The future of the UFC’s welterweight division is largely in the hands of one man, Tristar’s head trainer Firas Zahabi. From his gym in Montréal, Québec, Canada, Zahabi counts current 170-pound champion Georges St-Pierre as well as rising contender Rory MacDonald among his stable of fighters.

St-Pierre recently returned from a year-and-a-half layoff due to ACL surgery to retain his title against Carlos Condit, while MacDonald is less than two weeks out from a UFC on Fox 5 main card bout with former champion B.J. Penn. Although things are currently looking bright for Zahabi, he revealed that it was a tumultuous ride bringing his prized pupil GSP back to form.

“It was a bit of a roller coaster. Georges came in very motivated and very excited to train. But once training started, there was definitely a dip in motivation and a few setbacks,” revealed Zahabi in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.

“I’ve gone through this before with athletes that have been out for a long time. I told Georges it wasn’t going to be easy to get that title back. He had forgotten a lot of stuff and had a lot of doubt, but I told him it was normal and that it would all come back to him.

St-Pierre returned to form at UFC 154 (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

“He was getting taken down and outwrestled by guys who are not even in the UFC. He had never experienced that, or least not for the last 10 years. It was a really long time since he was dominated by someone or even lost a round. He had to make peace with that and build his way back up. After awhile, he began to perform and his confidence came back, but it was a shaky start.”

With a healthy champion giving him two top-ranked welterweights in the gym preparing for fights at the same time, Zahabi had the luxury of experience on his side as St-Pierre has faced Penn (twice) and MacDonald has faced Condit.

“It’s been great,” said Zahabi of the situation. “Rory’s stand-up is very different from Condit’s, so we didn’t use him too much in sparring. And Georges stand-up is very different from B.J.’s, but on the ground we used Rory a lot. Georges has a very good top game, so that has helped Rory prepare for Penn. We’ve done a lot of wrestling and grappling drills.

“Obviously, Georges shares a lot of tips with Rory. There’s a lot of information there because Georges has fought Penn twice. But at the end of the day, Rory and Georges have different tools. It’s not like Rory can go in there and do what Georges did. It’s not that simple.”

Despite the fact his two fighters possess different skill sets in the cage, Zahabi is still confident leading into MacDonald’s Dec. 8 bout with Penn. And while he has a tremendous amount of respect for the former champion, Zahabi sees the fight as a huge opportunity for his young fighter.

“Rory’s got a big reach advantage over B.J.; that’s something I always look for at this level,” explained Zahabi. “Rory has the youth, but B.J. certainly has the experience. B.J. was a world champion before Rory was even in the UFC. It’s a classic battle.

“Rory’s never fought a name like B.J. Penn. B.J.’s a legend. Win or lose, it’s going to put him on the map. Whenever your name is next to B.J. Penn, you’re going to get a lot of attention. It’s a good time for Rory to get in the mix and get his name up there with the top-tier guys.”

MacDonald may not have far to go to reach the upper echelon of the division, but the 23-year-old has already expressed his desire for a rematch against the aforementioned Condit. After all, Condit handed MacDonald his only career loss in just his second Octagon appearance. While Zahabi is happy that his fighter is hungry, he’s making sure he’s focused on the task at hand.

“I’m okay with him wanting to fight Condit again; that’s normal,” declared Zahabi. “I don’t want my fighters saying they want to fight this guy and not that guy. I think it’s good that they want to fight everybody. As a manager and a trainer, we have to guide that. I always see it as a good thing that they want to fight.

“I think a fight with Condit is a great fight. Their last fight was very exciting. I don’t see any negatives there. It’s a tough fight for both guys. I think Rory has grown a lot since then, and it would be a good way to show how much he has evolved.

“[At the same time] I want him to focus on B.J. and pay no attention to fights after that. B.J. is a tall order and [he] needs to focus on that.”

As MacDonald continues his rise through the 170-pound ranks and St-Pierre reigns at the top, the potential for the two Canadians to cross paths is very real. Some have predicted it might even happen as soon as next year, but as much Zahabi would love to have the two top welterweights in the world under one roof, he is quick to put the issue to rest.

“I don’t think it will be that quickly. There’s still a lot of guys to fight to get the No. 1 contender spot. The welterweight division is stacked and there’s a lot of guys between the welterweight championship and Rory right now,” said Zahabi.

MacDonald (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“By the time that Georges moves up in weight or decides to retire, that will be the time for Rory. I don’t think they’ll be in the same spot at the same time. And even if they are, we’ll find a way around that.

“We train together every day, we’re family. We have to find a different solution. What that solution is, it’s still too far away to solve.”

With MacDonald’s attention currently on Penn, St-Pierre’s focus has shifted toward a possible superfight with middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Zahabi’s stance on the bout has been in the headlines of late, but he feels that many are missing the point.

“I’m not at the negotiation table, but everything above 170 [pounds] should be a middleweight title shot. If both fighters come in at 177, it can still be a world title fight,” said Zahabi.

“People are quoting me in saying that I want Anderson to come down to 170, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. If I had my ideal fight, Georges would fight at 170. Why would I give anybody an advantage? You’re working against your own interests.

“Obviously what’s ideal for Anderson is the other way around. It’s up to the UFC and Georges’ management. If they want Georges to move up, there has to be something to entice him. They want a fair fight, well, Georges is a 170-pound fighter. It’s out of my hands.”

Who St-Pierre decides to fight next may not be in his control, but one thing’s for certain, Zahabi will have him prepared to face whomever stands across the cage. Just like he’ll have MacDonald ready come Dec. 8.

For more information on Firas, check out his website, his gym, and follow him on Twitter: @Firas_Zahabi

Top Photo: Firas Zahabi (