Ravens' Zbikowski sets sights on cruiserweight title

Safety fights tonight at Atlantic City's historic Boardwalk Hall

March 25, 2011|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — — Tom Zbikowski will take on Caleb "True Grit" Grummet in a four-round cruiserweight fight Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall, but the biggest battle for the Ravens safety could come next year.

Zbikowski told The Baltimore Sun he wants to explore ways of fighting next offseason and beyond, which he understands will be a challenge. It is believed Zbikowski would become the first person to pursue a career in boxing while still actively playing in the NFL.

Committed to showing he's far from a novelty act, the man known as "Tommy Z" in the boxing world has teamed up with legendary trainer Emanuel Steward and acknowledged he is working toward becoming the cruiserweight champion.

"Without a doubt — if I can get that worked out — that's my perfect world," Zbikowski said of becoming a two-sport athlete. "Other people might not feel that same way. If we can get that worked out, I can play at M&T Bank Stadium in the season and fight at M&T Bank Stadium in the offseason."

Zbikowski can box this offseason because he didn't sign his one-year offer (estimated at over $1.1 million) as a restricted free agent. That means he's technically not under contract and can continue to stockpile knockouts even if the lockout ends over the next four months.

For Zbikowski to box every offseason, he would have to either convince an NFL team to allow him to do so or sign one-year contracts every year right before the start of training camp (which was a scenario first presented by ProFootballTalk). He is expected to become an unrestricted free agent next March.

Other NFL players have attempted boxing, often as post-career gimmicks. The most successful was Charlie Powell, who played five seasons at defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s before turning to boxing. He compiled a 25-11-3 record while going against the likes of Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson.

Zbikowski can exceed that record, according to Steward, who has handled Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko.

"If he can stay busy on a regular basis like this, I figure in about 15 months time, he could fight and win the fighter cruiserweight championship of the world," Steward said of Zbikowski.

Zbikowski's best chance of playing both football and boxing appears to be with the Ravens. Team owner Steve Bisciotti surprisingly supported Zbikowski's boxing career, saying it's "awesome."

If the Ravens signed Zbikowski to a long-term deal next year and allowed him to box, they could lose a potential starter to injury but their financial risk would be minimal. An injury suffered while boxing would place him on the non-football injury list, which means he wouldn't get paid (and the Ravens could ask for a pro-rated portion of his signing bonus back).

Ravens coach John Harbaugh wasn't as enthusiastic as Bisciotti about Zbikowski trading punches in the ring, but he didn't seem firmly against it either.

"Tom said there's no risk of injury, so I guess I'm taking him at his word," Harbaugh said. "That's why my quote was: 'Keep your left up.' That's the risk of injury, getting hit."

Zbikowski is feverishly trying to build his boxing resume this offseason and is looking to get into the ring six times before the start of training camp (that is, if the lockout ends). If Zbikowski can climb up the cruiserweight ranks, his fight schedule can become more regimented. He can box in a couple of 10-round bouts instead of a handful of four-round ones like this year.

Asked whether he's shooting for the cruiserweight title — the weight class (176 to 200 pounds) between light heavyweight and heavyweight— Zbikowski said, "It's something I'm working for." Some boxing observers can see him eventually challenging 38-year-old WBA champion Guillermo Jones (37-3-2, 29 KOs).

Zbikowski has repeatedly said boxing is his first love and wanted to return to the sport after a brief — so he thought — NFL career. Now, the 25-year-old is determined to doing both.

"I don't look too far in advance because there are so many factors with boxing and getting through a football season without any surgeries. It's so much that is unknown," he said. "What people are starting to understand is I'm serious about this. I can fit both of them in if I move it along the right way."

Zbikowski (2-0) has yet to be tested, winning both of his professional fights by knockouts in a total of 2 minutes, 34 seconds. But that's the road for up-and-coming, promising boxers: fight often, record easy victories and generate buzz.

In his first fight in almost five years, Zbikowski needed just 1:45 to take down Rich Bryant (1-3), who looked like he had been training for a competitive eating competition instead of a boxing match. Two weeks later, he's facing Grummet (0-0-1), a boxing novice but former cagefighting champion.

"I don't ever want to take a step back in the competition," Zbikowski said. "This dude has been in the cage and has been in some wars. He's not going to be someone who is going to go down easily and without a fight."

While Zbikowski is on the undercard of the featherweight title bout between Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jorge Solis, he is hoping Ravens fans make the three-hour drive from Baltimore.

"I'm hoping that there is going to be some purple and black in the stands, and that they make some noise in the crowd," he said. "I just appreciate all of the support that I've received so far."

Jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/jamisonhensley

Fight Night

WHAT: Tom Zbikowski (2-0) vs. Caleb Grummet (0-0-1) in four-round cruiserweight fight

WHERE: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City

WHEN: Saturday around 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Priced at $200, $100, $50, they are available at the Boardwalk Hall box office or by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 736-1420.

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