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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Football: Zbikowski to fight professionally at Madison Square Garden

Standing in the spotlight of Madison Square Garden Wednesday, Tom Zbikowski said he would make his professional boxing debut in the world's most famous arena in less than three months.

In a press conference organized by Bob Arum of Top Rank promotions, Tom Zbikowski announced he signed a contract to fight one professional match - which will be broadcasted on HBO via pay-per-view.

"I would have done this for free, just to fight in Madison Square Garden," Tom Zbikowski said Wednesday.

His heavyweight match is scheduled for June 10 at Madison Square Garden and will be the undercard for the WBO junior welterweight title fight between Miguel Cotto and Paulie Malignaggi.

Tom Zbikowski has an agreement with Top Rank Promotions for the four-round fight. Arum saw him fight a charity match on March 15 in the bar 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park, Ill., when the Notre Dame junior TKO'd amateur heavyweight Artese Palire (23-4) before a crowd of 1,000 spectators.

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis supported his safety's decision, which will not interfere with his football eligibility in his senior season this fall.

"I think with any of our kids here, when you're looking at each situation as its own separate entity, I think that you always have to make sure that you take care of Notre Dame first," Weis said. "But you've got to be realistic. And in this situation, which was a very unusual situation, to take this opportunity away from him would have been the wrong thing to do."

Ed Zbikowski said he wasn't worried his son might suffer a major injury in the bout.

"He's been doing this for 10 years, of course he gets hurt," Ed Zbikowski said. "It's a blood sport. You're supposed to get hurt. ... Every boxer gets hurt. When you come back from sparring, you're hurt."

He said it is his son's fearlessness that allows him to compete in football and boxing, both difficult contact sports. From a different perspective, Weis said Tom Zbikowski's toughness was what allowed him to excel in both sports.

"And besides [being] very, very tough, I think he has skills," Weis said. "Boxing isn't for everyone, there's a lot of guys that are really strong but those guys that are really strong aren't necessarily the guys that would be really good boxers.

"A lot of football players that wouldn't fare so well in the ring ... I don't proclaim to be an expert on boxing, all I know is that he's a pretty darn good football player and I'm glad we have him."

The road to MSG

Ed Zbikowski said many people don't realize that boxing is more than a hobby for his son.

"When Tommy gets home from Notre Dame, he'll get up Saturday morning, have breakfast, go to the gym, and go knock off six or seven rounds without training or anything," Ed Zbikowski said in a telephone interview with the Observer Wednesday. "I think the people at Notre Dame don't realize he's been boxing since he's eight, nine years old. He's probably a better boxer than he is a football player."

Ed Zbikowski said his son has been active in charity fights, as well.

"[Of] the last ten fights that he had, seven have been for charity," Ed Zbikowski said.

On May 20, the third-team All-American will fight in a set of bouts to help raise money for cystic fibrosis - an event that hopes to raise $200,000.

"They believe with him in the charity event they'll be able to raise it," Ed Zbikowski said.

But the offer of a professional career was the realization of his son's dream, the elder Zbikowski said.

"It was an exciting day today," Ed Zbikowski said. "We flew out [to New York]; we were treated like royalty, rubbed elbows with the best in the business. He's on pay-per-view. He's at Madison Square Garden. That's like being in the Super Bowl. That's like being in the national championship. Fighters who have fought for 10 years - title-holders - don't get a chance to fight at the Garden."

Even in New York, the Notre Dame experience followed the Zbikowskis.

"Tommy held his own throughout this whole [press conference], dead tired," Ed Zbikowski said. "He was alone in the room ... and a gentleman came up to me, shook my hand, and said 'My name is Kevin Murphy, I graduated from Notre Dame. I left my job and I took the train and I snuck into the press conference with my friend.'"

Ed Zbikowski said although meeting professional boxers was exciting, the Notre Dame connection was a highlight of the trip.

"I'll never forget the warm feeling I had when [Murphy] came up," Ed Zbikowski said. "It felt like we had a friend. It felt like we had somebody ... we were back in our little bit of element."

But Tom Zbikowski's priority is to play football at Notre Dame, which his father said dated back to when he was recruited as a high school quarterback.

"He gave up his dream to play quarterback to come to Notre Dame," Ed Zbikowski said, noting that Tommy was recruited by the Naval Academy as a boxer and quarterback.

Eligibility issues

Keeping Notre Dame football a priority was an issue when Tom Zbikowski was deciding to accept the contract. A primary concern was keeping him eligible for football in the fall.

"I think that the most important thing for me, when I was approached by Tommy about that potential fight, after I got all the details about what exactly it was, the most important thing to me was to make sure that eligibility was not an issue," Weis said. "To be honest with you, it was an issue right up until Tuesday afternoon, because the one thing that I had settled with both Tommy and Mr. Zbikowski was that the one thing [we had to make sure of was] that there's not going to be a threat for losing his eligibility. That would have been a deal killer - for us and for them."

The NCAA regulates players who are professional in one sport to play college ball in another - a situation that NCAA spokesperson Kent Barrett is not unusual, but generally reserved for football players drafted by Major League Baseball teams.

"I honestly haven't heard of it happening [an NCAA player boxing professionally] but I can't say it hasn't," Barrett said. "It's probably more common for people to play minor league baseball."

According to NCAA Bylaw 12.1.2, "a professional athlete in one sport may represent a member institution in a different sport."

The main difference is accepting endorsement money, said Mike Karowski, Notre Dame's associate athletic director in charge of compliance.

"[An athlete's] name, appearance or likeness can't be used to promote a commercial product or service," Karowski said. "And the question was if there are promotional items related to his fight, how does that impact him? And that's what we sort of have to navigate through, and ultimately it was decided that anything that was informational, factual in nature and specific just to his boxing match, it would be okay for him to participate in that."

This means that in commercials publicizing the fight, Zbikowski can be referred to as a Notre Dame football player. However, a commercial entity could not offer him money to wear their apparel or participate in advertising.

"If he were to do that then he'd lose his college eligibility in all sports," Karowski said.

Weis said the Zbikowskis approached him after they received an offer from Arum.

"They were approached and immediately came to me because, fortunately for me, we have the program set in such a way that these guys know they can come to me and I'll work with them," Weis said. "They know that although I have Notre Dame football as my No. 1 priority, I'm going to listen to each situation and try to give them an objective answer to what I think - just as long as the kids are graduating and it's not going to ruin any chance of their eligibility."

A recent issue with eligibility and endorsement compliance was with Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, who played football for the University of Colorado. In August 2004, the NCAA ruled that because Bloom accepted endorsements - even though they were not related to football - he was ineligible for college sports. Bloom appealed but lost and forfeited his football career.

"You could be paid to ski but you can't endorse commercial products or services," Karowski said.

Karowski said Rocket Ismail - one of Notre Dame's most famous athletes - signed a contract with the CFL after his junior year but ran track in the spring. But since then, the situation has been rare at Notre Dame, he said.

"We haven't had too many here," Karowski said. "I've been here 14, 15 years, and I can't think of anybody up to this point who's been a professional in one sport and an amateur in another.

"I don't anticipate any problems. The only thing that could happen would be if Tom changes his mind and wants to do something else ... [right now he seems] committed to doing both and doing both the right way.

Strong support

As he makes his professional debut, Zbikowski will have a strong network of his coaches, teammates and family. His brother will be his manager, and his uncle - a former boxer, now battling cancer - were with him in New York yesterday.

And while Weis was not in New York, he said he is fine with the safety's decision.

"Each situation has to be handled as a unique situation," Weis said. "But I think if you want your guys to stay in school and graduate and one of these opportunities comes along, you have to be willing to work with him, you have to give a little."

His teammates are also behind him, including free safety Chinedum Ndukwe - his companion in the defensive backfield.

"I think that he's been [boxing] for so long, since he was a little kid, I think it's just like second nature to him," Ndukwe said. "He's been doing it for so long, he knows what he's doing."

Zbikowski's father said his son plans to return to Notre Dame for his senior football season and earn his degree, hopefully continuing his football career in the NFL. The rising senior was No. 13 in the nation in punt returns in 2005 and led Notre Dame with five interceptions. He was also fourth on the team in tackles (71).