NFL defensive end Ray Edwards aiming for a new body of work in the ring

May 7 2011 - 7:40pm

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ray Edwards standing in full boxing gear talking about becoming the greatest fighter who ever lived would seem odd if this weren't already the strangest offseason in NFL history.

But here we are in lockout mode. An unsigned 26-year-old pass rusher in the prime of his career is in limbo for who knows how long. Edwards is not allowed to choose his future team and considers his Vikings career over, even if league rules were to declare him a restricted free agent.

"They put a first-round tender on me (a one-year, $2.8 million contract), but even if that holds up, there's no way I will play for less than what my backup got in his new contract," said Edwards, referring to Brian Robison's three-year, $14.1 million deal, which included a $6.5 million signing bonus. "There's no way I would play here."

With millions of dollars riding on the outcome of the NFL's labor battle, Edwards still shrugs and says he "couldn't care less" about the lockout. At the moment, he's a boxer fulfilling a childhood dream.

His goals, however, are serious and astronomical, to say the least. The journey toward them begins with a four-round ring debut at 7:30 p.m. CDT on May 20 at Grand Casino Hinckley. He will fight Duluth, Minn.'s T.J. Gibson, a 34-year-old former amateur champion kickboxer who also is making his traditional boxing debut.

Edwards said the fight will go on even if the lockout ends and the league year begins before then. The Falcons reportedly have targeted him as a free agent or a sign-and-trade possibility if he's restricted. That's millions of dollars that could be put on hold for a boxing deal that Edwards said comes with a $5,000 guarantee and 50 percent of the gate.

There's also the injury factor to consider, even though the defensive end will tower over his opponent. Edwards is 6-5 and 255 pounds. Gibson is 5-9 and 210.

"I'm not worried," Edwards said. "Nobody will get close enough to hurt me. I'm not making any guarantee, but I will get the job done. I'm not trying to go out there just to say that I did it."

Staying in shape

Edwards began boxing as a form of conditioning 4 1/2 years ago after meeting Jeff Warner, a Burnsville, Minn., pastor, during Vikings chapel. Warner is a former heavyweight boxer and pro wrestler. He also looks like a man who can claim to own five world brick-breaking records.

Edwards began training more seriously under Warner two years ago when NFL owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement and set the league in motion toward a lockout. Never one to stand pat, Edwards already was thinking of adding his ring debut to a plate that also includes some modeling and his own clothing line, True Ink.

Edwards and Warner train together five days a week. Three days a week, Edwards comes straight to the gym from a fast-paced, 90-minute power-lifting workout at Higher Power Training in Eden Prairie.

"Ray's so strong, I get a workout just training the guy," Higher Power trainer Kevin Kovelan said as he loaded 18 45-pound plates -- 810 pounds -- onto a leg press machine so Edwards could do a set of 10 reps.

Within an hour of his leg workout, Edwards was in Lakeville for a 90-minute boxing workout with Warner. At one point, Warner turned to an onlooker when Edwards exploded with a right hand that made a pad Warner was holding scream across the room.

"Nobody in the entire world could take that punch," Warner said.

Punching potential

Edwards calls Warner "the Mouth of the North." That's saying something considering Edwards' penchant for fearlessly proclaiming his lofty goals. Of course, Warner starts most conversations about Edwards by calling him "a modern day Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson combined."

"He could be better than any fighter that's ever been," Warner said. "No one has had his combination of strength, speed and balance. No one works like Ray. No one is conditioned like Ray. Look at him."

There's no denying Edwards is in top shape. He says he is in the best shape of his life, down 13 pounds from his playing weight. He also says his body fat is down from 15 to 8 percent, and there's no visible reason to argue.

A year ago, Edwards spent a week working out with noted International Boxing Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward at Kronk Gym in Detroit. Steward came away impressed by Edwards' potential in a weak division.

"I think it's very, very realistic for him to have an impact in the heavyweight division," Steward told ESPN. "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.

"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. . . . Ray would be a tough match for any heavyweight outside of the top 12 in the world."

Taking a shot

Joey Abell, one of the top professional heavyweights in Minnesota, sparred with Edwards last month.

"He has what it takes physically to be better than 90 percent of anybody who's just getting into boxing," said Abell, who is 27-5 with 26 wins by knockout. "He's big and strong, but he's green. I took it easy on him because you can't go too fast in this sport. You have to learn things. You have to learn how to get hit. I don't think Ray's ever been punched before."

Gibson said he is a Vikings fan but didn't know who Edwards was until he got the call about fighting him. The size differential doesn't bother him.

"No man intimidates me," Gibson said. "I'll be ready. Let's hope he's ready. If he knocks me out, he must be good because I've never been knocked out in kickboxing. If I knock him out, I hope you guys have your cameras ready."

Edwards not only expects to beat Gibson, but he said he thinks he "can definitely bring the world heavyweight championship belt back to the United States, where it belongs." Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko own four of the five major world heavyweight titles.

"Just by watching them, I think my footwork is better than theirs, I think my conditioning is better than theirs, I think my heart is so much better than theirs," Edwards said. "I think my thinking game is bar none. I think I could go in there and mix it up and come out with a win."

Busy schedule

Edwards has a second fight tentatively scheduled for June. He is assuming he will still be fighting because he figures the Vikings will still control his rights.

"They have yet to offer me a new contract, just to say, 'We're interested in you,"' Edwards said. "Sometimes, there's an odd man out. I believe I'm the odd man out."

Few players have felt the labor battle's impact as Edwards has. Under normal circumstances, he would have experienced a giant free-agency payday coming off a breakout 2009 season in which he had 8 1/2 sacks during the regular season and four more in two playoff games.

But his four seasons of service was no longer enough for unrestricted free agency once the owners opted out of the CBA. Six years were required, so Edwards played under a $2.52 million, one-year tender in 2010. It's uncertain what the rules will be in 2011.

"If the NFL plays, it plays, and if it doesn't, it doesn't," Edwards said. "The Bible says control things you can and don't worry about things you can't. Right now, I'm a boxer."

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