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Zbikowski takes his hard knocks from football to boxing

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.

But he acknowledges getting easily homesick, and lives in the off-season with his brother, E.J., in Wheeling, Ill., near where he grew up as part of a tight-knit family. They were all athletes at some point in their lives — E.J., sister Kristen and his parents, Ed and Susan. They hover around the baby of the family, now more than ever, and vow to intervene if his dual sports prove harmful.

If he is living his dream these days, it's something closer to a nightmare for his mother, who can barely bring herself to watch him fight. "You let your daughter do tap dancing, or whatever they want to do. Kids try things," she says. "'He'll get over it,' " she remembers thinking. " 'He'll forget about it.' "

He didn't, and as it turns out only put it aside temporarily for another bruising sport: football. Zbikowski quarterbacked his high school team and attracted the attention of numerous college recruiters — some of whom wanted him for their boxing teams — before choosing Notre Dame and football.

His mother threatened that if he ever went down for an eight-count, she'd make him stop. That, his father says, forced him to become a defensive boxer.

"He's a student of the game," Ed Zbikowski says. "For him, it's a chess game. It's an art."

Both are supportive, however, despite the dangers, understanding the power the sport holds over him and the joy it brings him.

"So she says a rosary every night," his father says, "and I go to church every morning."

Tom Zbikowski dates his interest in boxing to when he was a 4-year-old. It is typically a story that weaves family and sport, perhaps a little too neatly for his mother, who when asked about it laughs and says in a movie-trailer voice, "How fate would step in …"

E.J. Zbikowski, four years older than his brother, had developed brain tumors that required surgery. To this day, Tom remembers being taken to visit him at the Mayo Clinic, seeing brother with his head shaved and wires coming out of it and meeting the father of the little girl, Rebecca, in the bed next to his brother.

That was Harold "Hackie" Reitman, a doctor and pro boxer. The families bonded as their children recovered — both are fine now — and often got together in Florida, where Reitman lives and Susan Zbikowski has family. Reitman would take the boys to see the gym where he trained, also home base to the likes of Roberto Duran.

At age 9, he started boxing himself, eventually racking up a 75-15 amateur record.

At Kronk, Zbikowski is obviously in his natural habitat. A few fist bumps and muttered greetings, and he is soon in the new boxing shoes that Steward had hand-made for him in Japan. He takes his turn on a bench opposite the trainer, who starts unspooling gauzy bandages around his wrists and fingers and tapes a pad over his knuckles.

He bounces on his toes, windmilling and chicken-winging his arms, stretching his neck and even his jaws, warming up until Brown slips in his mouth guard and laces him into his gloves and Steward smears Vaseline on his face and ears. It's sparring time.

The transformation is instantaneous. Once in the ring, his pale gray eyes turn into slits, and he almost visibly coils up. He is both powerful and nimble, striking at his sparring partner and evading punches by jerking suddenly to one side.

"He's Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde," said Keith Lee, a trainer at Kronk. "He comes in here all nice, and then in the ring he turns into some type of animal."

Used to stars of their own sport, not to mention the occasional pro athlete who drops in for off-season workouts, the Kronk fighters aren't gawking too openly, and the most noise comes when Chad Dawson, a former light heavyweight champion, takes his turn in the practice ring. Still, Zbikowski has convinced them that this is no vanity project.

"People are like, 'He plays football, he sucks,' " says Curtis Head, an amateur boxer who works out at Kronk. "But the first time I saw him in the ring, I said, 'Wow, look out.' "

Zbikowski knocked out his first two opponents and, while he struggled in his third match against a bigger fighter, won in a unanimous decision. To a leading boxing analyst, though, these were less-than-worthy opponents and more an opportunity for Zbikowski to dip his toe in the water.

"They're ham-and-eggers, or tomato cans," Bert Sugar says in his trademark growl, using the colorful lingo of the sport for pedestrian fighters. "I see good things, I don't see greatness. He'll have to show me something more, against a better opponent."

Sugar thinks that while Zbikowski is obviously skilled and serious, "boxing's not a part-time profession."

That may be Zbikowski's biggest challenge. He acknowledges that he is in the beginning stages of returning to boxing, and hopes to find a way to continue training, competing and even get a shot at a title — even as he continues playing in the NFL. Whether he could get around the typical contract clause banning dangerous off-season activities remains to be seen.

Even if boxing remains his first love, he isn't turning his back on football. It just doesn't tug at the same heartstrings as boxing.

"I never really liked football players," he said of his first encounters with them as a kid. "They usually reek of self-entitlement." Luckily, he adds, it's different with the Ravens. "The leaders on our team don't put up with that," he said.

There's also a bit of unfinished business for him on the gridiron. Last season left a bitter taste in his mouth, Zbikowski said, what with injuries and the team losing in the divisional playoffs. In typical fashion, he doesn't want to leave the sport without a Super Bowl ring.

"I have an unquenchable thirst for success," Zbikowski says. "I still don't think I've accomplished anything. Sick, I know."

Whether or not his pro boxing career lasts longer than the lockout, Zbikowski says the sport will always be a part of his life in some way. He'll find a way to keep in boxing shape and trust that at some point he will find his way back to a ring.

"I just love doing it. Boxing for me is an escape," he says. "As odd as it sounds, it's peaceful. It's dead silent there."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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