In ring and as Raven, Zbikowski wants to become world champion
Tommy Zbikowski, Ravens safety, is serious about his career in boxing
Zbikowski has won three professional fights, two by first-round knockout
Not under contract and locked out, Zbikowski is free to pursue boxing dreams
It seemed like a simple question: Would you rather be MVP of the Super Bowl or a boxing world champion?
Tommy Zbikowski took a few seconds to think about his answer.
It had to be a Super Bowl, right? For the past seven years, Zbikowski's life has revolved around football, first as a two-time third-team All-America safety at Notre Dame and for the past three years as a part-time starter for the Baltimore Ravens. Sure, boxing was more than just a different way to exercise. A standout Golden Gloves fighter in Chicago, Zbikowski racked up a 75-15 record as an amateur and won his professional debut in 2006 in 49 seconds, a fight he took during his summer vacation at Notre Dame. But football was his livelihood, his life.
"World champ," Zbikowski finally said.
"I'd walk around with the belt all the time," he said. "I would have it everywhere I went. I'd be wearing it right now if I had one."
This is how serious Zbikowski is about boxing. He put on his first pair of gloves at 4. He started to get competitive at 9. When he was 10, he walked into Emanuel Steward's gym in Miami just to get a picture with the Hall of Fame trainer. He lists as his childhood idols Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns.
"This isn't a hobby," Zbikowski insisted. "This is my passion."
Zbikowski has not had much time for his passion since leaving South Bend. Playing professional football, it seems, is a full-time job. Since being drafted by the Ravens in the third round in 2008, Zbikowski has committed himself to the game. He played sparingly in 31 games during his first two seasons in Baltimore but got his break last season, when he started six games filling in for the injured Ed Reed.
"You really only have one shot at playing professional football," Zbikowski said. "There is no minor league system. I couldn't pass this up, no matter how much I love another sport."
Still, boxing was never far from Zbikowski's mind. A week after the Ravens' season ended, Zbikowski started thinking about getting back in the ring. The three-year contract he signed as a rookie had expired, leaving him free of any team restrictions on getting back in the ring. He contacted Top Rank, the company that put him in its '06 card, and it was more than willing to offer him another fight.
"I had the itch for a while, ever since that fight in '06," Zbikowski said. "I just love doing it. There's nothing like one-on-one competition. There's nothing like the feeling of anxiety before you go into the fight. You overcome all the doubts you have in your mind. If a fighter tells you he's not afraid before he goes in the ring, he's lying. Fear is your biggest motivator. It's how you control what you do in a fight."
Zbikowski made his return to the ring as a cruiserweight (193 pounds) on March 12 -- the day the NFL announced the lockout -- and knocked out Richard Bryant in the first round. Last Saturday, Zbikowski won again, outpointing Caleb Grummet on the undercard of an HBO show. Against Grummet, Zbikowski had a familiar face in his corner: Steward, who added Zbikowski to a client list that has included Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield.
"He has great natural balance and coordination," Steward said. "And that takes a long time to teach. I think that he can fight. There's no adjustment for him. He's a real, true boxer."
Balancing two training regimens would be difficult, which is why Zbikowski hasn't really tried. He has thrown himself into boxing training, some of which -- the agility, the plyometrics, the sparring -- he believes will help him when he returns to football full time.
"As a defensive back who uses his hands, boxing is only going to help me be that much faster stripping balls," Zbikowski said. "If anything, my reflexes and coordination have gone through the roof since I started boxing again. I can cover and run for days."
And Zbikowski does plan to return to football. He has made good money in his last two fights -- just under $100,000 -- but nowhere near the $1 million-plus annual salary he likely will command when he re-signs with Baltimore before the start of next season. Ravens coach John Harbaugh told season-ticket holders earlier this month that Zbikowski could compete for the starting strong safety spot next season. And after coming up short of the Super Bowl in his first three seasons, Zbikowski is eager to take another shot at getting there.
"If I was on a less competitive team, I'd say yes, I could see myself sticking with boxing," Zbikowski said. "But we have been to the AFC Championship Game. We have lost to a team that has been in the Super Bowl two years in a row. It's tough being that close. Playing in the Super Bowl is something you dream of and there is no way to pass that up. But if I'm on a team that is 5-11 or something, obviously winning that world belt starts to look a lot better. But I just feel starting something and getting that close to a goal, I can't pass that up. It is attainable. We have a team that can do it."
Until then, Zbikowski will continue to work toward his "other" dream. His next fight is scheduled for April 23, before which he will likely serve as a sparring partner for former light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson. The Ravens' organization has been supportive. Reed and fellow defensive back Domonique Foxworth are among the players who have attended his shows. Harbaugh told him to "keep your left up." Owner Steve Bisciotti has said he would walk into the ring with Zbikowski if he could.
Zbikowski says he is nowhere near ready for a world title shot. Steward estimates it will be at least 15 months before he is ready for that. Still, there is a chance one of the four recognized cruiserweight champions, perhaps looking to cash in on Zbikowski's name, will offer him a chance to fight for a title.
"Personally, I don't think I'd be able to pass that up," Zbikowski said. "But I have people around me who are going to tell me whether it's a smart decision. You don't want to be rushed into it. You may have all the power and speed and athletic ability but ring experience and generalship still has to be taken into consideration. If I'm progressing the way I think I can and my conditioning is there, I'd be more than happy to. Because I want to be a world champion. I want it real bad."
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