Boxing: The Return of ‘Tommy Z’

By Bernard Fernandez May 9, 2016

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” -- Oscar Wilde

Tom Zbikowski was a good football player, good enough to be an All-America safety and punt returner at the University Notre Dame and good enough to have been drafted in the third round by Baltimore, where he launched a five-year NFL career with the Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. However, even as he excelled while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads, Zbikowski had a longing in his heart for another sport which he has always considered to be his first and most enduring love: boxing.

“It’s tough to hold it in sometimes,” Zbikowski said during an NFL lockout in March 2010, discussing his devotion to the Sweet Science. He had been introduced to boxing as a child before compiling a 75-15 amateur record and winning a Chicago Golden Gloves championship. “A lot of people don’t understand how addictive boxing can be.

“The first game I played in Notre Dame Stadium, I had chills,” he added. “When you went out before the game to loosen up, the stands were only half-filled. Then when you came out before the opening kickoff, the band was playing and you couldn’t wait to get going -- just an unbelievable feeling -- but as incredible as all those football Saturdays were, there’s nothing like the buildup to a fight. There’s no feeling quite like walking out to the ring. There just isn’t. You’re not part of a team; you’re not going for a coin toss to see who’s kicking off and who’s receiving. It’s just you and the other guy. You get some quick instructions from the referee, you touch gloves and the bell rings; and when you’re standing there with no padding, no helmet and in front of 15,000 screaming people in Madison Square Garden, it’s like nothing else.”

Zbikowski did just that for his auspicious pro debut as a boxer on June 10, 2006 while still a student-athlete at Notre Dame and in accordance with NCAA Bylaw 12.1.2, which allows athletes to be a pro in one sport while maintaining their amateur status in another so long as they do not receive endorsement money. He appeared on the undercard of a show headlined by WBO junior welterweight champion Miguel Cotto’s 12-round unanimous decision over challenger Paulie Malignaggi, with the legendary Angelo Dundee working his corner and more than 30 of his Fighting Irish teammates in attendance. “Tommy Z,” who made $25,000 for what he described as his “summer job,” stopped 6-foot-2, 227-pound Robert Bell just 49 seconds into the first round, despite spotting his opponent -- an Ohio native who was dressed out in Ohio State University colors -- three inches in height and 13 pounds.

“Tommy Z” had been brought to the attention of big-time promoter Bob Arum by another boxing executive, Carl Moretti, who had learned of Zbikowski’s pugilistic background and, not coincidentally, was a big fan of Notre Dame football. Zbikowski’s success on the gridiron might have gotten him the high-exposure Garden gig and the kind of purse most debuting pros can only dream of; however, neither he nor Arum believed he was just another novelty act to help fill out an undercard, as might have been the case with Top Rank regulars Eric “Butterbean” Esch and Mia “The Knockout” St. John.

“There is a cachet to Notre Dame football unlike any other,” said Arum, who acknowledged he might not have been so keen on signing Zbikowski had he played for, say, Weber State or Illinois Wesleyan, “but this kid has real potential as a cruiserweight. He’s got quick reflexes and a great punch.”

Time inexorably marches on and, as always, stragglers fall behind. On March 22, Zbikowski -- now 30 years of age and 30 pounds lighter than when he made his pro boxing debut with such fanfare a decade earlier -- entered the ring for his first bout in five years. No longer the curiosity item he had been when he blasted out wannabe Buckeye Robert Bell and with more than ring rust to scrape off, the erstwhile “Tommy Z” scored a four-round unanimous decision over Keith Jackson (2-3-2, 1 KO) at The Belvedere in Elk Grove, Illinois, running his record to 5-0 with three victories inside the distance.

The fight marked a comeback of sorts for Zbikowski. His new promoter, Bobby Hitz, believes he is young and talented enough to still fashion a career in boxing that conceivably could take him to a world championship, or at least to within reasonable sniffing distance of one.

“He’s 30, and in this day and age, that’s not a death sentence,” said Hitz, who has known Zbikowski for more than 20 years. “He’s still a young man. He’s always been a very physically fit and active person, so that bodes well for him. I think the transition between football and boxing is tough because the cardiovascular aspects are different, so he has to overcome that, and he’s doing that, but he’s a very goal-driven kid. I’ve never met a tougher, more focused athlete. He’s a guy I would bet the house on all day long. He’s the real deal. He has the skills to pull this off, and once it all comes together for him, he’ll be fine.”

“Once it all comes together for him” -- it is at once a hope and a prayer for the full reclamation of Zbikowski, whose entire life seems to consist of a series of comebacks of one sort or another. There was, of course, his gift for threading his way around would-be tacklers while returning punts and interceptions on the way to the end zone; in 2005, as a 200-pound redshirt sophomore at Notre Dame, he returned 27 punts for 379 yards, a 14.0 average, and two touchdowns while also scoring on two of his five INTs. He added another punt-return touchdown the following season before declaring for the NFL draft. One of those mad-dash punt returns came on Oct. 5, 2005, in the second quarter of Notre Dame’s home game against Southern California, with the score knotted at 14 and a full house of 80,000-plus in full roar. Zbikowski gathered in the football, took off around the right side and either broke free of or slithered out of the clutches of three frustrated Trojans before he crossed the goal line.

“I don’t really see it. I just feel it,” he told Notre Dame Insider about his knack for running over, around or through opponents wearing different-colored jerseys. “It didn’t matter how big or fast or strong you were. You weren’t tackling me. I had enough steam, I had enough momentum going forward, that it didn’t matter. I was attacking each individual. That time, I was attacking them pretty violently and with bad intentions.”

It was a hyper-aggressive mindset that served Zbikowski well, both on the field and in the ring, if not always in his personal life. Interestingly, then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had no objections to “Tommy Z” taking that pro bout against Bell: “They’re paying him a lot of money, and he’s fighting four rounds. It’s tough for me to look at a summer job any better than that one.” However, Weis’ predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, took a dim view of his players moonlighting. He told Zbikowski, then a young backup defensive back with the Irish, his football scholarship might be in jeopardy if he attempted to fulfill his dream of qualifying for the United States Olympic boxing team that competed in Athens, Greece, in 2004.

“All my favorite fighters when I was coming up were Olympians,” Zbikowski said in 2010. “I liked Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather. David Diaz was out of the same Chicago gym [where I trained] when he fought in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.”

Zbikowski was not at the Olympic Trials.

“It’s nobody’s fault, really,” said his father, Ed Zbikowski, himself a former fighter. “Willingham didn’t really understand the fight game. He even told Tommy later, ‘If I knew it was that important to you, I would have redshirted you or whatever, so you could have gone.’”

Boxing was indeed that important to Thomas Michael Zbikowski, the youngest of Ed and Susan Zbikowski’s four children.

“Boxing is an art, and it is my art form,” Zbikowski said before his third pro bout against cruiserweight Caleb Grummet on March 26, 2011, during the NFL offseason. “I’ve been paying my dues since I was a little kid. I think eventually I’ll be judged as a fighter, not as someone trying to fight who played football at Notre Dame or in the NFL. It’s not going to happen right away, but it will. I’ll make sure of that.”

The late, great hall-of-fame trainer Emanuel Steward trained Zbikowski for that fight and came away impressed by what he had seen.

“He has such beautiful balance,” Steward said. “He has a great natural rhythm, and he’s always in position when he is punching. He doesn’t box like a football player. He boxes like a boxer.”

So why did Zbikowski pick football over boxing in the first place? Economics certainly played into his decision. When you are an All-America at Notre Dame and the NFL is beckoning, the career tends to pick you, not the other way around. However, the same all-out, all-the-time competitiveness that could not be turned on and off like a light switch had a darker side. Zbikowski became lost in a fog of alcoholism, which, along with an addiction to pain-killing drugs that was a byproduct of his football injuries, contributed to the end of his NFL career.

“To fully understand joy, you have to hit rock bottom, the bottom of the pit,” he said last summer. “I like to, obviously, live in extremes. So my pit is going to be as extreme as you can get. But there’s strength in your ability to conquer that.”

Day by day, Zbikowski is conquering it. Another of his comebacks is to the family profession, as a third-generation Chicago firefighter putting out real fires rather than the figurative one that scorched and nearly consumed him internally. He has sworn off the booze and the pills, again filling the void inside him with that familiar and comforting flame: boxing.

“Tommy needs to get his boxing legs back under him,” Hitz said. “Having 30-second blowout fights aren’t going to do him any good. We have a plan laid out for him, and he is going along with it. He told me, ‘I don’t want to fight guys that aren’t going to give me any resistance.’ He understands what he has to do and that it’s going to be a long, hard road, but he’s committed to doing this.

“He doesn’t want to be treated different than anyone else just because he’s Tommy Zbikowski,” he added. “I really admire him for that. He wants to earn everything he gets, which speaks volumes for his character. A lot of star athletes these days could take a lesson from him.”

Bernard Fernandez, a five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, received the Nat Fleischer Award from the BWAA in April 1999 for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, as well as the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. The New Orleans-born sports writer has worked in the industry since 1969 and pens a weekly column on the Sweet Science for
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