Aiemann Zahabi takes humility to a new level when he says, “I’m an ordinary fighter doing what he has to do to make it to the big show.”
But the bantamweight newcomer, who makes his UFC debut this Sunday in Halifax against Reginaldo Vieira, is no mere rookie. The record, just 6-0, says he is, and if his name were Aiemann Smith, you would wonder what the commotion is all about when it comes to the Montrealer.
Yet as the brother of one of the most respected coaches in the sport in Firas Zahabi, and teammate to a host of stars in the Tristar gym, there are high expectations for him to not just win in the UFC, but to perhaps become the best fighter his sibling has produced.
"I’m not gonna let anybody dictate what happens to my career. I’m gonna take control of it and I’m going to prepare well, do my best in every fight and make sure I get a good finish or put on a good show." --Aiemann Zahabi
“I haven’t felt any pressure so far, but that’s a hard one,” he laughs. “No, I love the pressure and I’m happy some people think that. I’m gonna try to not let anybody down, but like I tell people, one fight does not define anybody. It’s my career, so whether I win this fight or lose this fight or I win five more in a row then lose one, nothing’s gonna stop me. I’m not gonna let anybody dictate what happens to my career. I’m gonna take control of it and I’m going to prepare well, do my best in every fight and make sure I get a good finish or put on a good show. And I’m going to keep going until I’m satisfied with my career, and hopefully I make my brother proud for always being there to train me and take care of me.”
That level of calm and maturity is a family trait, and at 29, Zahabi isn’t coming into this fight as a kid who will get overwhelmed by the bright lights. He’s been here before. Not on the local scene where he made his bones, but in and around UFC events that have afforded him a different look than most Octagon debutants get.
“I feel like I have a slight edge because I’ve been cornering guys in the UFC since I was 21,” he said. “I’ve been walking out to that Octagon for eight, nine years now, and I’ve always tried to picture myself as being the guy who’s about to step into the cage every time I did it. So I’m getting prepared, I’ve been there for fight week, I’ve watched my guys take their pictures and do their interviews and I’ve traveled all over the world for this kind of thing, so I’ve been doing this for a long time; it just wasn’t my turn to step into the cage, and now it is.”
Some wondered when Zahabi’s turn would come, but being associated with an elite coach and team wasn’t always beneficial, most notably when it was time to get a fight. Then, there were times when being Aiemann Smith would have been a good thing.
“It definitely played a role,” he said when asked if his last name occasionally prevented him from getting fights. “Also because of Tristar’s reputation with Georges St-Pierre, Rory (MacDonald) and all those guys, anybody that comes out of Tristar, it’s hard to get fights. Plus, I have the name and there’s not a lot of tape on me either. So it’s like a mystery. ‘What is he good at?’ And my fights, thank God, so far they haven’t lasted too long, so I haven’t taken much damage, and it’s hard for guys to know my weaknesses and my strengths, and that plays a role as well. But I told everybody if I would change my name to get more fights, I would change it to St-Pierre and make it harder on myself.”
Zahabi laughs, and you can hear it in his voice that the first-time UFC jitters aren’t going to be the issue they are for other newcomers. What is a mystery is what he will do if he hits the second round, something that he has yet to experience in his career. But he’s not concerned.
“I just prepare and whatever happens in the fight happens,” said Zahabi, who has ended all six of his wins in the opening frame. “I train very hard to get the finish. I’d rather not go to a decision and I want to win decisively within the time limit. But in the cage, I’m not impatient. If there’s an opportunity, I’ll rip into it, but if there’s not, I’m biding my time, looking for that hole, trying to create that hole so I can finish the fight.”
Any fighter can say that, but in Zahabi’s case, it’s believable, simply because he’s shown an ability in his career to not rush things and wait for his time to shine. That time is here.
“It’s important to be patient because, if anything, as time goes on, I’m just gonna be more and more ready,” he said. “The more time passes, the better I’m getting. It’s not like I’m wasting time. I’m always training to get better every day, and I’ve been patient because I understand the MMA game. This is just another fight. I’m not fighting against the UFC; I’m fighting against Reginaldo Vieira, so it’s just another day in the office for me.”