A date with the Mongolian Murderer sounds daunting at best. But Canadian bantamweight Aiemann Zahabi is looking forward to Saturday's matchup with China's Qileng Aori at UFC 289 in Vancouver.
The 35-year-old from Montreal is in a good place. He has won his last two fights and his family is flourishing.
"Life is beautiful, man," Zahabi said. "My twin daughters are going to be five years old in July and we're going to have a big party for them … The (Tristar) gym is doing super-well. Post-COVID, we have more members than ever before. So things are great here for the Zahabis."
Zahabi is the younger brother of famed trainer Firas Zahabi, the Tristar owner and head coach who helped Georges St-Pierre to two UFC titles.
Zahabi (9-2-0) is 3-2-0 in the UFC since making his debut in February 2017 and comes to Vancouver buoyed by consecutive wins over Drako (The Great Drakolini) Rodriguez and Ricky (Pretty Ricky) Turcios, winner of Season 29 of "The Ultimate Fighter."
Zahabi suffered back-to-back losses to Ricardo Ramos and Vince (Vandetta) Morales after opening his UFC account with a decision win over Brazil's Reginaldo Vieira.
His one-punch KO win over Rodriguez snapped the losing streak — which included being at the wrong end of a spinning back elbow KO by Ramos — and earned him a US$50,000 performance of the night bonus and a new UFC deal.
"I'm in a beautiful place," said Zahabi. "I don't know how to explain it other that you can learn as much theory as you want but you've got to go out there and do it in the real world. There's a lot of trial and error to becoming good. And I feel I was just lacking the experience — like the fight experience in the cage, in the Octagon, and not just in the gym."
He points out he only had six fights under his belt when he entered the UFC. Now he is on his sixth UFC bout.
Saturday's main event at Rogers Arena sees Brazil's Amanda (The Lioness) Nunes defend her bantamweight title against No. 5 Irene Aldana of Mexico. Aldana replaced the injured Juliana (The Venezuelan Vixen) Pena. Nunes also holds the UFC featherweight championship.
Zahabi is one of six Canadian or Canadian-based fighters on the Vancouver card.
Middleweight Marc-Andre (Power Bar) Barriault and welterweight (Proper) Mike Malott are on the main card while Zahabi, flyweight Jasmine Jasudavicius, featherweight Kyle (The Monster) Nelson and strawweight Diana (Warrior Princess) Belbita are on the undercard.
Vancouver marks the first UFC show in Canada since Sept. 14, 2019, at the same Vancouver venue. Justin (The Highlight) Gaethje stopped fellow American Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone in the first round in the main event before an announced crowd of 15,114.
Aori (24-9-0) is coming off wins over England's Cameron (Camchida) Else and Jay (The Joker) Perrin. The 29-year-old from Shanghai lost his first two fights in the UFC, both in 2019.
The Chinese fighter is a technical striker with power who lands 6.07 significant striker per minute, according to UFC Stats. That compares to 3.01 for Zahabi.
But the Canadian's defence is far better, absorbing 3.38 significant strike per minute compared to 7.18 for Aori.
Zahabi is also an effective, patient counter-striker with good kicks and a handy left jab.
He acknowledges having had to work on his mental game, especially after the devastating KO loss to Ramos.
"The Ramos fight kind of took my confidence and my chin away a little bit," he said. "The fear was eating me up."
A book called "The Tools" helped him find his way again. The book contained the mantra — "I love the pain. The pain will set me free." Zahabi changed it to "I love the fear. The fear will set me free."
"And I kept telling myself that over and over throughout the Drako training camp," he added. "Until I was able to overcome that and just be myself in there. I was just able to finally perform without having that fear of 'You know what? I'm going to get hurt. Things may not go well or I might end up in the hospital again.'"
He also increased the intensity of his training, so it felt as close to the real thing as possible.
Zahabi, the youngest of four brothers, started martial arts at five with karate. Brother Alex, who hold a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu as well as a PhD in microbiology and an MBA, teaches at Tristar Burlington (Ont.) BJJ. Tarek, the fourth brother, no longer trains.
Their father emigrated from Lebanon.
Zahabi has been cornering UFC fights at 18, first stepping in to help when Firas' calendar became too congested. While Aiemann still corners some fighters, he only does it with those he regularly trains with because of his own time constraints.
At 21, Aiemann went to see Firas to announce he wanted to try MMA. He quit university to focus on MMA, setting a goal of making the UFC by the time he was 30. The call eventually came when he was 29.
He still teaches some private classes and covers for Firas with core classes at Tristar if his brother is out of town.
Aiemann believes he is now making his own name in the sport.
"I've overcome adversity and there's less doubters now," he said. "I feel like I've finally come to a point in my life where people respect me for Aiemann also and not just Zahabi."
Away from the gym, he owns a small brokerage firm managing a couple of trucks that usually transport fruit and vegetables.
Zahabi was studying accounting at McGill, after taking commerce at CEGEP, before he took up MMA full time.
"Business, entrepreneurship intrigues me a lot," he said. "When I retire from fighting, I'd like to open my gym and also grow my brokerage as well. There's a good financial future for me in the books, I think."