NFL lockout lets players follow the dream


AMERICA AT LARGE:Tommy Zbikowski is back in the ring as a professional fighter, but Chad Ochocinco’s hopes of playing for AC Milan look over-ambitious

UNDER THE watchful eye of his new trainer, Hall of Famer Emanuel Steward, cruiserweight Tommy Zbikowski celebrated Day 13 of the 2011 NFL work stoppage going one-on-one with a heavy bag at the Kingsway Gym in midtown Manhattan yesterday, polishing off his preparation for a fight on Top Rank’s card at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall this weekend.

On the same day, half a continent away, under the equally curious eye of coach Peter Vermes, forward Chad Ochocinco engaged in another closed-door training session with Sporting Kansas City, marking the second day of his four-day trial with the Major League Soccer club.

Both out-of-work NFL players insist they are serious, although with Ochocinco you never know.

“Right now, boxing is my number one sport,” insisted Zbikowski, the locked-out Baltimore Ravens safety, whose scheduled four-rounder against the immortal Caleb Grummet on Saturday night will be his third professional bout.

Ochocinco, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver whose last public try-out ended when he was drummed off the reality TV show Dancing with the Starsafter just one episode, appears to have set his sights somewhat lower since some months earlier announcing his intention to join AC Milan if the NFL players wound up on the street.

“I like to think I play like Ronaldinho, with the trick moves and the anticipation,” Chad modestly assessed his soccer gifts in offering his services to the Serie A club.

(AC Milan, alas, do not appear to have shared Ochocinco’s enthusiasm for the proposed arrangement. In fact, only two Americans have played in Serie A. One, Oguchi Onyewu, is on loan to the Dutch club Twente as he rehabilitates a knee torn up with the Milan club last year, while the other was Alexi Lalas, who played to mixed reviews for Padova in 1994. It’s hard to see how Ochocinco could have been any worse.)

Zbikowski has something of a boxing pedigree. As an amateur he fought his way to the final of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, and actually turned pro during his senior year at Notre Dame. He knocked out one Robert Bell on the Miguel Cotto-Paulie Malignaggi undercard at Madison Square Garden five years ago, but once it became likely that he might be a high NFL draft choice, Tommy Z put his boxing career on hiatus.

His athleticism notwithstanding, the 33-year-old Ochocinco hasn’t played competitive soccer since he was a boy.

“I played soccer even before I played football, and I was good,” said Chad. “That’s where I get my quick feet – and my feet are unbelievable. When I got to high school (at Miami Beach High) I had to make a choice because the seasons overlapped. I saw more opportunity in football, but it broke my heart.”

After four seasons with the Ravens, Zbikowski had returned to the gym this winter in anticipation of the labour dispute. Two weeks ago – on March 12th, a day after the NFL owners locked out the players – he scored another first-round knockout, stopping Richard Bryant on the Cotto-Ricardo Mayorga card at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He subsequently engaged Steward as his trainer, and had been working out in Florida for Saturday’s bout even before yesterday’s dog-and-pony show at the Kingsway.

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Ochocinco holds Bengals’ club records for receiving yards, receptions, touchdown catches – and fines. He insists his dalliance with soccer is not another of his self-promoting publicity stunts. (In 2007, the year before he legally changed his surname from Johnson, he engaged in a race against a thoroughbred racehorse; given a 110-yard spot, Chad won.)

Of course, Sporting Kansas City is also assuring its fans the Ochocinco experiment isn’t a publicity gimmick. But having changed its name (from the Wizards) and even its team colours (the new kit is indigo and light blue) and hoping to sell tickets to its new, €130 million stadium on the Kansas side of the border, the team clearly doesn’t object to the off-season exposure.

In anticipation of the trial arrangement with Sporting Kansas City, Ochocinco said it had been his “childhood dream” to play for a Major League Soccer team. Since Chad was 17 years old when MLS played its first season, this, depending on one’s definition of “childhood”, might suggest a case of arrested development.

Steward’s assessment of Zbikowski’s potential is based on limited exposure, but, the trainer told, “he has great natural rhythm, and he’s always in position when he’s punching. He doesn’t box like a football player; he boxes like a boxer.”

Vermes was even more guarded in assessing Ochocinco’s chances of sticking with the MLS club, but, he diplomatically noted, “I’ve had many players come in here on trial, and 99 per cent of them had less physical tools than he does. We know Chad is an exceptional athlete – and he did play a lot when he was younger.”

Grummet, Zbikowski’s opponent, is 29, and in his only pro fight struggled to a four-round majority draw with Noel Gomez in Michigan last October, so you have to like Tommy Z’s chances of being 3-0 after Saturday’s fight.

The disparate reactions of their respective NFL employers to Zbikowski’s and Ochocinco’s new lines of work are probably worth noting.

At the NFL owners’ meeting in New Orleans, Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis sounded like a man who’s seen this movie before when he somewhat derisively asked, “What has (Ochocinco) ever done that he’s completed? What circle has he connected in any way?”

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, on the other hand, pronounces himself foursquare behind Tommy Z’s quest.

“I think it’s awesome,” Bisciotti told the hometown Baltimore Sun. “I wanted to walk him into the ring, but I’m not allowed to communicate with him.”