Former UFC star Chael Sonnen has revealed which MMA great he looked to pit basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal against for a submission grappling match.
O’Neal made his name in sport on the court, where he completed a career that left him widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players and centers of all time. During his time in the sport, the New Jersey native represented six teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers between 1996 and 2004, and the Miami Heat for the following four years.
But while the 50-year-old’s success in basketball — four-time NBA champion, three-time NBA Finals MVP, the 2000 NBA Most Valuable Player, and 15 appearances as an NBA All-Star, to name a few — is widely known, but his experiences in martial arts is less so.
In a 2020 interview with ESPN, “Shaq” credited his success in basketball to his combat training, stating that “MMA is the reason I became a champion.” O’Neal began training in MMA at Jonathan Burke’s Gracie Gym the same year as his MVP season. Having trained in boxing, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and wrestling, the basketball Hall of Famer laced the gloves for an exhibition contest with Oscar De La Hoya.
More recently in 2018, O’Neal was filmed taking part in a grappling round with former UFC champion Forrest Griffin at the PI in Las Vegas. After going the distance with the inaugural TUF winner, a fatigued “Shaq” was caught in a rear-naked choke by former strawweight Cláudia Gadelha.
As it turns out, O’Neal’s training and grappling experiences almost led him to an official contest, and against a former multi-weight titleholder, no less.
Sonnen Pitched Shaq Versus GSP
During a recent video on his YouTube channel, Chael Sonnen recalled the time when he attempted to book O’Neal in a contest under the banner of his promotion, Submission Underground.
The former two-division UFC title challenger explained that he’d initially looked to book “Shaq” against a fellow basketball player after Din Thomas, who’d been training the sporting legend, alerted Sonnen to his interest in a match.
But after assessing the meaning and point of the bout, “The American Gangster” had a new name in mind…
“I was promoting, doing a grappling match. I got a call from Din Thomas. Din Thomas was working with Shaquille O’Neal. He was training Shaquille O’Neal,” Sonnen said. “Shaq wanted do to a match. So I was like, ‘Okay,’ and I found another NBA guy, training out in California, plays for the Lakers.
“I’m running all this behind the scenes, right, running past Dana (White), trying to get the numbers, calling ESPN, seeing if we can get on Sportscenter… Whatever Shaq was gonna do, they were very interested,” Sonnen continued. “And I told Din, ‘You know what? If Shaq really wants to compete, I think this Laker is probably a really good idea… We got a real easy story to tell; two basketball players, two big guys who’ve never done it before. But what if it was Georges St-Pierre?'”
St-Pierre, a former two-division champion inside the Octagon, is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and recorded six submission wins in his professional MMA career. While those accolades were enough for Thomas to initially laugh off the pitch, he was soon onboard, as were ESPN, Sonnen claimed.
“Din laughed,” Sonnen recalled. “But I said, ‘Think about it. If this is for fun, if this is for exposure, we could take the competitive aspect out of it right away. So now it is just for fun, and we could put Shaq in there with Georges St-Pierre.’ Din said, ‘I see what you’re saying.’
“We had some further talks but then I make my call. I call Dana, I call ESPN. They say, ‘We’re breaking it on Sportscenter tonight if you have that signed.’ They didn’t say that for anything else that we had done,” Sonnen added. “They said, ‘We will break it on Sportscenter tonight to announce St-Pierre vs. Shaquille O’Neal on Submission Underground.'”
Evidently, that bout never came to fruition, nor did a Submission Underground appearance for O’Neal. Given GSP’s abilities on the mat, most would have likely leant the same way with their predictions…
Interestingly, while St-Pierre has remained committed to his retirement from MMA, the Canadian did somewhat leave the door open to grappling matches and “novelty” contests during an interview with MMA News’ own James Lynch earlier this year.
A clash on the mats with “Shaq” would certainly have ticked those boxes.
How do you think a submission grappling match between Georges St-Pierre and Shaquille O’Neal would have played out?