Watching Firas Zahabi
talk to reporter after reporter in Toronto last month, one almost got the feeling that he might be getting tired of answering questions about Georges St-Pierre
So why not cut one of the most prominent trainers in the sport some slack, let him get his mind off his welterweight champ for a few minutes?
"Oh – you want me to talk (crap) about Miguel?" Zahabi asks, a smile on his face. "I can do that!"
Zahabi is most famous for the work he does at his Tristar Gym in Montreal with St-Pierre, the UFC welterweight champ, and ahead of GSP's UFC 129 title defense in Toronto against Jake Shields, there were plenty of questions for the coach. But in the last 10 months, Zahabi has taken on a new challenge – revamping the fight game of former bantamweight kingpin Miguel Torres
And so far, business has been good. Zahabi has helped Torres (39-3, 1-0 UFC) to back-to-back wins after he lost his WEC 135-pound title to Brian Bowles in August 2009, his first career knockout loss, and followed that up by tapping for the first time in a bloody loss to Joseph Benavidez
. In fact, Zahabi believes that for Torres, the best is yet to come.
"I still think he's got a lot of potential left, and it's going to take some time to reach that," Zahabi said. "But I don't think he's anywhere near where he's going to be in the future."
But Torres, who mostly self-trained at his own gym in Northwest Indiana until taking up with Zahabi last fall, gives a slightly different account of what his coach tells him in the gym.
"He hasn't told me anything like that," Torres said Wednesday. "Everything he tells me is pretty much negative – and that I'm garbage – so I can get better. But I feel like I'm getting better every day. When I came here, I saw what I was lacking in my game. I knew how much more I could pick up and how much better I could become."
After a submission win over Charlie Valencia at WEC 51 last September and a unanimous decision over Antonio Banuelos in his UFC debut at UFC 126 in February, Torres was given Brad Pickett
for UFC 130
next week. But five weeks before the fight, Pickett pulled out with an injury.
Pickett's replacement, Demetrious Johnson
(9-1, 1-0 UFC), raised a few eyebrows. Torres' Achille's heel has always been his wrestling. And "Mighty Mouse"? He was a standout high school wrestler in Washington and is coming off a dominating 10-takedown performance to beat Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto in February. But Torres' wrestling is what he has worked on at length since his last loss.
"When I fought Benavidez, I had no wrestling skills whatsoever," Torres said. "Now it's been a year, and all I've been doing is wrestling. Every training camp involves wrestling. Every fight I go into involves wrestling. I'm very confident in my ability to stop takedowns and use counter-shots to take people down."
Zahabi also makes no bones about Torres' wrestling – but concurs with his student that overlooking his ability in that part of his game might be a mistake.
"It's definitely his wrestling – I'll admit to that. I have no problem – I like to say the truth," Zahabi said. "But I'll tell you one thing: He's working very hard on that, and he's not going to be easy to take down. He's going to be even more difficult to hold down, and it's going to be very hard to stop his submissions. So I'm confident for this fight."
And so confident are Torres and Zahabi that they say Torres' height and reach advantage – he's 5-foot-9 vs. Johnson's 5-3 – will force Johnson to shoot. And bring it on.
"Johnson shooting on me is the game plan," Torres said. "I want the guy to try to shoot on me. My whole strength is developed to hit guys – to force them to have to shoot. They can't touch me, they can't strike with me – the longer we stand, the more I win. The longer we stand, the more he has to shoot to win the round. So as he shoots, as he comes in to try and touch me, he's either going to get hit or he's going to get sprawled out. Once he gets sprawled out, he's going to give up his back or his neck. So for me, Demetrious shooting, him engaging me in a shot is going to result in me being able to use my full offense that has developed in the past year with Firas."
And the past year, Zahabi has seen Torres grow from an almost reckless fighter, doing it all on his own, to the kind who can admit his shortcomings and allow himself to be called "garbage" by his coach. (Even if that's a slight Torres exaggeration.)
"I'm very happy with Miguel," Zahabi said. "He's taken some serious steps to move himself forward. It takes somebody who is very proactive, somebody who is very responsible to do that."
Torres and Johnson fight on the preliminary card of UFC 130 on May 28 from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The fight will be part of the Spike TV's live prelims broadcast, which starts at 8 p.m. Eastern ahead of the pay-per-view at 9 p.m.