NEW YORK -- Tommy Zbikowski is used to taking and giving punishment on the football field. But on Saturday Night at Madison Square Garden, the ring was the thing for the Notre Dame third-team All-American safety.
"I wanted to come out and show that I could fight," Zbikowski said.
Robert Bell found that out the hard way, absorbing a fight's worth of punishment in 49 seconds before the bout was stopped as Zbikowski won his pro debut.
Zbikowski had two knockdowns of the 32-year-old Bell before referee Arthur Mercante Jr. stopped the scheduled four-round fight.
The fight itself was honestly not much of one. A near-sellout at Madison Square Garden saw Bell (2-3) go down soon after the opening bell, on one knee, glove up, as if in prayer. He was asked whether he wanted more and to Bell's credit, he continued, despite clearly being outmatched from the start.
Zbikowski immediately and literally wound up and fired. Bell spun around, flummoxed by the contact and took a few more shots before the fight was stopped 49 seconds into the first round. "Tommy Z!" chants quickly bellowed from the crowd.
The 21-year-old Zbikowski, of Arlington Heights, Ill., won 75 of his 90 amateur bouts and earned $25,000 for his first pro fight.
"I worked hard the last six, seven weeks," said the Notre Dame player, who had more than 50 teammates on hand. "I wanted to prove that I was more than just a football player."
Though Zbikowski is used to cheers, there's all the difference in the world between Notre Dame Stadium and the inclusive, in-your-face feel of the Garden. Visiting the New York City site in March, Zbikowski admitted the awe he felt at being able to make his debut at the site of so many memorable fights. If you wanted an added further touch of intimidation, try having Angelo Dundee working your corner, just as he did for a fighter named Ali so long ago.
"The direction a young man will take is his own direction. He's only 21 years old," Dundee said.
But the venue signaled an opportunity for Zbikowski to transition from amateur to professional in rare fashion. More was on the line than money -- it was a chance for him to assert himself as a two-sport athlete, something that could create a groundswell of endorsement deals once his college football career is over, as well as notoriety.
Entering the fight, there was one question: Would the overwhelming nature of this spectacle force the newbie to be off his game and land firmly on the canvas? Zbikowski dismissed that question at Wednesday's press conference, saying, "I plan to put on a show of speed, skill and power the heavyweight division hasn't seen in a while."
Most agree that the low level of competition did not allow him to truly show his gifts, any more than working a bag would. But Bell, at 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, held a three-inch and 13-pound advantage over his celebrated opponent.
Interviewed just after the fight, Zbikowski said he didn't want to be seen as just a football player, but a boxer. Well, this boxer's record is 1-0.
"When you walk into the arena, all eyes are on you ... it was a good experience to be able to share it with my teammates," Zbikowski said.
In the other bouts on the undercard:
" Juan Lopez (12-0) won by unanimous decision over Sergio Mendez (5-1, 1 KO), handing him his first defeat and moving his young record to 6-0.
" Bobby Pacquaio (27-11-3, 12 KOs) took local Kevin Kelley (58-7-2, 39 KOs) out in the third round, though there was a controversial punch TV announcers thought was a low blow just before the rib cage shot that took him out.
" The Chavez lineage continued to have a good showing as Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (26-0, 20 KOs) stopped Aaron Drake (10-2, 8 KOs) only 1:53 into the second round.
" John Duddy (17-0, 15 KOs) was no dud, dispensing with Freddie Cuervas (25-9-1, 17 KOs), with the fight being stopped following a punishing 7th round.
Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in New York. The Associated Press contributed to this story.