Irish's Zbikowski to fulfill dream by boxing at MSG
Posted: Friday May 19, 2006 9:52AM; Updated: Monday May 22, 2006 5:59PM
Famed trainer Angelo Dundee (left) greeted Notre Dame star Tom Zbikowski in Miami.
Chris Farina/Top Rank
Zbikowski (right) is set to make his pro debut at Madison Square Garden on June 10.
Chris Farina/Top Rank
By Brian Hamilton, Special to SI.com
CHICAGO -- The weatherworn sign tacked to the double door provides a succinct welcome: Keep In Trim. Learn To Box. For the visitor still uncertain that this hulky brick edifice at the corner of Kostner and Ogden in a rugged stretch of Chicago's west side actually houses a business -- and the realty sign outside provides a little pause -- the answer lies just beyond the entrance.
In an ill-lit vestibule, the letters G-Y-M are stenciled on the wall, and an arrow points toward the stairs. The sound of leather-on-leather slaps and thuds greet visitors inside the doors upstairs. Windy City Boxing Gym bustles on a Saturday afternoon, the round timer squealing now and again, sweat flecking onto heavy bags, silver light trickling through ragged curtains. A sign perched on the east wall reads, "The more you SWEAT, the less you BLEED."
Shortly after 1 p.m., Tom Zbikowski arrives. A black ski cap covers his blocky skull, his 5-foot-11, 208-pound frame squared down to the floor like a stack of produce crates.
Today, Zbikowski will spar with two heavyweights to prepare for his June 10 professional debut at Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of the WBO junior welterweight championship bout between champion Miguel Cotto and Paulie Malignaggi.
None of that alone is particularly exceptional. Except that the previous day, Zbikowski was 100 miles away maxing out in the weight room of the most storied college football program in history: Notre Dame. You see, Zbikowski is a standout safety for the Irish, has an NFL future and, in theory, should view boxing in the same light as involuntary spinal surgery.
"I just always did it because I loved it," Zbikowski says of boxing. "I always fought. That's what I wanted to do -- I wanted to fight."
After Zbikowski loosens up, trainer Danny Nieves laces up his white gloves, while his father, Ed, applies final smears of Vaseline. Inside the ring waits Derek Zugic -- a 6-foot-4 amateur heavyweight ranked in the top 10 nationally last year by USA Boxing. Zbikowski climbs in, pounds gloves with Zugic and gets to work.
The amateur boxing book of Thomas Zbikowski is palm-sized, maybe one and a half times as large as a passport. Faded red letters reading USA BOXING are decipherable on its cover. Scotch tape frames the cover, holding it together, this ancient Bill of Fights. Its dilapidated condition is no accident. When he was younger and growing up outside of Chicago, Zbikowski saw the battered book of another local amateur, Rey Ivan Popoca, who had upward of 60 fights by age 14.
"Tommy looked at me," Ed Zbikowski recalls, "and he said, 'I want my book to look that way.'"
So it does, after more than 80 bouts. The record of the first is dated 7/22/95. Under "Wgt.," an "80" is scribbled in. Right next to that, under "Won," is a hearty "X."
On that night at a CYO boxing event in Des Plaines, Ill., Zbikowski defeated Abel Holquin, the first of his 68 victories in 81 amateur bouts.
"It was only me and my father -- my mother and brother were on their way," says Zbikowski. "They just missed my fight. The kid I fought got a bloody nose, I got a bloody nose. It was like minute rounds, and you just came out swinging, and you didn't stop."
The sport stirred him early. Zbikowski's older brother, E.J., was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1986 and went to the Mayo Clinic for a biopsy. E.J.'s roommate there was Rebecca Reitman, who arrived in a coma. The Zbikowskis befriended Rebecca's father, Dr. Harold Reitman, perhaps the world's lone orthopedic surgeon/heavyweight pugilist. (E.J. had surgeries at ages 6 and 9 to get rid of the tumor and fully recovered. He's now a senior at Wisconsin-Platteville.)
Visits from the Zbikowskis' home in Illinois to Reitmans' home in Florida soon followed. The Zbikowskis would venture to the 5th Street Gym in Miami, rub elbows with the likes of Roberto Duran and Angelo Dundee. In the ring, Reitman showed E.J. the ropes while Tom stood by, mesmerized.
As he got older, Tom gravitated toward football and boxing. He still has scars on his hands from breaking into whatever E.J. told him to break into. He once banged his head against a brick fireplace because it was the most efficient way to prove how hard his head was. Tom was, to put it one way, active.
To put it another ...
"He was nuts," says Kristen Zbikowski, the eldest sibling and a watchdog for her two little brothers. "Just nuts. At dinner, I swear to God, he has never had both legs and his butt on the chair. He always had one knee up and one leg on the ground because he always had somewhere to go. I would tell my Mom, 'Why am I even babysitting? These two don't even listen to me. Why am I even here? It's pointless.' The two of them together -- oh, my gosh."