I think I’ve changed my mind about this about a hundred times since I first heard the news.
Baltimore Ravens Safety Tom Zbikowski will step into a boxing ring at the MGM Grand Saturday night in Las Vegas to face a largely unknown opponent named Richard Bryant. The fight will be part of the undercard for the Miguel Cotto-Ricardo Mayorga showdown, which will air on Showtime Pay-Per-View. It will be Zbikowski’s second professional fight, but first since a 2006 knockout of Robert Bell at Madison Square Garden in New York.
When I first heard the news, I immediately thought to myself, “There’s no way this is okay.”
I understood the concept. With National Football League Owners and the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) locked in a battle over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), it appeared as though the league was quickly headed towards a lockout, which would allow players to do just about anything they wanted to away from football. New York Jets LB Bart Scott has been seen on Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling. Minnesota Vikings DE Ray Edwards (a free agent who many fans would like to see consider Charm City) has also decided to box in the offseason.
But I couldn’t help but wonder if Zbikowski’s decision was a good one. I couldn’t help but wonder if as a professional football player, Zbikowski might not be better off simply preparing for football. Whether or not the NFL was going to experience a work stoppage, there are few of that don’t believe in our hearts there will be a NFL season in 2011, and the Ravens will have an opportunity to claim a second Vince Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis in 2012.
On “The Afternoon Drive” last week on AM1570 WNST, Drew Forrester and I discussed our thoughts on Zbikowski fighting. I said then I felt as though if I were a teammate of Zbikowski’s, I would probably want to get on the phone with him and say “I understand you’re a boxer. I understand you want to do this. But we want to win the Super Bowl this year. Why don’t you just get together with me in Arizona and let’s work on getting ready for the season.”
In fact, when Washington Redskins OL and former Raven Casey Rabach joined Forrester and I last Thursday on the show, I posed the question to him. “If one of your teammates were to (choose to box, fight Mixed Martial Arts, etc during the lockout), would you make that phone call to say ‘just bear in mind everything that’s going into this decision you’re making.'”
Rabach’s answer seemed perfectly logical to me.
“I’d be the first one on the phone I think to call that player and say ‘hey, remember where your bread is buttered'” said Rabach. “Just be careful, be smart. Definitely those are things that would kind of scare a guy (like) myself, if I hear a player doing that. It just doesn’t seem like anything great will come out of that.”
On Friday’s show, we received a call from Mike Paskoff-one of our regulars on “The Morning Reaction” and someone I worked with briefly during my time at CBS Radio. He reminded me that when it comes to the decisions of other players, teammates tend to be very supportive. Whether the situation is a holdout, an off-field issue or a locker room dispute, players often tend to respond with a simple “that’s his business.”
While Paskoff was right, Rabach’s comments justified the uneasiness I felt about Zbikowski’s decision.
Is this REALLY a good idea?
There was a detour on the road to an inevitable lockout last Friday, as the owners and NFLPA agreed to extend discussion another week. Zbikowski participated in a conference call coordinated by Top Rank Boxing (who is promoting Saturday’s card) to tell reporters he would be participating in the fight with or without a work stoppage in the NFL. As an Unrestricted Free Agent, Zbikowski couldn’t be stopped contractually.
When asked about the support of his teammates, Zbikowski pointed out that a number of teammates including DT Haloti Ngata intended to head to Vegas to support him in his fight.
This Ravens analyst and lifelong Baltimore sports fan remained skeptical.
On Monday, I joined Thyrl Nelson on “The Mobtown Sports Beat” on AM1570 WNST to chat with Zbikowski about his decision, and to get direct word from the safety about my own concerns.
Thinking back on Rabach’s comments, I asked Zbikowski if any teammates had reached out to him to question his decision.
“I haven’t gotten that yet” the former Notre Dame standout told us. “I think people know better than that, because I’m just that hard headed. If you tell me not to do something I’m going to do the opposite, if you tell me not to do it I’m not going to do it, so you’re better off letting it run its course (and) let me do my thing.”
While not overwhelmingly convincing, I understood the concept. I’m 27 years old myself, and I still tend to have the mentality of a 16 year boy when it comes to authority.
“Whatever you want me to do; I’m probably not going to do it-just to make you uncomfortable.”
I’m pretty hard-headed myself. Somewhere right the great Tom Clark (my father) is chuckling.
But Zbikowski followed up those comments with others that were more thought provoking.
“To be honest with you, all these football players are doing MMA, boxing things anyways in the offseason. The days of lifting, trying to get bigger were in high school and college, nobody cares how much you bench on the football field, player wise, nobody cares how much you bench or squat, it means nothing. It’s how athletic you are, it’s how you perform. It’s all those things.”
Zbikowski was completely on target with such thoughts. A number of NFL players have sought out Mixed Martial Arts training in the offseason. In fact, many of those players have done so under the guidance of FOX NFL Insider Jay Glazer. Ravens DT Kelly Gregg was scheduled to work with Glazer during the 2010 offseason, but backed out at the last minute. Incorporating fighting into months of preparation for football isn’t unique to Zbikowski. The only unique aspect is that Zbikowski would actually step into a professional ring against a combatant who desired to cause him physical harm.
It’s unique…and potentially much more dangerous.
Zbikowski had said in his conference call that he had hoped to fight multiple fights during the spring and summer. I asked him Monday if he would still do so even if the league avoided a work stoppage.
“I’m going to see how this goes” responded Zbikowski. “If it’s another 50 second one (like his 50 second knockout of Bell at MSG), I don’t know If I can keep up the six, seven weeks of training because anybody who’s ever done boxing knows what kind of shape you have to be in and what kind of training it takes. That was one of the toughest things. I sparred almost 100 rounds for 50 seconds last time and that’s bittersweet, because you can’t complain about your pro debut at Madison square garden being a 50 second knockout. We’ll see how it goes because I’m not really one who’s good with making plans. I kind of fly by the seat of my pants and see what’s what.”
While it’s certainly understandable that Zbikowski wouldn’t want to prepare for weeks for less than a minute of fighting, it’s also reasonable to think that without a lockout Zbikowski’s only focus should be helping the Ravens win the AFC North.
With that in mind, the front office of the Baltimore Ravens (particularly Owner Steve Bisciotti, General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh) should have every right to ask Zbikowski to keep his focus on football if there is no work stoppage-even if he believes he will eventually become a full time boxer.
And if they do?
“I don’t know about this one because it’s already fight time, you know I would have a tough time saying no to it” responded Zbikowski. “I would just say ‘You guys have (Pro Bowl safety) Ed Reed, you don’t need me! Eight picks and he’s not even playing in six games! You don’t need me!”
It’s funny, but it’s not exactly reassuring. Zbikowski did go on to offer another thought that would reassure me a bit more.
“There’s not going to be anybody in better shape come Training Camp. I’ll guarantee you that.”
I’m still a bit uneasy. Zbikowski told me he’s well aware of the worst case scenario. There’s absolutely a chance (although I’d think the chances are slim) that he could step into the ring Saturday night and take the wrong shot to the head.
If that happens, the second guessing of his decision to fight will be the least of Zbikowski’s concerns.
But as Forrester has said on multiple occasions this offseason, there’s only one thing that should matter right now for the Baltimore Ravens.
Beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Zbikowski joked about how boxing could prepare him for the task.
“I’ll bring back a belt. When we play them, I’m going to stand at midfield. If they’ve got somebody they want to throw at me again like they did back when we had the home game, I’m gonna take somebody’s head off. Or you can just send me in (and) let me blitz. Haloti got a little piece of (Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger) on accident, imagine what would happen if I do it on purpose. I’ll take an ejection; I’ll take an ejection for the team.”
He gets the point. If he’s on the field and contributing if/when the Ravens face the Steelers this fall, I don’t care what he does in the offseason.
Of course, I’ll be pulling for him to never leave his feet Saturday night.
If you missed Monday’s interview with Zbikowski, visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault here at WNST.net!
(Headline photo courtesy of USA Today)