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Monday, 08/06/2012, 07:29 pm

EXCLUSIVE | Firas Zahabi Talks To BJPenn.Com About FundAFighter

As a trainer to some of the top mixed martial artists in the world, Firas Zahabi has more than hands full most of the time. Add raising a family on top of that and it’s enough to make your head spin. Tri-Star gym is home of the UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre, top welterweight contender Rory MacDonald and more than a dozen other UFC fighters all under the tutelage of Zahabi.

Now Zahabi has decided to start a new venture called FundaFighter. The idea comes from former UFC Middleweight Champion the late Evan Tanner who decided to allow his fans to help sponsor his training camps instead of seeking out the traditional corporate sponsors. Not only will this allow the younger fighters who can’t afford to focus solely on making themselves a better mixed martial artist, it will bring the fans even closer to the athletes they choose to donate their hard earned money to.

As of now FundaFighter has signed up two fighters. The first is The Ultimate Fighter Season 13 contestant Chuck “Cold Steel” O’Neill and current UFC featherweight Joey Gambino. In a press release put out by the company the mission is to “remove a lot of the financial roadblocks that fighters face when preparing for their fights.” Zahabi is proud to be part of something so unconventional and believes this will change the landscape of the sport forever. He explained the particulars behind the company.

“The first guy to come up with the idea was the late, great Evan Tanner,” Zahabi told BJPenn.Com. “He didn’t want to deal with corporate sponsors. I had never heard of the concept before until the owner of the building that houses Tri-Star, Robbie Stein brought it to my attention. He came across a website called KickStarter which helps people find funding for an invention or if they were looking to publish a book. We were constantly looking for sponsors to help our fighters financially and we figured that this is something that would work in MMA.”

Zahabi believes that because MMA is growing at such a rapid pace the fans would embrace an opportunity to have a connection with the fighters. FundaFighter gives them the chance to not only make that connection, but also help a fighter get through a training camp when they can’t rely solely on their fight purses.

“This is a great way to help fund our fighters and get them through all of their fight camps while at the same time increasing the relationships the fans already have with the fighters. Going through a camp is very demanding on a fighter and when they have to work a full-time job to support themselves it can have an effect on how much they grow as a mixed martial artist. They need to eat right and live right. They only get so much from their purses and most of the time it’s not enough to live on.”

Some fighters may think it’s a bit risky to give up their corporate sponsors in lieu of working with FundaFighter, but at the end of the day Zahabi believes they will see just how many fans are willing to help. When the fans see where their contributions are going and what they are receiving in return they will help spread the word.

“We’re trying to take it to the next level. The fans are also going to be getting something out this as well. They are getting that connection and the fighters will send them a gift. It can range from an autographed picture to having dinner with a fighter after the weigh-ins. They will get to hang out with the fighters and the mid-level contributors will receive shirts, it all depends how much you donate. Another cool feature is when a fan continuously donates to a fighter they will develop a relationship with that fighter. It’s better for the fighter as well, they have no connection with an apparel company, it’s basically here’s your check now go out and where this to the cage. The fighters are going to tweet about the fans who have donated; they are going to thank them. It’s going to give a serious connection between the fighters and the fans.”

Zahabi already believes that the connection with MMA fans and the fighters is already head and shoulders above the relationship that fans have with athletes in any other sport. FundaFighter will push this to a whole other level.

“This would never happen with a Major League Baseball player or a hockey player. Those guys would never give the fans the time of day. They are far less accessible than MMA fighters are. If you saw a fighter in the street and said hello to him, more than likely you’d get a positive response, that’s not likely with any other athletes. GSP was at the fan expo and signed autographs for 6 ½ hours and he stood up and made sure to shake everyone’s hand. He didn’t have to stay that long, but he did it because he loves his fans.”

While the sport continues to grow and gets bigger by the day it still isn’t at the point where the guys fighting on the regional circuits can support themselves without a job. FundaFighter’s goal is to not only connect the fans with the fighters, but also to allow these fighters to reach their maximum potential.

“MMA is a becoming a big part of people’s lives. It’s the new thing and has gotten so big and it allows some of us to make a nice living, but at the same time there are still guys who are struggling financially. A fighter needs the support to make their dreams come true and we are aiming to make that happen. Once a fighter realizes that they can make money through FundaFighter they will help spread the word to their training partners and friends.”

Because of its’ unique way of generating income for their fighters FundaFighter shouldn’t be considered as an everyday sponsor the same way an Affliction or TapouT would be. Zahabi hasn’t approached the UFC about the idea as of yet, but sees that coming sometime down the road.

“I would love to work with the UFC, but at this point I haven’t spoken to them about any opportunities yet,” Zahabi admitted. “I think it could be just as beneficial to them as it is to the fighters. For now they are doing much bigger things, but if FundaFighter grows like we think it can then we will hopefully be able to work together. Don’t forget we are not just looking to help UFC fighters we are looking to help fighters in MMA all over the world. Because our funding doesn’t come from a corporation we aren’t subject to any fees the UFC may charge the apparel companies. Our funding is coming from the everyday person, the fans of the sport. We envision it becoming like Twitter and the UFC encourages their fighters to be active on Twitter and that’s what we hope will happen with FundaFighter.”

At this time there isn’t any connection between Tri-Star and FundaFighter, but that’s not to say the two won’t work closely together in the near future. Tri-Star has plenty of young up and coming fighters who could greatly benefit from FundaFighter. The fact that they have some of the world’s top MMA stars can only help spread the word when the time comes.

“Right now it’s a separate venture altogether,” admitted Zahabi. “That doesn’t mean Tri-Star won’t do anything it can to help support the cause. We certainly don’t want to make it exclusive to Tri-Star fighters. That’s one of the reasons we chose Chuck O’Neill. He hasn’t been training with us for very long and we want everyone to know that we will be supporting fighters who train at other gyms. Our goal is to show that this program is for everyone around the world. We want to show the young prospects coming up that the fans believe in them and are willing to support them.”

Although there are no t-shirts or any other apparel with the FundaFighter logo out on the market yet, Zahabi can envision the day when a fighter comes to the cage with the FAF logo emblazoned on his shorts or on his sponsor’s banner.

“I’ve definitely thought about that of course and the door may even be open to corporate sponsors helping the FAF athletes,” admitted Zahabi. “We are trying to stay away from that scenario for now, but that day may come and when it does we will always make sure there is a place for the fans. The major idea behind FAF is to keep the fighters and their fans connected. I hope it grows and I think the fans will want to wear t-shirts with our logo on it. We may get to the point when we have apparel with the fans Twitter addresses on it.”

Zahabi isn’t exactly sure how they will recruit other fighters to become part of the FAF team. At this point they have chosen both O’Neill and Gambino as sort of a starting point. This will allow them to see what works and how they can go about helping this idea grow. They also want to make sure that the athletes chosen are going to take this opportunity and make the most of it.

“We are at a crucial part of the process right now and that’s why we have chosen only two fighters,” said the head coach of Georges St. Pierre. “We know we want to add other fighters. They will sign up and will then have to be approved. We need to know who they are and what fight they are booking. They also have to have a professional record. We want to make sure they are taking their careers very seriously and that people will have confidence knowing that their money is being donated to a legitimate fighter. We don’t want to have a guy who is just looking to collect some money.”

“If the fight doesn’t happen for any reason then the money will be returned or the fans will have the choice to keep their money with that fighter for his next fight. The whole process will be very well thought out and we want fighters who are looking to raise a realistic amount of money. If you’re fighting for a world title in the UFC you are going to ask for a larger amount. You may ask for $20,000. Obviously the bigger the fight the more money they can expect to raise. The fans will always be protected as I wouldn’t associate myself with anything I didn’t completely trust. We feel the fans will be more than happy with what they receive for their donations.”

It’s a simple idea with a great goal. Tanner was always considered as a man who thought outside the box. He trained himself by watching Gracie jiu-Jitsu VHS tapes and rode that to a UFC Middleweight Championship. Until FAF we could only imagine where he would have taken Team Tanner, but now FAF is making his dream a reality and will only help insure that the future stars of the sport are able to maximize their potential to the fullest.

“At the end of the day the ultimate goal of FundaFighter is to fund our fighters training camps,” offered Zahabi. “Some fighters will still work if they choose to. If they feel they can make the necessary sacrifices in their lives to handle working and training then that’s up to them. If you’re just starting out you may still have to work, but if you’re a world champion then you will be able to focus on nothing but preparing for your fights. There are so many great wrestlers and boxers who could’ve been mixed martial artists, but didn’t have the support. There is so much talent out there, but at the end of the day people have bills to pay and families to support. That’s where FundaFighter comes in; we want to give these guys the opportunities to reach new heights. It’s a win-win situation for the fighters and the fans. This will connect the two in ways that have never been done before.”

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