A Family of Fighters

Tristar Gym, a Mixed Martial Arts studio in Montreal, is an international hub of talent, dedication, and community

By Aaron Tannenbaum


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a nondescript, industrial block off Montréal’s congested Boulevard Décarie lies a nondescript, industrial building of grey stucco and orange brickwork. Though the squat structure inspires little curiosity in the average passerby, it houses a unique community of world class athletes who flock from all corners of the globe to train at Tristar gym. What began nearly ten years ago as a modest kickboxing studio is today one of the world’s most prominent Mixed Martial Arts training grounds, producing many UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championships] titleholders across all gender and weight classes. While Tristar’s coaches are legendary, the key to the gym’s success lies in its community atmosphere where athletes, coaches, and management support one another as family rather than just colleagues.

I recently had the chance to speak with Robbie Stein, Tristar’s proprietor and a driving force in the studio’s community since its inception, and Sandy Stein, Robbie’s mother and an honorary grandmother to many of the gym’s athletes.

The Yale Globalist: How did you first become involved in Montreal’s MMA scene?

Robbie: So it all sort of revolves around this building that we own on Rue Ferrier. About 20 years ago, my father was approached by a man named Conrad Pla who wanted to open a small kickboxing gym. Our friends told my father, “Don’t put it in your building, you don’t know what kind of people will be coming through,” but he didn’t care. He had no problem. So the gym started out in our building and to us it was just another tenant. As time went on the gym expanded, but we didn’t have very much to do with it. Many years later, I decided that the real estate business was not for me, and I moved our offices into the building on Rue Ferrier to keep a low profile and just quietly manage our buildings.

TYG: So your offices were just above the kickboxing gym?

Robbie: Exactly. So one morning I walked into the gym to just check it out and say hello. In the past, I was lucky if I saw 10 people in there, but I walk into the gym that day and there must have been 70 people there! On a Wednesday! I thought, what the hell is going on here?

TYG: Were these professional athletes, or just people who came to train for fun?

Robbie: It happened to be that they were professional fighters. I wasn’t even a fan of UFC at the time. I vaguely knew the name George St. Pierre because he was from Québec and he was a world champion, but I didn’t really watch it. And then I turn around and in walks George St. Pierre – he apparently trained here.

TYG: And you wouldn’t have known about all this if you hadn’t decided to bow out of real estate and move your office into this building.

Robbie: Exactly! And I’m a weird guy; if something interests me I want to know everything about it, so I spend the next week just going on the internet and reading everything about UFC fighting, Mixed Martial Arts, everything I can get my hands on.

TYG: I imagine that must’ve been a very new scene for you to explore.

Robbie: It was, and it was incredible. The owner of the gym at this point was a young man named Firas Zahabi. Firas, who also was the head coach of our fighting team, and I are the same age and we end up sort of just hitting it off. I would end up hanging out around the gym all day when I was at work, talking to Firas and getting to know our athletes. Firas is a world-class MMA fighter and coach, so once he took over Tristar everyone starting coming to train under him. I never loved to exercise and I don’t like to train, but I was getting to be close friends with Firas and I loved the closeness, the brotherhood, among the athletes at Tristar, so I thought to myself, “You know what? I’m an entrepreneur, I really like this place, maybe this is something I can get more involved in.”

TYG: So what were your next steps in becoming more active in Tristar?

Robbie: The first big thing I did was when I found out that there’s a woman from Australia who is training at the gym. She’s working hard and she wants to become a champion, but she’s sleeping at night on the floor of the studio. I was thinking about her and I realized that I’ve got some empty space in this building – why don’t I build a dormitory? I wanted to make sure our athletes could at least live properly while they’re here, and I thought it could maybe help us recruit some more fighters. So I take this ragtag office space, I paint it pretty much just by myself with a friend and I throw in some beds from Ikea. I think I started off with about 10 beds in this dorm, and within a week we were full! Word just spread like wildfire; we were getting requests from kids from all over North America, all over Europe, all over Africa, every corner of the world really.

TYG: How did the athletes take to dorm life?

Robbie: It was hectic at first, but it was incredible. The athletes really became a family. It was such a special place that we once had a very famous fighter named Kenny Florian come train with Firas, and we reluctantly let him take a look at the dorm when he asked to see it.

TYG: Reluctantly?

Robbie: Oh, the place was a mess, I was so embarrassed to show it to this big time fighter. But once we got upstairs he took out his phone, canceled his hotel reservation, and insisted on spending a few nights in the dorm with our athletes.

TYG: That must’ve been a shock for your amateur fighters living there!

Robbie: Oh it definitely was! They were all very excited.

TYG: How have your friends and family members reacted to this new interest, this new community of yours?

Sandy: We love it! The Tristar family adds so much to my life. I really try my best to take care of these athletes. You know that Robbie is like a good friend to many of them, but I’m more like a mother or a grandmother to the athletes. I go over and I give them hugs and kisses; I take care of them. One fighter from Poland, Christof, got injured at the gym and had to be taken to the hospital. I made sure I got him to the doctors he needed to see and made sure all of his papers were in order, and like all the other athletes I helped him with a lot of logistical things that needed to be covered. But what was also very important to me was that I would invite everyone to Shabbat dinner with my family. Nate would call me almost every Friday, “Are you making dinner tonight grandma?” He was really a part of the family. It’s important to me that our athletes feel welcome and at home with us, because they leave their families to come train here and to live in the dorm, so they don’t get this type of family experience anywhere else in Montreal. And it’s also important to me because so many of them, where they’re from, hadn’t met any other Jews before. Now I don’t know what kind of preconceptions about Jews they might have grown up with but I wanted to show them what a typical Jewish family was like, to share our family’s Shabbat with them, and to maybe teach them a little bit about our traditions. And I think that they really enjoy it.

TYG: That’s wonderful that you’ve gotten to share so much of your life and your culture with the athletes – has that cultural exchange ever been a two-way street?

Robbie: Oh absolutely. We’re very lucky to be in Montreal; it’s such a multicultural city. It’s accepting of all different ethnicities and cultures, even though the French/English divide does exist. And I believe in that stereotype that Canadians are nice, friendly people. So for each of our athletes, regardless of where they’re from there is a community in Montreal, or at least a few restaurants and bars, that can help them feel at home. And I’ve had a really interesting time helping our fighters find those places and taking them around the city to visit them. If we have a religious catholic fighter I always take them to St. Joseph’s Oratory, which is just magnificent, or if we have Eastern European fighters I’ll take them to restaurants where they can find Polish and Russian foods. There’s a very good gym that I know of in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and while the training there is fantastic you’re not going to find these same types of places that can help their athletes feel at home and comfortable.

TYG: This must give you such an interesting new perspective on your own city.

Robbie: Exactly, because you don’t tend to appreciate all that your city has when you’ve always lived there. Montreal has had some major issues over the year, economically and politically, but discovering new neighborhoods and cultural pockets of it with our athletes has really helped me appreciate where I live.

Sandy: On the topic of, well, exploring the cultures and backgrounds that our athletes come from, let me tell you about Alex Garcia, the “Dominican nightmare”. Alex made it into the UFC after training at Tristar. He has a way over the top personality, he’s a fantastic guy, he’s a fabulous fighter and he has a heart of gold. MMA was his way of getting out of the poverty in which he grew up. Last year, he was visiting the Dominican Republic to do a PR tour so that he could pick up some new sponsors and also to give back to his community a little by distributing some supplies and leading a few MMA seminars for kids there. My brother and I accompanied him to help with some logistics, and it was just the most incredible experience. Alex was truly welcomed as a national hero – everywhere we went people were asking for his autograph and following him with such respect and love. He came to Canada to pursue MMA, of course, but he never abandoned his home. He always fought wearing the colors of the Dominican flag, and everyone there – especially in his hometown Cabarete – were just so proud of him. I was so proud of him. Plus, I got to join him on the field when he threw the first pitch at a major baseball game – that was quite something.

TYG: Did you get to spend any time with his family?

Sandy: Yes, I was honored that he trusted us enough to take us to meet his family for dinner one night. We drove a very long way until we came to this tiny house with cold running water and a small bathroom outside. And they were so hospitable and kind to us. His mother cooked us a meal and we drank coffee together afterwards, and let me tell you they drink such strong coffee, I haven’t been able to fall asleep since last year! The whole family came—aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone—to meet us and welcome us. They really welcomed us like family, the same way we try to welcome our athletes like family.

TYG: Have other gyms with communities like Tristar’s popped up around the country now that your dormitory model has proven so successful?

Robbie: So we were the first to really create this sort of dormitory community, and it’s been duplicated quite a bit in the sense that very large and successful MMA gyms are creating some housing facilities. But I don’t think they quite replicate what we do because we have the legendary Firas Zahabi operating the gym and you have this Jewish mom and son landlords who are so fascinated by what goes on at the gym and involve themselves in the athletes lives to a tremendous degree. I was once talking to potential investors who wanted to expand the dorm, and I said to them what you don’t realize is that I go and visit the dorms many times a day. And I speak with all of the athletes many times a day. If they’re not happy, if they’re not having a good time and they have no one to talk to, they have no reason to stay. They left their homes, their friends, their families to come here—they love their training but they need lives beyond MMA. If we can’t stay keep ourselves one close-knit community, the athletes would be far less happy and the gym would be far less successful.

To paraphrase historian George W. Pierson, Tristar Gym is at once a tradition, a company of athletes, and a society of friends. Every institution—large and small, old and new, prestigious and obscure–that seeks excellence in any field has much to learn from Tristar’s community-centric model for success.   

Aaron Tannenbuam is a sophomore Statistics major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at aaron.tannenbaum@yale.edu