|06-06-2006, 09:50 AM||#1|
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Saratoga, NY
Fighting Irish, indeed: Notre Dame's Zbikowski follows other dream
By Malcolm Moran, USA TODAY
Tom Zbikowski will be surrounded by familiar faces when he makes his entrance into professional boxing, a goal he has worked to reach for more than half his life.
The 21-year-old from Arlington Heights, Ill., best known as a third-team All-America safety at Notre Dame, will step into the ring Saturday night at New York's Madison Square Garden to fight Robert Bell of Akron, Ohio, in a four-round heavyweight fight.
Zbikowski (zib-eh-KOW-ski) expects at least 30 of his Fighting Irish football teammates, past and present, to appear in the building off Eighth Avenue in Manhattan where Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier for the first time more than 35 years ago.
SARACENO COLUMN: Zbikowski takes Fighting Irish a step further
To the thousands who have watched Zbikowski make a mark on the defensive and punt-return units for the Irish, his spot on the undercard of the WBO junior welterweight championship fight between titleholder Miguel Cotto and Paulie Malignaggi will be a diversion on the way to preseason practice. Within 10 days of the fight, Zbikowski is scheduled back in South Bend, Ind., for the summer conditioning program that will lead to a football season of high expectations.
"This isn't like I want to fight one fight and that's it," Zbikowski said by telephone. "I've always had ambitions in boxing. If I wasn't playing football, I'd be boxing."
He's allowed to do both thanks to NCAA rules that allow athletes to be amateur in one sport but pro in another. He can receive a paycheck — $25,000 for this fight — but cannot do any endorsements or advertisements.
The bigger question seemed to be whether coach Charlie Weis' rules would allow his defensive star to step in a boxing ring. But once Weis was confident the Notre Dame compliance office had vetted the issue and Zbikowski was not risking his eligibility, he agreed.
"They're paying him a bunch of money, and he's fighting four rounds," Weis told reporters during spring practice. "And it's tough for me to look at a summer job any better than that one. ... That's going to be a heck of a summer job for him. I think he'll do a little bit better financially than the rest of our guys."
Weis cannot attend because of a scheduling conflict but plans to watch on pay-per-view.
Zbikowski is the youngest of three children, behind E.J., who played baseball at Wisconsin-Platteville, and Kristen, a former softball player at Ohio University. His mother, Sue, has rarely watched him fight. Although she plans to be in the building Saturday, her location has not been determined.
Her son's athletic career has crossed back and forth between unforgiving games. Zbikowski turned down an opportunity to enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy that would have allowed him to play quarterback, a position he played for three years at Buffalo Grove (Ill.) High School, and expand his boxing career.
His amateur boxing record (75-15) began to establish credentials long before football led him to South Bend. His father grew up in the age when Joe Louis and Jesse Owens were heroes, when substance was considered at least as important as style. "Our thrill was sitting around the radio and watching the radio for the fights," Eddie Zbikowski said.
He remembers going to watch Floyd Patterson train in suburban Des Plaines, Ill., in a place where years later he would watch his son compete in a Catholic Youth Organization fight.
The father fought in Golden Gloves, park district, CYO and high school programs. "I think I was 0-60 before I won my first fight," said Eddie Zbikowski, who assisted in the training of his son.
The father's youth was defined by detours. He attended five high schools and went to junior college for seven years. "Any turn I made," he said, "was a wrong turn."
But he and his wife worked to provide a middle-class existence in suburban Chicago, with the appeal of boxing close to the center. Only in hindsight is it clear to him how much their youngest son was paying attention. "How he would always sit around with his two hands on his chin and listen to the stories of my buddies," Zbikowski's father said. "He was very, very much a student of boxing."
His son began to study this new science. He watched the best of Mike Tyson, the relentlessness in the ring that took place early in that champion's career. He examined the left hook of Oscar De La Hoya. He picked features from different fighters and thought how to incorporate those elements into his style. "I never modeled my game after anyone in football or anyone in boxing," Zbikowski said.
His father remembers the first time his son competed in a CYO fight, at 10, and the sense of purpose he carried as he lifted his left foot onto the apron.
"I will never forget that to the day I die," the elder Zbikowski said.
At first, the young fighter's progress was measured against that of others with a similar lean build. As Zbikowski grew, he retained the quickness from the early years and added more power.
At 215 pounds, with the skills of smaller fighters, he is a heavyweight capable of moving like a lightweight. He has become the boxing equivalent of the basketball point guard who makes use of those skills even as he grows to become 6-8.
Still, the family was cautious. There had been encouragement about football when the boy was 10 from Urban Meyer, the Florida coach and former Irish assistant who had met Zbikowski at Notre Dame's football camp. But in a sport where size and pedigree are important parts of the recruiting process, Zbikowski's uncertain status raised questions in both areas.
"We didn't think he would make it in college," his father said, "because he was 6 feet tall and came from the suburbs. He didn't come from a powerhouse program. We were not sure until his junior year."
That was when Meyer, who had followed the progress of the former camper, told the Zbikowskis their son could play for him at Bowling Green.
In the ring and in the gyms, Zbikowski received an education. His father's original plan was to take the boy to the gym to learn how to protect himself. The suburban, middle-class adolescent was exposed to different classes. "Tom's personality was molded by seeing kids that could not afford anything," his father said.
Zbikowski developed an intense appreciation of the work ethic that represents the best of the sport.
"The way it is," he said, "when you walk into somebody else's gym, they put someone who's pretty good against you to weed out boys from men, bad boxers from good boxers."
He fought to establish his credibility in the weeks leading to this fight. He worked in Miami Beach in a form of self-imposed exile. "If he would have stayed in Chicago," his father said, "he would have been on the banquet circuit."
Last month, Zbikowski sparred four rounds with Glen Johnson, who defeated Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver. "He's probably one of the nicest guys I've ever seen in boxing," Zbikowski said of Johnson.
Johnson said he was impressed with the youngster's potential: "He has a lot of promise. He has a few things to work on, like every fighter. I would like to see him throw more punches and carry his hands a little higher as far as defensively. He uses his jab a lot, but a lot of times he uses it like he's not trying to make contact. I'd have him step into it more and make contact."
Zbikowski compares the lighter workload of the final week to the end of preseason football practice.
"It would be more comparable to two-a-days," Zbikowski said, "getting through that kind of work and tapering off before the first game."
A one-game season — for now — begins and ends Saturday night. NCAA regulations would allow the playing of Notre Dame's Victory March as Zbikowski enters the ring, but he's leaning against that.
"I want something original," he said. "Don't get me wrong. I love Notre Dame. You hear that song enough in the fall. You want to go with something new."
All those stories, all those amateur fights, all that effort will follow him into the ring. So will the lessons of a father. "Boxing lets you know how good you are until you're not," the elder Zbikowski said.
He also said this: "You fight until you lose. And everybody loses."
Contributing: Chuck Johnson, USA TODAY
|06-06-2006, 10:13 AM||#2|
Join Date: Dec 2002
He is going to make somebody a very good safety at the NFL level soon...He is a lot of fun to watch on the football field. Reminds me a lot of John Lynch with a lot more speed.
|06-06-2006, 12:50 PM||#4|
Join Date: Dec 2002
I don't know he will be there again or not. Now that AJ Hawk has millions coming to him I am guessing he will no longer date man.