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Shaquille O’Neal is a four-time NBA champion, and he attributes his Hall of Fame success to … mixed martial arts.

“MMA is the reason I became a champion,” O’Neal told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani on Wednesday. “I always used to practice basketball. It wasn’t enough. Because when I played basketball, it was more wrestling. So when I trained MMA with Jon Burke, a friend of mine down in Orlando, I came back in the best shape of my life. That was in 2000. Won. Dominated.

“So I’m a creature of habit. Did it again, won a second championship. Did it again, won the third championship. Got cute, got away from it, lost. Got traded to Miami, did it again, won the fourth championship.”

O’Neal became a fan of watching MMA as well. When there’s a big fight, you can often spot Shaq cageside. He’s hard to miss, at 7-foot-1, 325 pounds.

“I like physicality,” O’Neal said. “MMA athletes are probably the best athletes on the planet.”

There was a time when O’Neal sought to put that to a test. After a lifetime of being told to pick on someone his own size, he did so in 2010, calling out South Korean pro fighter Hong-man Choi — all 7-foot-3, 353 pounds of him. Choi’s résumé includes opponents ranging from Fedor Emelianenko (first-round submission loss) to Jose Canseco (first-round TKO win).

O’Neal hoped his friend Dana White would book the matchup for the UFC. “I wanted Dana to come back and set it up,” he said, “but nobody ever did.”

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Recently, Shaq tried the next best thing: a grappling match against a UFC fighter. Thursday’s episode of his new TNT show, “Shaq Life,” features O’Neal competing on the mat with UFC heavyweight (and former NFL star) Greg Hardy.

“Greg Hardy is the strongest guy I’ve ever wrestled in my life,” O’Neal said. “If we got into it, it’d probably be a long day for me.”

O’Neal also told Helwani about the viral moment in which he comforted Max Holloway’s son, Rush, after Holloway’s loss to Dustin Poirier.

“I have children of my own, and my kids used to be like that when I’d lose … so I just grabbed his son and said, ‘Hey, I’m Uncle Shaq. Your daddy is going to be all right. Don’t worry about it. When all this is over, you make sure you give your daddy a hug and tell him you love him.’

“I was trying to be a great uncle at the time.”


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