December 19, 2012

Shaquille O'Neal is going to wish he stuck around the hardwood for another year when he sees this. If only he hadn't retired last spring after 19 seasons, the four-time NBA champion would have been a daunting representative of pro basketball in the octagon. Who needs to build a composite fighter when you can get all the fight you need in a single 7-foot-1, 325-pound package? (Of course, Shaq would have to cut quite a few pounds to make the UFC's heavyweight limit.)

O'Neal is a big fan of the Dana White Fight Club (OK, he's a big everything) and he's trained in boxing, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and wrestling at an MMA gym in LA. A few years ago, while still an active player, he issued a challenge to an even larger man, the 7-2, 350-pound Korean kickboxer and mixed martial artist Choi Hong-man, whom you might remember from the time he endeared himself to sports fans everywhere by beating the crap out of Jose Canseco in a farcical MMA fight. The bout with Shaq never materialized, though.

Of course, "The Big Diesel" isn't the only ex-NBAer with martial arts cred. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to train and spar with Bruce Lee, and long before playing the role of Roget Murdock in Airplane!, Kareem made his silver screen debut playing opposite (and fighting!) Lee in the 1972 film Game of Death. More recently, the Lakers had a judo black belt, D.J. Mbenga, on the roster.

But let's stick to active players. We could look to Kings forward James Johnson, a black belt in karate who is 20-0 in kickboxing and, while still in high school, won an amateur MMA fight. But none of that really factors in to what Johnson offers on the court. We're assessing basketball attributes here. And with an abundance of size and athleticism, the NBA has much to offer.

A physical presence: Anderson Varejão

He doesn't throw punches and kicks or bob and weave like that other Brazilian named Anderson, last name Silva, but who on the planet does? This Anderson is the NBA leader in rebounding, which is the basketball equivalent of dirty boxing in a clinch against the cage.

Varejão takes to the hardwood as if engaging in a scrap on a mat, diving for loose balls, stepping in for charges and, yes, stepping in for faux charges as well. But even when he's flopping, the Cavaliers center is putting his 6-foot-11, 260-pound body on the line. That approach comes with a price, of course. He was on track to be among the league leaders in rebounding last season, too, but missed more than half of the schedule because of an ankle injury.

MMA has evolved beyond its early days as basically a toughman contest. To be successful, fighters now must have mad skills in some combination of striking and grappling disciplines. But toughness still counts for something. And if you're looking to pro basketball for that, Varejão is your man. Especially considering where he's from. I mean, at some point during his 30 years, wouldn't you think the big guy at least visited a jiu-jitsu school back home in Espirito Santo?

An in-your-face intimidator:Metta World Peace

Let's get one thing straight: The Instigator Formerly Known As Ron Artest would get his butt whupped if he were to pull his nonsense in the presence of a trained martial artist. His 6-7, 260 frame would get chopped down by a UFC flyweight. But we're looking for applicable basketball attributes here, and the ferocious attitude of the ironically renamed World Peace definitely would come in handy in an MMA bout. To win a fight, you have to have a willingness to fight.

World Peace certainly is willing. Even in the year since he took on the passivist surname, the Lakers forward has drawn a suspension for giving an opponent a concussion with an errant elbow. Throughout a 14-year NBA career, the name Artest has been synonymous with conflict. Most famously, he incited a 2004 brawl between the Pistons and Pacers that spilled into the stands and resulted in Ron attacking fans. That part definitely wouldn't fly in the UFC. But his fierceness would.

A man among boys:LeBron James

Watching James do his thing on the court, especially when he takes the ball into the paint, is a little like watching Jon Jones against other 205-pounders. He's just bigger and stronger and more athletic, and you get the feeling he's not picking on guys his own size. His size, by the way, is 6-8 and 250 pounds, which combined with his dexterity makes him too brawny for anyone smaller to handle, too explosive for anyone bigger.

LeBron's elite aura is not simply a product of physical gifts, though. Like other great players throughout the history of this game and other sports as well, the Heat's leader always seems to be playing his tune a beat ahead of the rest of the band. And while he performs at top speed in front of our eyes, you get the sense that the action is unfolding in slow motion in his mind's eye.

This is what it's like, too, for the best of the best in the UFC. Jon Jones is a man among boys. Georges St-Pierre is a step ahead. Anderson Silva has that slo-mo guiding him. So if we're building a fighter of championship quality, a good foundation would be the physique and the prowess of James.

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