Tom Zbikowski gives himself a fighting chance in boxing again
ELK GROVE, Ill. — Eight nights removed from an experience that made Tom Zbikowski’s fledgling career as a firefighter feel like a calling, his heart was tugging him in an old direction.
And palpitating. And making the 30-year-old promise himself that if this relaunch of a dream about to unfold on boxing’s backroads wasn’t real, that he wouldn’t go through the motions until everyone else realized it too.
That the former Notre Dame football All-America safety emerged from the main event at the Belvedere banquet hall late Friday night with a four-round unanimous decision over a tall, rangy 29-year-old named Keith Jackson wasn’t the momentous takeaway.
It was that all the possibilities that could grow from it were still in play. His fifth-ever pro bout, and first in five years, had to feel like the beginning of something more than just a dip into nostalgia. And it did.
“Big time,” Zbikowski said, unwinding in a conference room as pieces of his past and present paraded in to celebrate the first step toward a new future — this time without the big contract and the famous promoter (Bob Arum) that led to a Madison Square Garden pro debut a decade ago.
As he looked around the room Friday night at all the smiles and big personalities spewing unfiltered emotions — and language — Zbikowski couldn’t help but take a peek back.
“When I restarted, getting in shape for this, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Harder than the rock bottom of addiction that first numbed the jagged edges of an uneven NFL career, then chased him from it? Harder than the rehab that cleansed the toxins he put in his body and the lies he told himself to justify them?
“Yeah,” he said staring off into the past. “I don’t know why. It was just tough. Everything about it was tough.”
Some of that understandably is logistics. Six hours after walking out of the Belvedere on Friday night, Zbikowski was due back at the firehouse for a 6 a.m., shift that ran all the way to Sunday.
Some of it is the emotional tug-of-war, that if boxing takes off, what becomes of the firefighting?
And the two have become so intertwined.
Among those who ducked in to visit with Zbikowski as his pre-fight routine bounced between manic and meditative was fellow Chicago firefighter, Lt. Dave Shmerl.
It was Shmerl just after 2 a.m., on April 15 who assessed the burning residence they were trying to extinguish likely still had people trapped inside.
Zbikowski’s firefighting partner and good friend Morgan McGarry broke down a door, and McGarry and Zbikowski pulled a young man from the building. Shmerl then pulled a female from the building.
When members of the families involved came by the firehouse to thank Zbikowski and the others, they discovered their paths had crossed years before. Zbikowski had coached the man who pulled from the flames in youth football.
The teamwork, the gravity of the happy ending, the trust that was necessary to function and thrive in that situation affected Zbikowski profoundly.
“It’s great to have someone in your corner like that,” Zbikowski said of McGarry, who literally was in his corner Friday.
McGarry is the son of Martin McGarry, an Irish-born boxing coach who has trained hundreds of Chicago-area fighters. The younger McGarry, not only helped Zbikowski prep physically for Friday, he made sure he never mentally went off the rails during the hours of wait time that preceded the 12 minutes in the ring.
What that looked like would change from one minute to the next. Zbikowski would suddenly be lying on the floor with his arms folded across his chest and his eyes closed.
Moments later he was putting a bowtie on his older brother, E.J., an inspiration to Tom after overcoming a cancerous brain tumor at age 5, two surgeries and numerous seizures that followed before he ever made friends with normalcy.
And still later Zbikowski was shadow boxing with McGarry while having imaginary conversations with Jackson.
“I can’t be touched. I can’t be touched. I can’t be touched,” he said. “Let’s have a party.”
A well-wisher broke the conversation with the question, “What’s this guy’s record?”
Zbikowski paused, scowled and threw a series of jabs at the air.
“One more loss after tonight,” he countered.
The only constant with Zbikowski during the long wait, besides McGarry knowing when to engage and when not to, was the constant flow of Hip hop from a digital speaker in the room.
In every track there seemed to be a lyric that spoke to him, particularly when Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” made the room pulsate and Zbikowski pounded his chest to the beat.
Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
“It’s not new for me to be nervous before a fight, but I was more nervous for this one, knowing everything I had worked for,” Zbikowski (5-0) said. “More than that, this one was after such a long layoff. And now you’re not too young and dumb anymore. You know what you’re getting into.”
And in some way he didn’t. Fighting as a cruiserweight for the first time, Zbikowski couldn’t find any video on Jackson, a Springfield, Mo., product who brought a record of two wins, two losses and two draws into the ring and alternated between orthodox and southpaw.
“I couldn’t ask for a better opponent for a five-year layoff to come back here and give me a rough, good four rounds,” he said. “Still wanted to knock him out too bad. I should have just stayed smooth.
“But he was awkward. He was a good, awkward style. Usually guys when I fight them, they came out screaming. I knew 30 seconds in, it was going to be a full four-round fight. You still want to knock him clean out for the crowd. But you’ve got to worry about fighting your fight, not trying to please everyone in the crowd.
“He’s got nothing to lose. And when you come in and have nothing to lose, it’s a lot different.”
As Zbikowski entered the ring Friday, the room reeked of adrenaline and malt liquor. Unlike some of his previous fights, there was not an overwhelming Notre Dame presence.
Former teammate David Grimes, currently an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Irish football team, made the trip from South Bend. Former teammate Robby Parris flew in from California to take in the bout.
Parris kept others in touch with the goings on via text message as a large group of former teammates were gathered in Nashville, Tenn., for former Notre Dame safety Kyle McCarthy’s bachelor party.
Parris, a finance major at Notre Dame who slept on a beanbag chair at Zbikowski’s apartment all week, has gravitated toward endeavors in video production and hopes to piece together Zbikowski’s journey in documentary form at some point.
The next step very well could be at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., on the undercard for the May 14, Mike “Hollywood” Jimenez-Aaron Pryor WBC title fight.
“You get better staying in the ring,” Zbikowski said. “There’s no amount of running, no amount of circuit training. I’m in great shape, but there’s still nothing like fight night.”
And nothing like pushing toward relevance in boxing’s bigger picture. Could that effort eventually include a bout with fellow Notre Dame alum Mike Lee (16-0, 10 KOs) at some point? Will Zbikowski ever get the big-money, big-backing he had for the first four bouts of his career?
“The first step is just going back to the drawing board and getting better,” Zbikowski said. “You don’t even think about that other stuff. It’s about making progress. And progress isn’t just about wins.
“A lot of guys want easy fights. They want to be undefeated. They want somebody that will lay down as soon as they land one good punch.
“When the time comes for the big fights or those promoters to come get me, that’ll all take care of itself. But through these times I’ve learned, you take care of the small things and all the bigger stuff falls into line.”