Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski will be the first to tell you that football wasn't his lifelong passion.
First, there was boxing.
And with the NFL owners and players association locked in talks to sign a new collective bargaining agreement, the Ravens' season is on hold.
So Zbikowski is returning to the ring yet again on tonight in Atlantic City.
"I didn’t think my football career would last this long," Zbikowski, 26, told Patch.com in an interview. "I figured I’d play two, three years and see how it would go in the NFL, and then I’d be back to boxing again."
Zbikowski was still in college in June 2006 when he embarked on his professional fighting career at New York's Madison Square Garden. His 49-second knockout of Robert Bell was the undercard of a major event featuring then-WBO junior welterweight titleholder Miguel Cotto.
Zbikowski's exploits at Notre Dame spoke volumes about his prowess on the gridiron. As a senior he ranked among the nation's premiere defensive backs as a candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award.
After graduating in 2007, he was drafted in the third round and 86th overall by the Ravens in 2008. Zbikowski saw action as a special teams player initially, but then he overcame back and foot injuries to start in six games last season.
"I thought [boxing] would begin again right after college, to be honest with you," said Zbikowski, who compiled an amateur record of 75-15 and lives near the Inner Harbor when he's in town. "I thought I would just get my college education, play a little college ball, and back to the ring for me, and obviously my career in football has been extended longer than that."
On Saturday night, at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Zbikowski will fight in his second bout since the lockout started. He is scheduled to fight Caleb Grummet (0-0-1) of Lake Odessa, Mich., on the undercard of a main event featuring WBA and IBF featherweight (126 pounds) beltholder Yuriorkis Gamboa of Cuba, against WBA interim-super featherweight (130 pounds) titlist Jorge Solis of Mexico.
The 6-foot-tall Zbikowski is coming off yet another first-round knockout that he registered on March 12 at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
Against Grummet, Zbikowski will be in his first fight under legendary trainer Emanuel "Manny" Steward, known for his work with notable champions such as Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis, Cotto, and current heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
Zbikowski, who will compete as a cruiserweight (200 pounds) for the first time after having previously fought as a heavyweight, spoke to Patch.com in this exclusive Q&A on Thursday.
Patch.com: Do you believe you might be able to fight as many as six or seven times before the lockout ends or before the NFL season begins in the fall?
Tom Zbikowski: I'm hoping. No one is quite sure what is going to happen with all of that. But I'm just focusing my training also with football in mind. I haven't just put football aside. All of the training that I'm involved in incorporates boxing and football.
I'm going to be in unbelievable shape when we do get back to football. But, in the meantime, I'm doing something that is my art form, and that I'm very passionate about.
Patch.com: Any words for the Bengals' Chad Ochocinco, who has been so-called “lobbying” to fight you?
TZ: Stick to soccer. Just stick to soccer and football. Don't even think about coming into my world of boxing.
Patch.com: Being that Saturday night's fight is going to be in nearby Atlantic City, do you expect Ravens fans and teammates to turn out?
TZ: You know, I've been doing a ton of interviews and I've received a ton of support out of Baltimore, and I know that it's only a two-and-half to three-hour drive to Atlantic City for most Ravens' fans and people from Baltimore. So, I'm hoping.
I'm hoping that there is going to be some purple and black in the stands, and that they make some noise in the crowd. I just appreciate all of the support that I've received so far.
I mean, it's really been tremendous. Of course, I would love to see the fans. I will be wearing purple and black, myself, so I know I'm going to have my colors on and that I'll be trying to make the town of Baltimore proud. I want to make to make the entire Baltimore Ravens organization proud.
Patch.com: What will your fight-night uniform be comprised of?
TZ: I know that I've got two pair of trunks on order, and they will either be purple and white, or, purple and black.
Patch.com: You've been referred to as 'Tommy Z,' but do you have nickname?
TZ: Nah, I'm still waiting. I haven't narrowed it down yet. I can't come up with my own nickname. I'm just not that type of person that can self-proclaim a nickname.
I want some of my fights to get me into the deep rounds, you know, the 10-to-12-rounders. I need boxing fans and boxing writers to see what sort of fighter I am before they come up with a nickname.
Patch.com: What is your assessment of your last performance?
TZ: I felt like I did terribly. I was nervous beyond belief, just because it took me a little while to let him feel my punches and to work the body before I was able to do my thing. I think that that was one where I was a little nervous and was trying to get into the rhythm.
But, you know, it had been a five-year layoff from the last time I was in the ring, so it wasn't like I had had 20-something professional fights already under my belt. I was coming off of one professional fight, and I had a five-year layoff.
So I think that it was just a matter of getting back into a rhythm and feeling what fight week was like again. But now that I've had that experience, I believe that you will see a much more mature and well-rounded fighter on Saturday night.
Patch.com: So you have known Emanuel Steward since you were 12, and last week you pulled out a photo of the two of you from when you first met...
TZ: Yeah, and he was shocked. I was about half his size. That's how long ago that was. When I looked at it, man, I just started laughing. I think it was from like 1998, maybe? We were down in Miami at the time, and I was still an amateur, obviously.
Emanuel was training, I don't know, Lennox Lewis or one of the major champions. [Former lightweight titleholder] David Diaz was training there, and I used to train at Diaz's gym at Hammond Park back in Chicago when I first started boxing. David Diaz was down in Garrett's Gym in Miami.
I walked in there, and Emanuel was training whomever he was training, but I think it was Lennox Lewis. And we just snapped that photo. But I got to see Emanuel training someone, and that was a real treat for me.
Patch.com: How much of a dream is it for you to be working with Steward?
TZ: That was just a surreal moment two weeks ago, at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas, just to be there. You know, I'm working in one ring, shadow boxing and stuff. And then, the next ring over, there's Emanuel Steward and Miguel Cotto.
Cotto, even before I fought at the Garden, I mean, a year or two before I started out as a professional, I had been a fan of his, and I still am a very, very big fan of his. You know, it was just a moment that I can't explain. To be sharing that gym with those two. And now, just to have Emanuel as a trainer?
I mean, to be sitting down, talking to him, that's when it becomes the coolest is when a guy like that is just sitting with you. I mean, come on, it's Emanuel Steward! Just talking. Pretty amazing.
Patch.com: Obviously, you are 2-0 on cards where Miguel Cotto is fighting, but will it be different without him on the card?
TZ: Don't jinx me [Laughs]. No, but I'm just kidding. Without a doubt, it will be a good moment to just step up and get that out of my mind. There is no good luck. It's what you make of it. It's what you do in the ring that matters, because you are who you are and because you're a fighter.
Patch.com: Is it true, as Steward says, that you list lighter weight fighters such as Thomas Hearns among your heroes?
TZ: I was always looking up to guys like Thomas Hearns, 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, 'Sweet Pea' [Pernell Whitaker], Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya.
I loved watching Sweet Pea. Sweet Pea was one of my first fighters that I cut out of the boxing magazines. I had him posted up in my room.
Patch.com: So your first love was boxing?
TZ: Well, my bedroom always had the Notre Dame banner up because I thought that maybe it would be possible to go there. That was always just a dream for me to play there.
So I had a banner up from Notre Dame, but after that, there were just posters of all of those fighters I just named. All throughout my room, they were hanging up on my walls.
Patch.com: What do you think of Steward's plans to have you train and spar next week alongside former light heavyweight champ, Chad Dawson, and, perhaps others?
TZ: It's a great opportunity to train and compete along with the top competitors in the sport. You have to take – not beatings, necessarily – but you've got to learn the lessons in boxing concerning what makes great fighters like Chad Dawson and people like that.
Those are the types of people that Emanuel trains. Getting around those types of fighters can only help me. I'm looking forward to that, without a doubt. That's the only way that you're going to get better. Any way that I can get better, you know, I'm all for that.