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Tom Zbikowski still gets his hits in, despite NFL lockout

The Baltimore Ravens and former Fighting Irish safety is free during the NFL work stoppage to pursue his love of boxing. He has a June 4 bout scheduled at Staples Center.

April 07, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Baltimore Ravens safety turned boxer Tommy Zbikowski enters the ring prior to his victory over Richard Bryant in a heavyweight bout on March 12.
Baltimore Ravens safety turned boxer Tommy Zbikowski enters the ring prior… (Tim Shaffer / Reuters )

Tom Zbikowski leaves little doubt as to his athletic skill set. He hits people.

He may be the most proficient at that since Gerald Ford took up golf.

Zbikowski's day job used to be playing safety for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL. For the moment, the NFL has locked out its players in a labor dispute. So now, his day job has become a night job and is in a boxing ring.

His is an unusual story, certainly not the kind a mother would love. As a matter of fact, his mother, Susan, a retired commercial banker in Chicago, hates boxing.

But her son, who will turn 26 in May, could not get enough of it as a youngster and still can't, even though the lure of stature and riches presented by the more high-profile sport of football has muddied the waters.

Of boxing, he says, "I just love the sport. I love the workouts, the timing, the mental aspects."

He had 90 amateur fights in and around Chicago. His official amateur record is 75-15.

"By the time I got done, I think I avenged all those losses," he says, "and I probably had 10 to 20 more fights not listed, in smokers and stuff around the area."

He also had 50 to 60 college scholarship offers in 2003 as a quarterback out of Buffalo Grove High School in suburban Chicago. Notre Dame won out, as it often does in Chicago-area recruiting, and made him a defensive back. Zbikowski spent five seasons there (including a redshirt year), became team captain, received All-American ratings and was good enough to be chosen in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Ravens.

There, he has mostly settled in behind All-Pro Ed Reed, although he has become a team leader on special teams and started 10 games over three seasons when Reed was injured.

But the pull of pugilism never quite left him.

During one spring practice at Notre Dame, he got permission from coach Charlie Weis to go back and forth from South Bend to Chicago to compete in the Golden Gloves. But he broke a finger in football practice and could not finish the boxing tournament.

On another occasion, this time without Notre Dame's permission, he was invited to go a few rounds at a suburban Chicago smoker. It was during the week, out of season, but at a time when Notre Dame held early-morning workouts, and Zbikowski could not resist. Neither could a large gathering of his teammates, who went along to watch.

"By the time we got back to campus, it was 2 a.m.," Zbikowski recalls. "We had to be back up at 5."

He even talks now about boxing as if it could be a comfortable fallback, almost a soft landing, were his pro football career to end abruptly.

"You never know with football," he says. "The next play can be your last."

So can the next left hook, but Zbikowski does not seem to see it that way.

"I'm keeping all my options open," he says.

His contract with the Ravens ran out March 10. He is a restricted free agent, and most likely is in the team's plans when the inevitable ending to the inevitable messy labor dispute arrives. He says the Ravens, who really had no official hold on him once the lockout began, seem to be OK with his boxing for now.

That's probably because his pro career, as promising as it is, has pretty much consisted of a short parade of tomato cans. He made his pro debut, with Notre Dame's permission, on a Miguel Cotto-Paulie Malignaggi card June 10, 2006, in Madison Square Garden. He is promoted by Bob Arum, who is no dummy when it comes to projecting ringing cash registers when a prominent Notre Dame football player gets into a boxing ring in New York.

Zbikowski's four-rounder with somebody named Robert Bell, who had been talked into coming into the ring wearing an Ohio State jersey — no USC jerseys around? — lasted 49 seconds.

"Ten of those 49 seconds were to count him out," Zbikowski says.

After that, it was back to football — until the NFL lockout opened the door again.

Fight No. 2 was March 12 in Las Vegas, again on a Cotto card. That lasted 1:45 of the first round. Then came two weeks ago in Atlantic City, N.J., which went the maximum four rounds and, even though it was a victory by decision, got Zbikowski's attention.

"I have a lot to learn," he says.

The four-rounders and tomato cans will continue for a while, including a fight April 23 at Thackerville, Okla.

"Population, 404," Zbikowski says.

Then, June 4 at Staples Center, he is scheduled to fight another four-rounder against an opponent to be named, on a card headlined by Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

So, for Tom Zbikowski, unemployed football player, the beat goes on, so to speak.

He says he is still looking for a catchy boxing nickname. He apparently forgets he lived one for his entire collegiate football career.

Tom (Fighting Irish) Zbikowski.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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