NFL players mull options in boxing

When asked what has happened to the American heavyweight, boxing historian Bert Sugar typically offers the same response.

"The two best American heavyweights today are named Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher," Sugar has often said. "Unfortunately, they are both in the NFL."

It's hard to argue with Sugar's theory that gifted, 250-pound-plus American athletes are usually playing football. But if labor issues that threaten the 2011 NFL season continue, a new brand of American heavyweights may quickly arrive on the scene.

Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski, who won his lone professional fight as a heavyweight in 2006, announced he will fight as a cruiserweight on the March 12 Showtime PPV card if no deal is reached for a new collective bargaining agreement.

And Minnesota Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards has the same intentions in mind. Unlike Zbikowski, who took up boxing at age 9 and has a 75-15 amateur record, Edwards has been training for only four years, getting more serious in just the last two as the possibility of a lockout increased.

But with his future in Minnesota uncertain without a contract, Edwards, 26, is ready to move full-speed ahead into boxing, with his sights set on a potential April debut. Whatever the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Edwards lacks in experience, he makes up for in size, speed and endurance.

"A lot of football players, like Ed 'Too Tall' Jones, have tried to cross over -- and they've all gotten knocked out," said Jeff Warner, a former heavyweight boxer and pro wrestler who serves as Edwards' trainer, manager, pastor and father figure. (Warner is mistaken regarding Jones' resume; the former Dallas Cowboys defensive end actually won all of his six fights before retiring from the ring and returning to the NFL in 1980).

"Ray will be the first to come from pro football as a starter and destroy the heavyweight division," Warner said. "Ray is a phenom. He's a modern-day Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson combined. He's the greatest conditioned heavyweight ever and he'll knock out any fighter in the world. No one looks like Ray, no one moves like Ray and no one works like Ray."

It's possible that the enthusiastic Warner -- a sought-after motivational speaker who tears phone books in half and says he tripled the world brick-breaking record -- is tip-toeing the lines of hyperbole. But Edwards also has received a glowing endorsement from Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who worked him out for two weeks last summer at Steward's legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit.

"I think it's very, very realistic for him to have an impact in the heavyweight division," Steward said. "Ray is a natural boxer in terms of rhythm and coordination. But it's his speed that surprised me because he is such an extremely big guy. I didn't think a guy could be that big and that fast. I'm training with a lot of heavyweights now, and having worked with primarily all of the heavyweight champions of the last 15 years -- like Lennox Lewis, [Evander] Holyfield and the Klitschkos -- I was very surprised at how quickly Ray caught on to things. Of all these athletes from football and basketball, he is the best that I have ever worked with, almost what you would say is a natural."

The Vikings' fourth-round pick out of Purdue in 2006, Edwards had a breakout season in 2009 (8.5 sacks) working opposite All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen. He went on to sign a one-year, $2.52 million tender in June after holding out of minicamp, finishing with eight sacks and 37 tackles in 2010.

With an uncertain NFL future, Edwards says he is willing to commit to boxing as long as he needs to in order to make money for himself and his family. But if success in the ring comes quickly, Edwards knows he could be headed toward an important decision soon.

"Right now, it all depends on where I am at in my career," said Edwards, who dabbles in modeling and owns his own clothing line called True Ink. "If the lockout goes to August and I'm moving up in the ring, then different things can happen. There is a lot of money in boxing, just as there is in football. It becomes a numbers game after that."

Either way, Edwards believes he can make an immediate impact.

"My goal is to be a world champion and bring heavyweight boxing back to the United States because it's evident how much it's missed," Edwards said. "There's a lot of guys out there that are tough, but I don't see them putting in the work and dedication that I'm bringing to the table. The way guys used to look back in the day, with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, they were all put together. Now, most of these guys are just heavy. With my stamina, conditioning and my mental work and discipline, I'm going to bring excitement and will bring the championships back home."

Warner said he has helped Edwards improve his strength and explosiveness on the football field, while guiding him to become a better man off of it. He envisions a best-of-both-worlds scenario for Edwards' future.

"I told him that he is going to play football and be a world champion," said Warner, best known as a pro wrestler with WCW in the 1990s under the names J.W. Storm and Max Muscle. "Bo Jackson played [two sports] and did it very well. We are going to take it to a whole new level. I think the NFL is smart enough to embrace this. He would bring so much world renown to football that has never been done before."

Steward, the trainer of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, admits the excitement and pay-per-view numbers would be through the roof if a mainstream athlete, like Edwards, achieved success inside the ring. But he is realistic of the distance traveled on the road from prospect to contender.

"I guess it's easy to say right now, with the division being the worst it's ever been in history, but there's a difference between having talent and doing it in the ring," Steward said. "The excitement of the crowd in a boxing ring is different than running out onto a football field. You are all by yourself and there are so many other factors.

"To be effective in anything in life, you have to have attained a certain degree of confidence. So I would have Ray fighting very often, like once a month, to give him experience and get him comfortable fighting in any environment. With the proper training and regular fights, I would say in about 10 months he could be a serious threat to any middle-of-the-road or Class B heavyweight. Taking away guys like the Klitschkos and others who have Olympic gold medal experience, Ray would be a tough match for any heavyweight outside of the top 12 in the world."

Brian Campbell is a contributor to ESPN Mobile.