Roman Reigns, WWE’s biggest active star and certainly its most polarizing performer, announced in a shocking statement Monday night that his real-life battle with leukemia will force him to step away from the ring effective immediately. The 33-year-old Reigns, real name is Joe Anoa’i, opened Monday’s episode of Raw with the reveal that was anything but a storyline or predetermined moment.
WWE’s universal champion said he was originally diagnosed back in 2008 at age 22. Though he quickly went into remission, he has been fighting the disease since. Reigns apologized to the Providence, Rhode Island, crowd for not being the workhorse and fighting champion his character aimed to be. He also announced he will relinquish the title effective immediately.
“That’s all lies and it’s a lie because the reality is my name is Joe and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years and unfortunately it’s back,” Anoa’i said. “Because the leukemia is back, I can’t fulfill my role. I can’t be that fighting champion and I’m going to have to relinquish the universal championship. I’m not going to lie, I’ll take every prayer you can send my way but I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m not looking for you to feel bad for me because I have faith.”
— WWE (@WWE) October 23, 2018
Anoa’i, a former college football standout at Georgia Tech who has appeared in the last four main events at WrestleMania, made sure to let his fans know that Monday would not be his final day in a WWE ring as he delivered the solemn news dressed in street clothes.
“Sometimes life throws you a curveball and the best thing for me to do is to go home and focus on my health,” Anoa’i said. “But I want to make one thing clear: By no means is this a retirement speech because after I’m done whupping leukemia’s ass, I’m coming back home. And when I do, it’s not going to be about titles and being on top, it’s about a purpose.
“I’m coming back because I want to show you all at home and my family and my children and my wife that when life throws a curveball at me, I will choke up and I will swing for the fences every single time. I will beat this and I will be back so you will see me very, very soon.”
Reigns was pulled from some WWE house shows over the weekend. Fans speculated that Reigns was injured, while industry reporters were told that the company had simply given its top star time off.
WWE released a statement shortly after the opening segment: “Tonight on Monday Night Raw, Roman Reigns (aka Joe Anoa’i) announced that he is relinquishing the WWE Universal Championship and taking a leave of absence from WWE as he once again fights leukemia, which had been in remission since late 2008. Reigns is taking his battle with leukemia public in an effort to raise awareness and funds for research in order to advance cures for the disease.”
Anoa’i went on to call being diagnosed at age 22 before the disease went into remission “the hardest time in my life with a baby on the way and football being done with me.” He then praised WWE for being the only team to give him a chance before doing the same to the crowd for helping him achieve his dream to become a professional wrestler.
“It didn’t matter if you cheered me; it didn’t matter if you booed me,” Anoa’i said. “You always reacted to me and because of that I have to say thank you so much.”
Following Reigns’ announcement, Shield members Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose joined him atop the entrance ramp. Rollins (with tears in his eyes) and Ambrose stuck out their fists and Reigns joined them in a show of solidarity before the trio hugged.
— WWE (@WWE) October 23, 2018
Anoa’i comes from a royal pro wrestling family of Samoan heritage. Along with being cousins with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, he’s the son of WWE Hall of Famer Sika of the Wild Samoans and the brother for former WWE superstar Rosey, who died in 2017. Anoa’i, whose given first name is Leati, is also cousins with The Usos, Rikishi, The Tonga Kid and the late Yokozuna and Umaga.
Following the end of his football career, which featured brief stops in the NFL and CFL, Anoa’i signed a developmental deal with WWE in 2010. He made his main roster debut in 2012 as a member of The Shield and quickly rose to fame having won nearly every major title, including three reigns as WWE champion and his most recent run as universal champion following a victory over Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam.