An Ode to Charles Barkley, Celebrity Wrestling Fan

It’s a shame the NBA Finals won’t feature TNT’s Inside The NBA analysts. Arguably TV’s best sports panel stars Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and two of pro wrestling’s more prominent celebrity fans, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. The former’s wrestling reputation is likely more well known to most fans, with his appearances in both WWE and AEW in recent years.

Regular Inside the NBA viewers know that Barkley is no stranger to wrestling. A cast member since 2000, “Sir Charles” has regularly name-dropped his favorite wrestlers, from Ric Flair to Goldberg to Roman Reigns. A fan since the 70s and 80s, Barkley has said he’s been to “gazillions” of matches dating back to his days living in Alabama. He’ll defend the sport’s reputation, even on-air, like a true wrestling fan.

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Barkley’s media resume shows he has undoubtedly studied the squared circle, embracing promo tactics used by heel and face alike. His antics can cross the line and rub some people wrong at times, including NBA stars and viewers. Yet, in doing so, he helps make TNT broadcasts a must-watch even when the teams competing are what Barkley would consider “turrible.”

Charles Barkley’s raw honesty, biting humor and occasional crassness has endeared him to scores of NBA fans and more than one pro wrestling legend along the way. While his in-ring experience isn’t close to that of O’Neal’s, Barkley’s life-long dedication to pro wrestling is evident on TNT broadcasts and numerous other examples throughout the years.

A Regular Wrestling Fan With A Prominent Job

The past decade has seen Barkley often shouting out stars, storylines and occasionally marking out. A notable entry came in 2012 during the Memphis Grizzlies playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers. During a stop in play, Jerry Lawler came to deliver a hometown pop and piledriver to a Clippers fan. The scene led Barkley to mark out for his friend Lawler. Then, without skipping a beat, Barkley used the segment to chastise Brock Lesnar for repeatedly attacking John Cena. Chuck’s efforts to recruit Shaq to take on Lesnar didn’t work out.

The praise for Paul Heyman guys continued a decade later in May 2022. During an on-air segment, Barkley praised Roman Reigns along with Flair, The Rock, Chris Jericho, and Mr. Perfect, although he seemingly forgot that Curt Hennig had passed.

Earlier this year, Barkley commended Jon Moxley for seeking alcohol abuse treatment. He subsequently joined Renee Paquette on herĀ The Sessions podcast to discuss how Moxley’s battles struck close to home after losing a brother to addiction.

WCW, Where the Big Boys Sir Charles Played

Five years before getting the Inside the NBA gig, Barkley showed Turner TV a bit of what was to come during a 1995 episode of WCW Monday Nitro alongside buddy Flair.

The short segment was a typical example of WCW’s screwy booking. Much of the short time went to pumping up the Phoenix audience and Barkley while barely mentioning an upcoming Starrcade triangle match with Flair, Lex Luger and Sting, or the immediate world title match against Randy Savage for the winner. The segment also saw Barkley and Flair getting mixed reactions, generating cheap local pops while also siding with the heel Nature Boy.

That wasn’t Barkley’s first on-air foray with WCW. The year before saw him promoting the 1994 Starrcade, along with other celebrity endorsers.

Friendships Formed

It’s no surprise that a wrestling fan-celebrity who likes to party would form connections with old-school wrestlers. Barkley calls Flair one of his best friends. In a 2018 interview, he shared stories of highs and lows for the two, including numerous nights out partying and visiting Naitch in the hospital. In 2019, Barkley was part of a bevy of stars surprising Flair at his 70th birthday.

Barkley has also mentioned knowing The Rock on a few occasions, dating back to the latter’s college days at Miami. In 2012, Barkley and Shaq joined The Rock and co-star Mark Whalberg on the set of Pain and Gain, demonstrating just how large the two NBA stars loomed over everyone.

Another wrestling friend of Barkley’s is Jerry Lawler. In 2019, Lawler noted that Barkley paid for his 2000 wedding to Stacy “The Kat” Carter. Jim Ross reiterated the tidbit in 2019, where he also called Barkley a friend during the era.

The Shaq vs. Chuck “Feud”

It’s no surprise that two literal and metaphorical huge wrestling fans would live out their fandoms whenever possible.

Barkley and O’Neal have substantial love for one another, with the two showing it most through their on-air bickering. Like long-running in-ring rivals, the two have jawed back and forth for years, with a few scraps along the way. While basketball is often part of the conversation, the two also regularly roast one another in ways that few wrestlers of today can best.

In 2021, when Shaq revealed he needed shoulder surgery after his AEW match. Barkley assumed the injury came from lifting a weave that belonged to Shaq’s girlfriend, leading to the four-person panel to corpse at the retort. Host Johnson told guest panelist Draymond Green that laughing only fuels Barkley’s antics before admitting it was good for ratings.

Barkley and Shaq haven’t kept the friendly feud exclusive to the mics, either. The two have regularly wrestled on-air and behind the scenes. In 2019, TNT brought Chris Jericho and a ring to the Inside the NBA set for a match where Shaq squashed Chuck.

The two regularly roast one another, but there’s a respect level as friends and former NBA stars. In one example, Barkley hailed Shaq for his in-ring work and charisma during his AEW stint. He gave his buddy credit for his match with Jade Cargill, Red Velvet, and Cody Rhodes, adding that O’Neal could have been a star if he wanted to pursue the sport 25 years earlier.

Using Wrestling For Media Success

You can’t watch wrestling for decades and not pick up a few tricks of the trade. For Barkley, he learned that it’s all about provoking reactions. Whether in the ring or on the set of Inside the NBA, people want to be entertained. They want to be hooked, and Barkley is happy to deliver.

That approach was evident during this year’s playoffs. While the Golden State Warriors/Dallas Mavericks series proved one-sided in the end, Barkley and O’Neal brought the on-camera animosity, turning up the drama even when the game wasn’t on. Barkley heeled it up against Golden State fans, diving into classic heel promo tactics, like calling the Bay Area dirty. Meanwhile, O’Neal goaded all parties, getting fans to chant “Chuck, you suck.” Resembling his WCW promo with Flair, Barkley also received a barrage of garbage from the fans.

Like other top heels, Barkley could benefit from a bit of restraint, but that likely won’t happen. While often seen as fun, his provocations can go over the line to some viewers. Like his shots at San Francisco, his long-running body-shaming disses aimed at the women of San Antonio were eventually nixed by Turner officials.

At 59, Barkley embodies more than a few of the old-era wrestling characteristics he grew up watching. Hanging out with the likes of Ric Flair, The Rock and Jerry Lawler probably helped seal the deal. If he weren’t a core component of the Inside the NBA team, one could argue that Barkley might have a place ringside as a manager or in the booth at Raw or Dynamite. While we may one day get a one-off appearance in the fashion, don’t expect to see Barkley on any wrestling show all that much. He already sees his second retirement on the horizon.