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The Boxing Irish

Notre Dame safety Zbikowski will fulfill a dream by fighting on an undercard at Madison Square Garden

June 10, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Payment was settled at an upscale eatery only chop blocks from the stadium where Knute Rockne coached.

It was a Friday.

It was raining.

There was a Dame involved.

After eating his lunch, five soft-boiled eggs, the squashed-nosed "advisor" to an eligible college football captain peeled an "Andrew Jackson" from a wad of bills and said that ought to cover it.

The football player, who'd had a club sandwich, paid nothing.

A sidekick nicknamed Bozo, who works for a man in Las Vegas, witnessed the transaction.

Instead of Exhibit A at an NCAA hearing, this scene was only a promotional appetizer to Round 1 at Madison Square Garden.

Tonight, on the undercard of a junior-welterweight title fight, Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski makes his professional debut at the boxing mecca where George Foreman made his.

Pinch me?

Or is that punch me?

Zbikowski is set to fulfill a fantasy, fighting in "the Garden" after having played football at Notre Dame Stadium.

You could live 10 lives, and be Jim Thorpe in one of them, and not pull this off.

"There are bigger arenas than Madison Square Garden, but it's the actual place, the significance of it," Zbikowski, a heavyweight, says between bites of his free sandwich.

Several football teammates, including quarterback Brady Quinn, are expected to attend. Only a previously scheduled charity event will prevent Irish Coach Charlie Weis from being ringside.

Sometime after the four-rounder against Robert "Ring My" Bell of Akron, Ohio, Zbikowski will report to training camp for what many think could be a run at the national championship by Notre Dame.

The boxing sidebar is no joke, not a publicity stunt and, in the eyes of the NCAA, not a problem.

What a preposterous premise, though, amateur football and compliance officers teaming up with spit buckets and matchmakers.

"It's unique," Kevin White, Notre Dame's director of athletics, says. "I grant you that."

Not only is no one going down for this, it's all on pay per view.

The NCAA manual is thicker than a sub sandwich. Nowhere, though, does it prohibit an active Notre Dame defensive back from signing with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and divvying up a $25,000 purse.

NCAA athletes have long been allowed to compete professionally in other sports under bylaw 12.1.2 -- Stanford quarterback John Elway moonlighted in the New York Yankees organization -- but no one can remember the other sport being boxing.

People invoke the name of Jeremy Bloom, a former Colorado kick-returning dynamo who lost his 10-rounder with the NCAA in an effort to keep endorsement money earned as a freestyle skier.

That was different, the NCAA says. Bloom was allowed to accept World Cup payouts but not endorsement money -- and the same rule applies to Zbikowski.

He can bank his share of the $25,000, less expenses, and his likeness and image can be used to promote the fight.

Said NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Kearns, "He's not doing anything that's against our rules."

So there you have it: Top Rank and the NCAA, all square at Madison Square, in a joint promotion.

What next: Pete Carroll cuts a deal with Butterbean?

*

When it began, last January, Arum laughed off a phone call from Mike Joyce, a Chicago boxer-turned-lawyer looking for an arm to promote a Notre Dame safety with two years of football eligibility left.

"You're wasting your time," Arum recalls saying.

How could the kid take a fight paycheck, then take the field against Georgia Tech?

But he could.

Arum phoned Notre Dame and was told so by Mike Karowski, the school's associate athletic director for compliance.

"God forbid, if I do anything and the kid loses his eligibility I'm not going to take the heat," Arum says.

Everyone signed off on it, notably Weis, the deal maker or breaker.

"That's going to be a heck of a summer job for him," the coach said after being assured no NCAA rules would be compromised.

Promotional bells sounded in Arum's head:

Ding ... active Notre Dame player ... ding ... Polish descent ... ding ... from Chicago ... ding ... with a back story out of central casting.

It was possible Arum could carve out space on his June 10 card headlined by Miguel Cotto versus Paulie Malignaggi.

So what if Zbikowski couldn't fight?

But he could.

When not returning a 60-yard punt for a touchdown against USC, and thinking he helped stuff Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart at the line of scrimmage on last year's memorable "Bush Push" ending, and this spring being named a Notre Dame team captain, Zbikowski was adding to his body of boxing work.

His record is what you'd expect out of the murky amateur chronicles: 76-15, 75-15, 66-13 or 60-13.

"It's always been part of my life," Zbikowski, who has started 24 consecutive football games for Notre Dame, says of the fight game. "I never really thought of it as anything exceptional or extraordinary."

*

A boy boxer, under his father's tutelage, ducks in and out of every gym joint in Chicago. At 11, Tommy fights five bouts in one week.

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