By Thomas Gerbasi
A lot has gone on in the life of Tommy Zbikowski between his first and second professional fights. In 2006, he was the pride of Notre Dame football and a former amateur boxer making his debut in the big room at Madison Square Garden on the Miguel Cotto vs Paulie Malignaggi undercard.
That first foray into the punch for pay ranks took all of 49 seconds as he blitzed and stopped Robert Bell. He assumed that he would be back in the ring after graduation. But it hasn’t worked out quite that way for the Park Ridge, Illinois native.
“I didn’t think my football career would last this long,” said Zbikowski, currently a safety for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. “I figured I’d play two, three years and see how it would go in the NFL, and then I’d be back to boxing again. I thought it would be right after college to be honest with you. I thought I would just get my college education, play a little college ball, and back to the ring for me, and obviously my career in football has been extended longer than that.”
That’s a good thing. A third round (86th overall) pick of the Ravens, Zbikowski played on special teams his first year, started a few games in his second year, and last season, he started a career-high four games, which would have probably been more had he not been hobbled by back and foot injuries. And he’s not finished yet.
“I think if I would have been playing for another team, I would have been done,” he said. “We’ve been successful, we’ve been to the AFC championship, we’re knocking on the door for a Super Bowl, and getting that close to a championship is really something that has been a dream of mine. It’s every kid’s dream, and as a competitor, it’s hard to just walk away from that.”
At the same time, it’s been hard for him to walk away from boxing as well, and on Saturday night in Las Vegas, Zbikowski will face Richard Bryant in his second pro bout, nearly five years removed from his first fight. It’s not surprising, considering that he has had gloves on since the age of nine.
“It’s the most addicting thing you can do,” said Zbikowski, who compiled a 75-15 amateur record. “Once it’s in you, you can’t get it out, and the time away has been almost eating at me. I’ve been missing it so much. I’m only 25, so five years for me is an eternity and it’s been something I’ve been waiting to get back at. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s the one on one thing, if it’s the limelight, or if it’s dealing with that kind of pressure. It’s hard to pinpoint which one it is, it’s probably all of them. But I enjoy it because my father’s around, my brother comes around, and the gym’s open. Boxing is a small, tight knit community, and that’s something I missed. Everyone loves football; it’s America’s sport. There’s 80,000 every single week in every single city, and they cheer for their team. In boxing, people become a fan of yours and they’re cheering for you, and not just because you’re on a certain team or you play a certain position. If you’re a boxer and if they’re a fan of yours, they like you for a certain reason.”
Yet for a while, it looked like he wouldn’t be back. After his heavily-hyped debut, one in which many media outlets covered him more than the Cotto-Malignaggi main event, Zbikowski finished off his college football career in stellar fashion, becoming a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s top defensive back thanks to a career-high 80 tackles and one sack. He left Notre Dame as the school’s leading career tackler as a defensive back with 300, and as he explains, from there it was a whirlwind that left him little time for the sweet science.
“It’s like two years straight of football,” he said. “You finish your senior season in late November, start training in December, January’s the Senior Bowl, February’s the combine, March is your pro day, April’s Draft Day, May you’re already in rookie camp, you get a little bit off in June and July, and then it’s a 20 game season. We had our bye week in the second week of the season because we were supposed to play in Houston when they had the hurricane, so I went 18 straight games my rookie year without a bye. We got like three, four days off over the course of the season.”
Needless to say, when it was over, the last thing he wanted to do was get punched in the face.
“I got away from everything and just needed to sleep for almost like two months,” he laughs. “And by that time you’re already back in Baltimore for off-season training.”
But last year, Zbikowski began the road back.
“I started locally, hitting the mitts, taking my time, getting back into it, doing a little sparring here and there, that was winter and summer time, and I used it as a conditioning tool and to slim down a little bit,” he said. “I went from to 210 my rookie year to 205 my second year, and then down to 195-200 this last year. Once you lace them up, everything started coming back.”
And with the NFL owners and players association in the midst of talks to sign a new collective bargaining agreement before it expires at 11:59pm EST tonight, Zbikowski found his way back into the ring for Saturday’s bout, one he’s been training for with Orlando Cuellar, best known as the trainer of Glen Johnson. And so far, he hasn’t missed a beat in the gym.
“It is like riding a bike, but honestly it’s better this time around because I’m not doing the weightlifting or any of that stuff,” he said. “I feel like I felt when I was in the amateurs. My footwork is back to where it was, my rhythm is there, my shoulders are loose again, my feints are better, and it feels very good right now. I think just being in the NFL and being a football player has you be around the top athletes in this country and to stay in the NFL you have to be a top, top athlete, especially as a defensive back. But I feel this is some of the best boxing I’ve done for a long time.”
“Tommy Z” has his teammates behind them, with a number of them making the trip to Vegas for the bout. As for Ravens management, Zbikowski – a restricted free agent – says “There’s nothing they really can say, but I think they’ve gotten to know me and my personality and they know that I was a professional boxer before I was a professional football player and they know that this isn’t a freak show. This is something that I truly love and have a passion for that I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Saturday is far from the end of the journey though, and when you ask him if he will be back in boxing full-time once his football career is done, he doesn’t hesitate to say “Yeah, for sure. Without a doubt.”
It’s an odd sentiment to have, especially since the boxing party line is that the dearth of heavyweight talent these days is because the big men in the athletic world are all going to football or basketball. Zbikowski is already a participant in the United States’ most popular sport, yet he still wants to return to the sweet science. It’s made him one of the fight game’s most compelling stories in recent months.
“A lot of football players love boxing and MMA and I think people are waiting for another star in boxing or maybe just a story of pure passion for a sport that I would be willing to give up the dollar bills that are offered to you in the NFL to do something that I love,” said Zbikowski, giving his .02 on why the public has gravitated to his return. The 25-year old also knows that the sport he loves needs some fixing to get back where it once was, and to attract young athletes who now pursue other sports instead of boxing.
“Nobody knows who the champ is in each weight division,” he said. “And if they don’t know the champs, how are they gonna know who’s the best? They’re just hearing random names. And it’s not like the fighters aren’t good; there are plenty of good fighters out there, but how are you supposed to know who’s who? You can’t have six different belts and 25 different divisions between 100 and 200 pounds. Do you think no one over 200 pounds wants to box and that we’re just going to have massive giants for heavyweights? Joe Louis would never be, Rocky Marciano would never be, none of these guys would ever be if they had to fight right now because you just have absolute giants fighting right now. You have to get another division somewhere in there. Have heavyweight at 230-235, and everything over that is super heavyweight. Plus, one of the big draws to football, baseball and basketball are not just the big contracts, but health insurance past the time you’re done and some benefits after you’ve played the sport, not just that you’re left out to hang.”
All great ideas, but ones that would take time, a unified approach, and some calming of the Wild West of boxing to get done. For now, Zbikowski is content with fighting, and his eventual goal is one shared by the majority of pugilists.
“It’s worldwide,” he said. “You’re world champ if you become champ. Even if there are multiple belts, it’s still the entire world. America is the only country that plays football. You’re not world champs because you’re Super Bowl champs, you’re American champs. It makes me mad when people say the Super Bowl champs are world champs, because you’re not; we’re the only country that plays it. It’s a little arrogant. But if you’re a boxer and you’re a world champ, that’s the entire world.”
For Zbikowski, that’s worth putting the helmet and pads on the side for now.