Zbikowski takes his hard knocks from football to boxing

During NFL lockout, Baltimore Raven is 3-0 in pro boxing matches

  • Tom Zbikowski, left, sparring with Detroit boxer Anthony Barns, 19, Tuesday April 12, 2011 during a training session at the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit, Michigan. Zbikowski has been training with legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward.
Tom Zbikowski, left, sparring with Detroit boxer Anthony Barns,… (Bryan Mitchell, Baltimore…)
April 16, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

DETROIT — — Outside the building's doors, he is Tom Zbikowski, NFL football player. Inside, he is "fresh meat."

This is Kronk Gym, legendary for turning out stellar boxing champions like Tommy Hearns and Oscar De La Hoya from threadbare surroundings. It is a proud legacy for the fighters who train here on a sagging practice ring seemingly held together by duct tape, and one that they will protect from the wannabes who have lifted a few weights or seen a few too many Hollywood renderings of their sport.

When the Baltimore Ravens safety arrived to train for his professional boxing matches, among the first thing he heard from the other fighters here was the declaration: "Let the beatings begin."

At 5 foot 11 and wearing baggy sweat pants and a hoodie, Zbikowski is not immediately fearsome; that comes only after he strips down to shorts, revealing a Spartan-at-Thermopylae physique. But the Zibby of the Ravens' locker room who is transforming himself into the Tommy Z of the boxing ring is no arriviste to the world that Kronk represents.

He is a near-lifelong member of the church of boxing, freed by the NFL lockout not so much to pursue some wild new venture as to return to his truest calling. Spend some time with Zbikowski, who takes a 3-0 record into his fourth fight on April 23, and it's clear that he feels more like himself here than on the gridiron.

In other words, he plays football because he can, but he boxes because he must.

"Football players think they're the baddest dudes around," he said as he left Kronk last week, soaked in sweat after a couple of rounds of sparring.

"But that skinny kid, 130 pounds?" Zbikowski said, referring to one of the more anonymous fighters in a crowd that included a few former and perhaps future titlists. "He would knock out 90 percent of NFL players."

The 25-year-old Zbikowski is keenly aware of the hype surrounding his improbable quest, and in fact has helped feed it himself, staging press events that have helped propel ticket sales. He has inspired at least one copycat — the Minnesota Vikings' Ray Edwards is planning to step into the ring in May — and even more trash-talking from other players. First, Chad Ochocinco challenged him to a match (stick to soccer, was Zbikowski's response, referring to the Cincinnati Bengal's own chosen lockout activity) and then teammate Ray Lewis chimed in, bragging he could take Zbikowski in the ring.

The challenge from Lewis draws a laugh and not much more from Zbikowski, who exudes an almost Zenlike reverence when it comes to boxing, even offering up a koan of sorts: "Football is mathematics, boxing is science."

(Football, apparently, is all about angles and stats, like what the opposing team tends to do on third down; boxing is "maximizing the human body," he says. "Everything is training.")

Most days, he is in the gym or resting, either in his off-season home in the northwest suburbs of Chicago or here at Kronk, where he recently began working out with famed trainer Emanuel Steward. The one-time bantamweight fighter joined Kronk in 1971, shortly after it opened as part of a city rec center, and he has produced more than 30 world champions there.

Now Steward has taken on Zbikowski, who has drawn much attention as he spends his off-time from one punishing sport by tackling another one.

For all his focus on boxing right now, Zbikowski says he intends to return to football when the lockout ends. After the April 23 fight in Oklahoma, he has two more scheduled, in May and June, after which he plans to switch gears and start training for another NFL season. Drafted in the third round out of Notre Dame, where he was a star and captain of the team, he has played out the three-year, $1.66 million contract with the Ravens. He is currently a restricted free agent, and while the lockout prevents the Ravens from contacting him, owner Steve Bisciotti has said he thinks it's "awesome" that Zbikowski is boxing.

The twisting paths of his life play out in an elaborate tattoo that begins on his left torso and curls around to his back. There are two martial-looking eagles, one a nod to his mother Susan's German heritage and the other to his father Ed's Polish roots; there's Notre Dame's iconic Golden Dome, Madison Square Garden's marquee — in 2006, while still in college, he made his pro boxing debut there — and, familiar to anyone approaching the city from the south, the Baltimore smokestack.

His Baltimore home was an apartment in Harbor East, where enjoying city life included being able to walk to such necessities as the Whole Foods and a yoga studio. He's been practicing yoga for about three or four years, using it as recovery and "a good clean flush" from football practices and games.

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