CHICAGO – Some boxers never stand at a podium for their professional debut, and others are just too bashful to say much.
College prepared Tom Zbikowski for his life in the professional world.
The Arlington Heights, Ill., native was already a well-known figure on the campus of Notre Dame before he signed a contract with Bob Arum’s Top Rank earlier this spring. The ensuing attention far exceeded any the 21-year-old All-American defensive back ever received despite the glint of Golden Dome in South Bend, Ind.
“Just being around Notre Dame you always have that exposure,” Zbikowski said. “But, boy, after that press conference, when it was on (ESPN’s Pardon the Interuption) and all that, I just wanted to fight.”
For at least the next three weeks the Fighting Irish and the fight game will be closely tied together. The school’s “Play Like a Champion Today” slogan, which hangs in the Notre Dame Stadium locker room and is touched by every player before taking the field, is now a t-shirt for Zbikowski’s entourage. It reads, “Fight Like a Champion Today.”
Zbikowski isn’t a gimmick or just a crossover tough guy. He’s gutted out nearly 100 amateur fights since his 10th birthday, although his USA Boxing book registered a 66-13 record before we met up Friday during a promotion at Hawthorne Race Course a few blocks north of Midway Airport.
“Football players have crossed over, but I’ve been fighting for quite some time,” Zbikowski said.
Commentators never failed to mention Zbikowski’s boxing backgound during the college football season. Alumni have voiced concerns – a typical philosophy of nothing threatening one of the team’s best defensive player’s health except football. He returned two interceptions and punt returns for touchdowns last season, including one interception that stymied rival Michigan’s final drive to help the Irish win. He finished fourth on the team with 71 tackles.
Zbikowski is the football equivalent of a Ferrari: You just don’t want anybody else driving it in the offseason.
Head Coach Charlie Weis is more understanding than some alumni.
“He knows my background,” Zbikowski said. “When you have my background and you’ve been doing it your entire life, it’s not like, ‘Coach, I want to give this a shot.’ He knows my character. This is my makeup and makes me who I am."
What he may be after his June 10 debut at Madison Square Garden – yes, he goes from one legendary stage at Notre Dame to another in New York – is short on his purse.
A signup sheet posted in the locker room during spring training filled up with 40 or more teammates’ names seeking a $50 ticket from Zbikowski.
“I think half my purse is going to buying tickets,” he said. “They were making plans before I said I could get tickets.”
The fight, with the opponent still undetermined, will be his only bout of the year. He must return to campus June 19 for summer school and conditioning. One fight in a year is a far cry from the 20 or 30 he squeezed in annually before his freshman year at Notre Dame.
Of course, decision to a full boxing career has yet to be made, as he stands a chance to be drafted by the National Football League in 2007. That is, if his 5-foot-11 stature doesn’t strike mass-hungry scouts as unacceptable.
Zbikowski has his own size matters in the heavyweight division. He’ll likely take the first bell at 215 pounds June 10, which is 12-pounds heavier than his playing weight, leaving him as a runt among the bulky beasts in the heavyweight litter.
He’s hoping for one of two things to change in that time: His weight or the division.
“It’s tough. Dealing with [big men] in football helps out a little bit, I guess,” said Zbikowski, who sees himself ideally fighting at 220. “Even if you’re faster and you may be stronger than them in the weight room, there’s just too much mass, too much body size.
“I hope they make a super heavyweight division. Right now, I’ll try to pick some opponents closer to my size.”
Former cruiserweight contender Kenny Murphy made the two-hour, eastward journey from Chicago to South Bend to spar with Zbikowski last month.
“He’s a strong, determined kid,” said Murphy. “He’s got a devastating uppercut. I’m 42 years old now. For me to go six rounds with him, give me a plus.”
The last 5-foot-11 heavyweight with a devastating uppercut was Mike Tyson. Actually, Tyson had a devastating everything – personal life included.
Zbikowski may not be the reincarnation of Tyson, but he’s certainly a heavyweight worth a watch June 10.
BELOW THE BELT
Bob Arum, Don King or somebody, sign A.J. Pierzynski.
I couldn’t help but notice one of the best haymakers in baseball being shrugged off Saturday. Chicago White Sox catcher Pierzynski took a hard shot on the jaw after railroading Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, touted as one of baseball’s tough guys.
No matter the reason for the punch, which cleared both benches during the second inning of the White Sox’s 7-0 rout in the crosstown series, Pierzynski took the punch and turned to the crowd with his arms raised – very Ricardo Mayorga, if you ask me.
Now somebody has to show Pierzynski how to return fire and not get hit like that again. The 235-pounder would be in the boxing business for sure.