With the NFL labor dispute going who knows where, Tom Zbikowski is taking his future into his own hands — or, more appropriately, his fists.
Zbikowski, a productive safety in limited playing time with an excellent Baltimore Ravens defense, will morph into his ‘‘Tommy Z’’ alter ego tonight when he boxes on the undercard of the Miguel Cotto vs. Ricardo Mayorga pay-per-view in Las Vegas.
Fight fans would be remiss in considering the 2002 Sun-Times Football Player of the Year (during his high school days at Buffalo Grove) to be a mere fistic sideshow. Zbikowski had a lengthy and noteworthy amateur boxing career with 75 victories in 90 fights. This is his second professional bout after he made his debut (a 49-second knockout) in 2006 at Madison Square Garden while he was playing football at Notre Dame.
‘‘Tommy Z’s’’ opponent in tonight’s four-round heavyweight match is a warm body named Richard Bryant (1-2, 1 KO).
Zbikowski, 25, is passionate about boxing, so much so that he calls his first pro fight ‘‘the top moment in my athletic career. I remember everything about that night. I remember the locker room, the fight night, afterwards. It was a hundred rounds of sparring for 50 seconds of fighting, so I’ve been itching and itching to get back to fighting.’’
He even admitted last week during a conference call with the media that unlike the fight he had in ’06, this likely will not be a one-shot deal and he might eventually consider leaving football to focus on the sweet science.
‘‘I’ve been waiting five years and counting down the minutes [until the bout tonight],’’ he said. ‘‘I know that if I keep playing football, there will be a long section of my life missed without boxing. I’m still young. I know a lot of boxers’ primes are 29, 30, 31 years old, so I have time.
‘‘But, God, I’ve missed [boxing]. I’ve enjoyed every minute of getting back into it, getting back in the gym, the hard work and getting my timing back . . . just that feeling of fighting again. If you haven’t done it, it’s hard to describe.’’
His promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank, told the media that ‘‘as long as [Zbikowski] is available to fight, we plan to keep him very busy, whether it’s once a month or every two to three weeks. He’s been off for a while, but our matchmakers feel like he can compete at the top level of boxing at cruiserweight [200 pounds].’’
Zbikowski started six games at safety for the Ravens in 2010 before being sidelined during the last half of the season with a bulging disc in his back. During his three-year career, he has played behind perennial All-Pro Ed Reed. He said the Ravens have made him a tender offer as a restricted free agent.
‘‘Technically and legally, there is nothing that can stop me from fighting,’’ Zbikowski said. ‘‘I’ve let [defensive coordinator] Chuck Pagano know. I’ve continued to train and hope [the team] respects my decision. I was a professional boxer before I was a professional football player.’’