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Ahead of massive Las Vegas event, Shaquille O'Neal laments what might have been with UFC career

The Shaquille O'Neal Foundation hosts 'The Event' on Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
shaquille-oneal

LAS VEGAS – NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal boasts four championship rings from his stellar basketball career, but there's a part of him that wishes he could have earned a championship belt, as well.

"I'm 50," O'Neal told MMA Undergound. "I wish I was 38, 39. I would fight."

O'Neal, who is an avid MMA fan, was introduced to the sport by chance in 1996 by future UFC champion Vitor Belfort, who was making his professional debut in Hawaii, where the Los Angeles Lakers were holding training camp.

"A guy grabs me and puts me in a waist lock," O'Neal recalled. "I'm getting ready to turn around and beat him up. He goes, 'No, no, no, no, no.' It's Vitor Belfort. He says, 'No, no, no. I just love you. I'm a fan of yours.' I'm like, 'Yo, man, what are you doing?' He gives me two tickets, and says, 'I've got a fight tonight.'

"We went to this event, and Vitor beat some big old dude. He beat that dude in like 15 seconds. I'm like, 'What kind of sport is this?' And I've been a fan since."

O'Neal has since developed friendships with UFC president Dana White, as well as former UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. He even once invited the promotion to host a press conference in his Orlando estate in 2014.

"I had all that space, and I said, 'Hey, you can use my house free of charge,'" O'Neal said. "Listen, anything Dana White needs, he gets from me."

White is now on the Board of Directors for The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation and will be in attendance on Saturday for the organization's fundraising gala at MGM Grand Garden Arena, dubbed "The Event." Comedian Joel McHale will emcee the affair, which features performances by H.E.R., Maroon 5, Maren Morris, John Mulaney and Pitbull.

It's the second year O'Neal has hosted "The Event," which raised more than $2.8 million in its debut effort.

"I'm super excited for our foundation's second annual event," O'Neal said. "This event, undoubtedly, will be the biggest fundraiser of the year because it's supporting the work that I do to help with resources for kids in need in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Why Las Vegas and Atlanta? Because this is where the kids see me. You go to the Apple store looking for the iPhone 14, I'm going to be there. You go to your local Walmart, I'm going to be there. You go to the gym, I'm going to be there.

"My mission, the foundation's mission, is always to help underserved youth achieve their full potential, partnering with two other great organizations, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Communities In Schools. Last year, I built a Boys & Girls Club outside of Atlanta in my town, McDonough. We're doing a similar, bigger project here in Las Vegas."

Tickets for "The Event," which start at just $50, are currently on sale at AXS.com.

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"Listen, the names I'm going to say to you – H.E.R., those tickets are up there," O'Neal explained. "Pitbull, you know those tickets are up there. Maroon 5, tickets are up there. Maren Morris, John Mulaney, those tickets are up there, but I'm giving you an affordable price where you can come see these great people perform, and all on the same stage. Only the Shaq man can do that.

"You want to come see these people and come rock out with us, you should definitely come check it out."

O'Neal, now a popular NBA analyst and successful entrepreneur, says his incredibly busy schedule makes it difficult for him to attend as many UFC events as he'd like, but he promises to be in the building if Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz ever book their much-anticipated trilogy bout. He also counts himself as a Max Holloway fan and says he's keeping an eye on Umar Nurmagomedov, the undefeated cousin of former UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Overall, O'Neal said he is impressed by the amount of talent the sport continues to attract and develop.

"I think the UFC is going to be around forever," O'Neal said. "I really do, because you've got kids coming out of nowhere. Then you've got other entities, and I'm not going to say them out of respect for Dana, but you've got other stuff. You got a friend of mine, Yoel Romero, had a fight the other day he won. I love coming (to the fights), so the next big, big, big, big card, I'll be there."

Years ago, White suggested O'Neal may take an active role with the promotion at some point, and the basketball legend won't completely rule out that possibility. As for ever actually stepping foot in the octagon to compete, he's happy to say those days are gone. Had things worked out a little differently though, the 7-foot-1 O'Neal says he knows exactly who he would have faced: a 300-pound monster known as "The Beast" and a towering "Techno Goliath" from South Korea.

"I would have fought Bob Sapp, and I would have fought Hong Man Choi," O'Neal said. "I would have definitely fought those two, but at 50, I'm not going to even think about it."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.