You can always tell by the hands. Sitting on the steps leading to his Tommy Z’s Speed Camp in Palatine, Ill., Tom Zbikowski whips off a text message as fast as a binary synapse fires. His thumbs move quickly. Nothing about this guy moves slow.
The camp is in a converted racquetball court. But instead of bodies diving and racquetballs whacking against walls, there are the zipping hums of treadmills that measure the top speed of elite athletes. The two athletes in there this day happen to be from the University of Notre Dame, Zbikowski’s alma mater. Now in his third year as a highly regarded strong safety with the Baltimore Ravens, Zbikowski trains others to be as fast as him.
But back to the hands.
Zbikowski’s hands sport the tracks of cuts, nicks, and bruises from a collision sport like football. But they are fast and sinewy strong. Shake his hand and you’ll understand. You’re shaking the hand of a fighter.
With an accomplished background in boxing, wrestling, and a dash of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the 24-year-old Zbikowski has the skills and ability to eventually be a mixed martial arts fighter, and he incorporates many of the same core strength and explosion techniques that MMA fighters use.
“Two men at 200-plus pounds running a teach other at the speeds we do in the NFL just isn’t good for your body in any sense,” Zbikowski says. “But in combat sports like wrestling, boxing, or MMA, you’ve got no one to lean on but yourself. That’s what you need in the fourth quarter when you feel like you’ve just been in four car crashes. If you’ve taken your body to those heights, you can get through anything. That kind of training—boxing, wrestling, MMA—is so tough, that when you’re done, there’s no better feeling. It’s euphoria.”
While his primary focus is completely on football, it stands to reason that the former Notre Dame All-American safety might someday, somehow, end up in the Octagon.Well, at least his father, Ed, thinks so.
“Do you think after he’s all done with football he’s just going to retire and play golf?” Ed says. “No, my gut says someday he’ll end up in the cage. He likes to test himself. And I’m not sure if there’s any harder test than that.”
Older brother E.J. agrees.
“That’s just his nature. It’s a good way to describe him,” says E.J. “He plays football, which is a physical sport. But he’s always fighting for something—fighting for a starting position, fighting to be the best.”
THE GOLDEN BOY
Not long after Zbikowski learned how to read did he learn how to take someone down. He had to. Among older brother E.J.and other neighborhood friends, Zbikowski often was the smallest. Combat sports are good for that.
“I was six years old when I started wrestling,”he says. “Yeah, I probably had a little bit of the ‘little man syndrome.’”
Nine years later, as a freshman at Buffalo Grove High School (Ill.), Zbikowski compiled a wrestling record of 22–0 at 140pounds, pointing guys to death.
“Really, all I had was a good single leg and double leg, and if I couldn’t pin you off of that, I’d just let you up and take you down again,” Zbikowski says. “But honestly,wrestling was like my fourth sport, behind football, track—because it was good for football—and boxing.”
If warriors are born, then by the time Zbikowski was nine years old, that warrior was itching to get out. On winter trips to Florida for E.J. to attend baseball camps, family friend Dr. Harold Reinman would let the boys workout with “Medicine Ball” Joe Wright, the legendary strength and conditioning trainer for boxing champs Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler.
“Tommy came to me and his mom one day and said he wanted to quit travel baseball and take up boxing,” says Ed. “I said, ‘Hey kid, the whole family plays baseball.’He said, ‘But I want to box.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But let’s be honest, the kid really has to want to fight, because no one likes getting hit in the face.”
Zbikowski had done his own research and found Pugs, a gym in nearby Palatine.
“I told him, ‘Okay, you find out how much it is, you earn the money, and I’ll take you,’”Ed says. “It was $135 for six months in their youth program. So I think he cut grass, washed cars, robbed a 7-11, I don’t know what he did, but he came up with the money somehow.”
After six months of training, Zbikowski was itching for a fight. He got his wish at a Catholic Youth Organization boxing match hosted by Maryville Academy in Chicago.
“We got Tommy signed up and licensed, and he draws some kid who’s got 17 fights under his belt,” Ed says.
“But he was 5-12, so I felt like I could take him,” Zbikowski says. “By the end of the fight, there was blood all over the place, both of our noses were bleeding. At that level, they stop the fight and I won on points.”
He even agreed to his mother’s mandate that the moment he ever took a standing eight count, the fighting career was over. Not surprisingly, Zbikowski never took a standing-eight. The boxing career continued and Zbikowski trained with legendary names like Angelo Dundee and Kevin Rooney. Wrestling also continued, but when Zbikowski was 12 years old, he met Royce Gracie.
“There was this clinic I got invited to at the Lakeshore Athletic Club,” says Zbikowski. “I mainly learned how to fight off my back. I knew I could punch better than any of the dudes in there. As a wrestler, my instinct was to stay off my back. But to learn the arm bars and choke holds, it was awesome. And this was back when there were no weight classes or anything.”
“I think that’s where Tommy got the MMA bug in his head,” Ed added. “To see a guy like Royce, who was 170 pounds, be able to do the things he could do was unbelievable to me and Tommy.”
Zbikowski trained with Gracie for two days and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master took a liking to this kid from Arlington Heights. After the clinic was over, he invited Zbikowski to Hawaii to train with other junior BJJ students.
However, Mom was having none of it.
“And honestly, I didn’t have time, with the four other sports I had going. But to learn to defend yourself when you’re in what looks like the worst possible position was fascinating to me. Some of BJJ is very applicable to football. Not so much on helping you make a play, but rather, getting yourself out of a bad situation where you could get injured.
“It’s the hand-eye coordination, too,”says Zbikowski. “You see a lot of football players using MMA training in the off-season, not just for the speed and explosion, but a lot of the one-on-one hand fighting can be used directly in football. It’s a hand battle all the time.”
Throughout high school and on to Notre Dame, Zbikowski amassed a 60-13 amateur boxing record, competing in the Golden Gloves program, and was a Silver Gloves finalist from 1998-2000.
The early pinnacle of Zbikowski’s fighting career came in 2006 when he signed a contract with Bob Arum and Top Rank boxing promotions to fight Robert Bell at Madison Square Garden as part of a card headlined by Miguel Cotto. The fight was covered by ESPN and was shown on HBO pay-per-view.
It was heavy stuff for a college senior.
“Making your pro debut in front of 15,000 people at Madison Square Garden? And it made “New York City’s Top 5 Parties” of the weekend? In front of a ton of Irish fans? What else can you ask for?” says Zbikowski.
Zbikowski made it look easy, too, putting Bell on the canvas 49 seconds into the first round, despite not having trained in the ring for close to six months.
“I caught him with a left to the body, then hit him with a right, then he stumbled into the buckles and sort of made a right-hand turn,” Zbikowski says. “He tied me up but I pushed him off. As he was backing up, I lunged with a left hook and tagged him right on the jaw, headgear and all, and he just went straight down and hit the mat.”
And the first person there to hoist him up in triumph: his brother E.J.
Now in the off-season, Zbikowski incorporates many of the same workout techniques that MMA fighters use. He practices yoga three times a week and stresses core strength and agility. After achieving his optimum body weight and body fat index, he works to maintain that state, and to give his body time to heal. But admittedly, he is not good at not working out.
“I’m headed to St. Martin’s next week,” he says. “It’s like I’m forcing myself to go. But you have to listen to your body.”
While Zbikowski makes his living on the gridiron these days, he’ll be the first to admit that there’s one feeling no touchdown can match.
“A knockout,” Zbikowski says. “There’s no better feeling in the world than knocking somebody out. Touchdowns are good, but it’s not even close.”