Shaquille O’Neal’s Pro Wrestling Journey
A fan of wrestling for decades, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal will officially compete in the ring for the first time on this week’s episode of AEW Dynamite. Brandon Bethune takes a look at Shaq’s journey in and around professional wrestling over the last three decades.
When you think of Shaquille O’Neal, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Is it his stellar legacy in the NBA, having won four Championships? Is it his respected analysis from the Inside the NBA studio? Or is it his star power as a celebrity, with countless film and TV credits to his name – alongside some questionable studio albums? Here’s something that may not immediately come to mind. How about Shaquille O’Neal’s career as a professional wrestler?
While it isn’t rare to see athletes from other sports become involved in wrestling, it is very rare to see someone with the status of Shaq to be so steadfast in his desire to step into the ring.
So ahead of Wednesday’s AEW Dynamite, where ‘Shaq Daddy’ will team with Jade Cargill against Cody Rhodes and Red Velvet, I thought it was an appropriate time to take a took at ‘The Big Baryshnikov’s’ surprisingly long and arduous journey to AEW, and his real in-ring debut, as this is a journey that has spanned almost three decades.
Like many wrestling fans of a particular generation, O’Neal’s wrestling journey begins with Hulk Hogan.
The scene was WCW Bash At The Beach 1994, a historic event in wrestling for reasons other than the man himself. A WWE mainstay of the 1980’s and early 90’s, Hogan had jumped ship to arch rivals WCW to battle their own mainstay Ric Flair for the WCW Championship in a massive first time ever clash that WWE had failed to deliver in 1992.
What does an event of this magnitude need to make it that much bigger? A little bit of Shaq, of course.
Anyway, at this time, ‘The Big Aristotle’ was a year on from being named 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year, was plying his trade at the Orlando Magic, and was taking off as a big star and one to watch for the future. So an appearance at a major PPV in Orlando was good business all round, and a younger O’Neal seemed largely starstruck but no less Shaqalicious (I’m sorry) in his first major wrestling appearance.
His appearance on this show was minimal by the standards of future wrestling ventures, as he was largely overshadowed by the actual match he appeared before. However, his presenting of the WCW Championship, ringside presence, and post-match celebration with Hogan was a taste of things to come for ‘The Big Shamrock’s’ wrestling life.
Beyond the odd flirtation with WCW in its late 90’s peak, it was a fifteen year wait before ‘Big Fella’ would step foot into a wrestling ring again for anything notable, and this time, it was physical.
By 2009, Shaq’s basketball career was dying down, but he’d firmly established himself as a star no matter what. The same could be said for WWE at this time – too big a mainstream staple for so long to die out, but far beyond its true height. So in a way, a marriage between ‘Shaq Fu’ and WWE was perfect around this time.
During the 2009 era of celebrity guest hosts of Raw (otherwise known as the dark times), it was hard for anything to have any long-term meaning beyond the individual appearances week by week. Shaq being Shaq though, he was going to make himself be remembered.
Hosting an episode of Raw in Washington DC, ‘Shaq Diesel’ began the show as window dressing as he was in WCW in ‘94, but little did we know his involvement that night was the beginning of another decade-long journey that’s still going on to this day.
‘The MDE’ ended the night as the special enforcer for a tag team match between Cryme Time (a stereotype packaged as a tag team) against Chris Jericho and The Big Show.
This is where the journey really begins, as ‘Osama Bin Shaq’s’ confrontation with Big Show on this night was the start of the biggest on again, off again celebrity match in recent wrestling history.
On the surface, this was genius. Pitting an NBA legend against a wrestling legend who can match him for his size, with the moniker of ‘The World’s Largest Athlete’ adding fuel to the fire of a potential rivalry that’s still being teased.
The pair got physical on the night trading big boy chokes, before O’Neal ran Big Show out the ring with the help of JTG and the late Shad Gaspard.
This was the seed for years of teases and public call outs from both trying to set up a match which, for some reason, never materialised. WrestleMania 26 in 2010 seemed a logical destination after the 2009 showdown, but it didn’t happen. WrestleMania after WrestleMania went past, with rumours persisting of a Shaq/Show match that never came, except that one time it kind of did.
‘The Big Shaqtu’s’ official wrestling debut came as part of the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania 32, where he immediately came toe to toe with The Big Show at the beginning of the match. Shaq even grabbed himself an elimination by tossing out Damien Sandow, before both he and Show were eliminated by the entire field of wrestlers in the match.
Surely after another actual tease and in-ring confrontation, which resulted in neither getting the upper hand, a one on one was on the horizon. WrestleMania 33 was teased, before the same end result of disappointment for both parties happened, ending the WWE portion of ‘Wilt Chamberneezy’s’ journey.
Ironically though, it seems the end of O’Neal’s pro wrestling journey will come against WWE’s opposition, just like it began.
At the tail end of 2020, talk began of O’Neal potentially stepping into an All Elite Wrestling ring against Cody Rhodes. This was perpetuated by Shaq calling Cody out in interviews around this time, and the appearance of Jade Cargill, who confronted Cody on an episode of Dynamite, name dropping the big man himself.
Shaq appeared on Dynamite a few weeks later to clear up the issue, but Brandi Rhodes was having none of it. After Rhodes had already been attacked by Cargill for defending her husband, she had little patience for Shaq’s partnership with Cargill. At the conclusion of an interview with Tony Schiavone, Rhodes threw water in Shaq’s face, and we were off to the races.
O’Neal made his challenge official on Inside the NBA on TNT, the same network which airs AEW, and previously aired WCW in the 90’s. So as much as this match is a promotional stunt for AEW, much in the vein of Snoop Dogg’s for TNT’s ‘Go Big Show’, it’s also a fitting end for Shaq’s wrestling journey in that he’s come full circle, and gets to do it in a familiar broadcasting environment.
A mistimed, but no less wonderful, announcement of pregnancy for Brandi Rhodes threatened to derail the proposed match entirely, something that surely gave O’Neal PTSD after his failed start-ups with Big Show in WWE. However, a replacement for Rhodes in the form of Red Velvet kept us on track, paving the way for March 3rd’s AEW Dynamite: Crossroads, and Shaquille O’Neal’s very first full professional wrestling match.
So, what can we expect from him on the night? Honestly, I’m not too sure.
Being in there with a professional like Cody means he’s in good hands, and will be able to play his strengths. Being in a tag team match is smart as well, as not only does it allow Velvet and Cargill time to shine, but hides Shaq’s weaknesses and uses his undoubted star power to boost not only the other wrestlers involved, but the whole show. As for winning the match, I wouldn’t count on it.
Either way, it’s oddly fulfilling to see Shaquille O’Neil finally get his wrestling moment. For a profession where outside athletes getting involved can sometimes be looked down upon, someone who has been as persistent as Shaq to openly support and get involved in wrestling is something that deserves respect, and I for one can’t wait for Dynamite.
Not only that, but with AEW’s shocking announcement of signing Paul Wight aka The Big Show, I feel like this won’t be the last time Shaq enters the ring, as he’ll have one last loose end to tie up before he stops competing for good.