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Between NFL and pro boxing, Tom Zbikowski a scholar of hard knocks

Tom Zbikowski celebrates victory against Richard Bryant March Las Vegas. Zbikowski wby technical knockout first round. | Eric Jamison~ap

Tom Zbikowski celebrates a victory against Richard Bryant in March in Las Vegas. Zbikowski won by a technical knockout in the first round. | Eric Jamison~ap

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Updated: July 26, 2011 12:21AM

Before Tom Zbikowski signed a pair of boxing gloves during a recent public workout, he wanted to know which autograph he should use.

Should he sign his full name, followed by No. 28, Baltimore Ravens? Or should he sign Tommy Z, the moniker he uses as an up-and-coming professional boxer?

‘‘It’s hard to describe what Sunday feels like,’’ the former Buffalo Grove High School and Notre Dame standout said while shadowboxing last week at Leo High School. ‘‘It’s like stepping into the boxing ring. It’s hard to say which is the better feeling. They’re both incredible. You can’t match it. Nothing matches it. Why do you think I keep doing both?’’

It’s easy to dismiss Zbikowski spending this offseason in the ring as a lark or a way for him to keep in shape during the the NFL lockout. But he is as serious as a broken nose about his boxing career. After racking up a 75-15 amateur record, he’s now fighting as a pro and hopes to gain enough experience to allow him to contend for a championship after his NFL career ends.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Boxers compete well into their 30s, which means Zbikowski, who will turn 26 next month, can resume his boxing career when his NFL days have ended.

‘‘If he didn’t have to go back to football, I’d say in 18 months he’d be the light-heavyweight or cruiserweight champion of the world,’’ said Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who has trained more than 30 world champions and was in Zbikowski’s corner for his last fight. ‘‘He’s a good fighter. He has unbelievable coordination, balance and timing.’’

Zbikowski is a restricted free agent, which means the contractual obligations that prevent him from boxing during the offseason no longer apply. After primarily backing up perennial Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed for the last three seasons, he is expected to compete for a starting spot opposite Reed when his NFL career resumes.

While his Ravens teammates might consider him a football player who boxes, boxers think of him as a fighter who plays football.

When asked about players such as Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, both of whom have claimed they could whip Zbikowski in the ring, the 2002 Sun-Times football player of the year chuckles and motions with his gloves: ‘‘Bring it on.’’

‘‘He’s got a lot of ring rust right now, definitely,’’ said lawyer Mike Joyce, who coaches boxing at Leo and manages Zbikowski. ‘‘There’s no doubt about that. But he’s been boxing since he was 9 years old. He’s fought against some of the best amateurs. But boxing shape is totally different than football shape. We’re assuming there’s going to be a football season this year, so we’re only keeping him at four-round fights because the training would be different if he got up to six or eight rounds.’’

Zbikowski also has something few boxers possess: a back story that makes him a drawing card. Most boxers are trying to fight their way out of the inner city. Zbikowski’s suburban upbringing, storybook career at Notre Dame and success in the NFL make him a rarity.

According to Joyce, Zbikowski got a $100,000 purse for his first heavyweight fight in 2006, which was more than ‘‘Sugar’’ Ray Leonard or Oscar de la Hoya received for their debuts. If all goes well, his pay-per-view appeal might allow him — eventually — to make more for one fight than he will during his entire NFL career.

‘‘In boxing, there’s so much importance in marketing that people don’t understand,’’ said Trayce Zimmermann, a Chicago-based boxing publicist. ‘‘HBO would love Tommy. He sells eyeballs. You can be a great champion, but if nobody has ever heard of you or if you have a boring style, why watch? Tommy brings an audience.’’

Tommy Z is 3-0 this offseason. His last fight was a hard-fought, four-round decision over Caleb Grummet in Atlantic City, N.J. He has fights scheduled for May and June before he hangs up his gloves — at least temporarily — and starts preparing for the upcoming NFL season.

‘‘I’m going to be a champion one day,’’ Zbikowski vowed. ‘‘It’s too much fun. Why would I want to get these two things over with? I’m going to make it last as long as I can. I don’t want to get a real job. It’s too much hard work. I want to do this. This is what I want to do.’’

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