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Ravens' Tom Zbikowski uses lockout to explore ring career

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski, the NFL lockout is a lucky event, a matter of perfect timing that allows the former Notre Dame football captain a chance to pursue his passion for boxing.

The 25-year-old Zbikowski, who fought to a 75-15 record as an amateur boxer, returned to the ring earlier this month after a five-year absence and scored a one minute, 45-second knockout victory in Las Vegas.

"If there was going to be a lockout, I knew this was going to be the opportunity for me to be able to get back in the ring and start shaking off the rust and seeing where I'm at."

Even while earning honors as Baltimore's special teams player of the year and being tabbed as a Pro Bowl alternate in 2009, Zbikowski, who also returns kicks and punts, kept in touch with his boxing side in his training regimen.

"This is my dream job. There's nothing like one-on-one competition," he said. "There's nothing like the feeling of anxiety you have before you go into a fight. You feel alive."

Zbikowski expects the NFL labor dispute to be resolved in time for the 2011 season and will return to the gridiron but he insists this boxing adventure is serious for him.

Growing up idolizing boxers "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, he was also charged up about recently joining forces with famed trainer Emanuel Steward, who helped Hearns become a world champion.

Other NFL player have tried their hand in the ring, often as post-career novelty acts. One exception was Charlie Powell, a seven-year defensive end for the 49ers and Raiders, who had a credible boxing career posting a 25-11-3 record with opponents including Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson.

Steward said Zbikowski has great promise.

"If he did not have to go back to football, if he just trained straight through, in 24 months he would win the cruiserweight championship," Steward told Reuters.

"He's not a football player boxing, he's a boxer. His best asset? Balance, good coordination, real fluid combinations."

Zbikowski, who has the support of his team mates and even Ravens ownership, said he hoped to get in about eight fights before being called back to football.

"(All Pro) Ed Reed and most of the defensive backs came to the last one," he said. "All those guys have always snuck into some training sessions. Football players love boxing.

"The owner said he wanted to walk me out into the ring, so I'm all right in that aspect."

Zbikowski was clearly torn when asked which he would prefer, being MVP of a Super Bowl or a world boxing champion.

"World champion, probably," he said, ending an awkward silence with a laugh. "I'd walk around with the belt all the time."

(Writing by Larry Fine, Editing by Frank Pingue)