wrestlers -- have outdone them in the physical realm. Two, the wrestlers are better strategists. Why? When you wrestle, you have three rounds, so you start thinking about strategy as importance. In jiu-jitsu, it’s one round. When the wrestler starts in MMA, he’s thinking, I’ve got to win two out of the three, minimum. That’s the minimum for victory. It’s not what I’m looking for, but it’s the minimum. A jiu-jitsu guy will do something crazy at the end of a round he was winning. Maybe he goes from top position to the bottom looking for a fancy armbar and gives up the round or gives up the position. They make more strategic mistakes than the wrestlers. Wrestlers use their wrestling in reverse; jiu-jitsu guys, no. Third, jiu-jitsu guys, when they roll, when they train, it’s too far from the reality of what happens in the cage, whereas if you look at the training at Tristar, we have to sweep, submit or get up. If we get up, it’s my turn to wrestle you, and we wrestle. Wrestlers are learning jiu-jitsu, and jiu-jitsu guys aren’t so open-minded to the wrestling. They don’t understand that wrestling is as technical as jiu-jitsu. It’s jiu-jitsu standing up, why are you not in love with it? Why doesn’t it fascinate you?

Sherdog.com: There seems to be a real resistance among jiu-jitsu practitioners to the idea of wrestling being every bit as complicated as jiu-jitsu, but part of that has to do with the fact that jiu-jitsu practitioners are not exposed to the full technical range of wrestling. That is something that you were talking about earlier, with regard to the development of wrestling in MMA. You see more guys using something like a top-ride in MMA, but those are the pieces of wrestling that jiu-jitsu practitioners do not tend to see in the gym.
Zahabi: Right.

Sherdog.com: Jiu-jitsu guys see wrestling, and they think it is switch back and forth between a single and a double against the cage. They do not see duck-unders and fireman’s carries and switching to a hip-toss off a failed single-leg -- things that are part and parcel of high-level wrestling but things jiu-jitsu guys are not usually going to see in a jiu-jitsu gym or during an MMA fight or training for one. I want to come back to the idea of athleticism that you brought up. When you are talking about a 23-year-old guy, a Division I All-American, that guy has been in a strength and conditioning program since he was 13 or 14 years old.
Zahabi: He’s a black belt in conditioning. He’s a black belt in wrestling, and that’s both standing and on the ground; and plus, they’re black belts in conditioning. A jiu-jitsu guy? Oh, I’m only a black belt on the ground, so that guy has two other black belts. That’s the Achilles’ heel of jiu-jitsu practitioners. Plus, we’re going to wear a gi; and then when we fight, we’ll take the gi off [and] we’ll give the wrestler another advantage because he’s always wearing no gi. So I’m going to practice judo and then I’m going to freestyle. It’s crazy. The intelligence behind jiu-jitsu is phenomenal, but the observation of what’s happening in jiu-jitsu is so discouraging. Why don’t they … well, I know why they don’t do it, because it’s not rewarding to them in their rule set. That’s why you need to come to a coach like me or Greg Jackson or John Danaher, [coaches] who are molding fighters for jiu-jitsu in MMA; but my guys win medals on the mats, in IBJJF and what have you, and we win fights. Rory, you know, he double-legged Woodley. He defended against Woodley, and he double-legged Woodley; but Woodley’s been wrestling 10 years longer than him. Why?

Sherdog.com: He put Woodley in a tactical position to make that takedown a possibility.
Zahabi: Exactly, and the truth of the matter is, a double-leg is [expletive] simple. If I get deep enough on your legs, if I have a great grip and I’m deep enough, I’ll finish it; but your jiu-jitsu guys don’t know that unless they’ve done a million doubles. Today, every round we started standing. How many double-legs do I do in a year? I probably do hundreds of double-legs in a year. Guys today, you probably saw hundreds of different double-legs, plus a bunch of time on the ground. So when a guy shoots on my leg, I know how to defend because I see it all the time. I’m familiar with this stuff. It’s not something new to me; but why don’t jiu-jitsu guys want to wrestle? It’s crazy how hard they resist this, because it’s not rewarded in IBJJF. It’s crazy how much athleticism it builds. I believe that it’s poor organization on our behalf, by which I mean the jiu-jitsu world, and I include myself. Our jiu-jitsu is poorly organized for MMA. It’s correctly organized for IBJJF and so on. Fighters in MMA have to be careful when they go to train with these grapplers, because they’re molding you to win in IBJJF. You know, look at Rickson Gracie. His jiu-jitsu evolved at a time when there were no time limits. Think about it, what’s the average time it takes to take a fighter down?

Photo: Gleidson Venga/Sherdog.com

Maia was a crossover success.
Sherdog.com: On average, with a seasoned opponent, maybe a minute and a half to two minutes.
Zahabi: Right. It takes time to get a takedown. OK, so now I take you down [and] I have three minutes left. How much better does my jiu-jitsu have to be to tap you out in three minutes? How many times do you see a guy get tapped in three minutes in IBJJF? It happens, but not all the time. That’s not a lot of time. So now you have three minutes. If we stand back up at the end of the round, I have to take you down all over again [in round two], and now it’s harder. I might not get you down the whole round. Round three: I might get you down in the last minute, so we’ve had a total of four minutes of jiu-jitsu. It’s not easy to tap a guy in four minutes. So what I’m saying is that jiu-jitsu developed at a time when, if I took you down, it doesn’t matter how much time I need to tap you. So jiu-jitsu has to become time-sensitive. We have to reorganize ourselves according to the clock. Wrestling is time-sensitive: You have two minutes to score a point. Jiu-jitsu has to remodel itself. You want to score a double? You need to do it in two minutes, or else it’s a break. Wrestling evolved in an environment that’s more similar to MMA than jiu-jitsu. Could you imagine if wrestling was, we put on the gi, so it looks like judo, and there’s no time limits? You’d never get a takedown in MMA; it’d take forever. It would be very relaxed. They would pummel very gently, because it might last for hours. That’s how jiu-jitsu was developed. Jiu-jitsu, in my opinion, in 10 or 15 years, will be dominant in MMA because they’re going to figure it out. There are brilliant minds behind jiu-jitsu. In 10, 15, 20 years, it will all come full circle. It’ll look like the early UFCs, where the jiu-jitsu guy grabs you and takes you down in ways you’ve never seen in wrestling. It’s going to look like [Shinya] Aoki or Palhares looking for leg locks [and] twisting and turning. The youth are going to grow up and see, “Hey, Palhares was getting takedowns with the leg locks, taking down guys more seasoned than him, pulling guard in a unique manner. Paul Sass, et cetera. These [guys] were doing things that … why don’t we copy them? I learned wrestling, but I use jiu-jitsu also. I’ll use Palhares’ technique; remember, it’s my counterpart. If I shoot a double and you sprawl on me [and] you’re a better wrestler than me, I’ll pull my leg lock. If you’re a grappler and you’re better than me and I can’t pull my leg lock, I’m going to double-leg you. I have to be better than you somewhere. If we’re even everywhere, then I’m going to beat you with my physicality. I don’t believe in just conditioning programs. I don’t believe in lifting weights and this and that. I have a particular way that I condition my fighters; I believe in my system really profoundly. We do specific days of conditioning, but we also use the art to condition ourselves. You look at guys like Frank Shamrock in the golden days, and they were better at jiu-jitsu than guys today, because they had a blend of wrestling and jiu-jitsu and physicality. Now you see these IBJJF champions who get in there and get steamrolled on the ground.

Sherdog.com: The fight that always sticks out to me with that is Galvao-Jason High. High was so green on the ground, but he controlled Galvao and was never in super-serious danger.
Zahabi: Look at Marcelo Garcia’s MMA debut. He’s a great guy and I love him, but fighting is different. We can’t confuse fighting with jiu-jitsu. Look at Maia: He evolved his jiu-jitsu, and he’s an incredible example of the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu. Look at Fedor Emelianenko: He’s an incredible example of how the ground game should be done. They would do amazing in IBJJF [and] they would do amazing in Abu Dhabi, but they also do amazing in the cage and that, to me, is the essence of what I want to learn, because all this stuff I’m doing is to defend myself. At the end of the day, you ask me why I wanted to get into martial arts: I used to get beat up. I used to get my ass handed to me, and I got sick of it.

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