Rebooting a dream: Tom Zbikowski dives back into boxing

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The splash of intrigue isn’t so much the name and likeness of Tom Zbikowski on a boxing poster for the first time in almost five years, but where it might lead.

The intention of the former Notre Dame football All-American and current Chicago firefighter isn’t to stick his toe back in the water of a passion that never stopped seducing him, but to cannonball into it.

The reality?

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” the Arlington Heights, Ill., product said in a telephone interview on Saturday. “I’m planning on keeping it rolling. And the next time I’m going to come up for air and take a breath is when I’ve just fought in a world title fight.

“But it starts with creating a buzz. I’m kind of out of sight, out of mind right now. No contract. No promoter. I’m just doing this so the people — the powers that be in boxing or whatever eyes need to be on you in boxing — just start focusing this way.”

The re-entry is set for April 22 at the Belvedere in Elk Grove, Village, Ill. (tickets at hitzboxing.com), less than a month before Zbikowski turns 31 and almost 10 years after he made his professional boxing debut at New York’s Madison Square Garden with a 49-second TKO of Robert Bell.

The promotional material delineates that part of the proceeds from the fight will go to the wife and three children of fallen Chicago firefighter Daniel Capuano. He died at age 42 in December of 2015 when the fell through an elevator shaft of a burning warehouse in south Chicago.

What the poster doesn’t indicate is who Zbikowski’s opponent will be.

“He’s a nameless, faceless object to me,” Zbikowski said. “I don’t know who it is. Just like the rest of them. Just like they’ve always been.”

Zbikowski himself is more of an unknown than he’s ever been in the boxing game.

He had almost 100 amateur bouts under his belt before turning pro while still playing safety for the Irish football team. Promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing quickly signed Zbikowski, a move that hinted at a fast track to get to the bottom of what Zbikowski’s ceiling in the sport looked like.

But a professional football career, that started with Zbikowski being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the spring of 2008 and ended in a fog of disinterest in a sport he fell out of love with and addiction to alcohol, sleeping pills and pain pills 5½ years later, put the boxing dreams in a holding pattern.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh even vetoed a charity fund-raiser that involved Zbikowski boxing. But during the NFL Lockout in 2011, Zbikowski slipped through a contractual loophole and garnered a TKO, a unanimous decision and a first-round knockout in pro bouts 2-3-4, all staged in roughly a six-week window.

The third of those bouts in 2011 was initially marred by a post-fight positive drug test and a subsequent suspension, but the results of the test were later reversed and the suspension lifted.

Zbikowski didn’t return to boxing initially, because he was fighting his own demons. The turning point came during a substance-abuse rehab in the summer of 2014, with Zbikowski’s rebirth of sorts July 12 of that year, his first day of sustained sobriety.

As his mind and body healed, the allure of boxing grew stronger.

“I’ve waited for the feeling to want to return to the ring to dissipate,” Zbikowski said. “I’ve sat patiently for it to, and it’s gone nowhere.

“So with the way I’ve treated my body right going on two years, I wanted to see where my speed’s at, to see where my conditioning’s at, to see where my reflexes are. And what I’ve found is I am far from done competing. It’s going to be a long time until I’m done competing.”

The 212-pound, 21-year-old whose first pro bout was part of a lucrative pay-per-view package in 2006 is now competing as 185-pounder with the hopes of dropping below 175. His weight during the NFL lockout fights varied between 192 and 198.

“I’m trying to get as light as I can,” he said. “If I could get to 147 (welterweight), I’d get to 147. That ain’t happening, but I’ll try my darndest.”

If boxing takes off, like Zbikowski hopes it does, firefighting — a career he’s been at less than a year — would have to go on hold. So would his venture into football coaching. He served as an assistant at Lake Forest (Ill.) High School last fall between shifts at the firehouse.

“Training for the level I want to be at is serious stuff,” he said. “Restarting training was rough. Every time you restart it is, mentally and physically, but especially when you’re older. You just go and get into a routine, put your head down and go one step at a time.

“That’s where I am now. One step at a time. But I clearly know where I want to end up.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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Former Notre Dame football All-American Tom Zbikowski (far right), pictured here with his training partners, works out in March of 2016 at the Summit Boxing Training Center at Big Bear Mountain in California. Photo provided