It’s only now Roman Reigns fully recognizes what went down that night in Providence, Rhode Island. It was late October on “Monday Night Raw,” and as he made his way from the locker room to the familiar sound of heckling fans, Reigns had a lot on his mind. But he was at a loss for words.
Sporting his out-of-competition attire — tight black T-shirt, jeans, hair pulled back — and with a shiny red-and-gold championship belt slung proudly over his shoulder, Reigns remained stony-eyed walking into the ring. For all the bumps and bruises he had taken in his career, nothing would be as painful as the message he was about to deliver.
The ground beneath him began to shake violently. His career, a passion he’d poured everything into, was in doubt. He was tearing himself apart, because as quickly as Reigns had risen through the ranks of the WWE as the main-event guy, he had to tell the world he was mortal. That he was sick. That he was Joseph Anoaʻi, a real-life person suffering from leukemia.
Reigns had known about this health and the upcoming hiatus and the relinquishing of the Universal title for about a week, but as the minutes ticked away to that night’s show, he was conflicted.
“Do I want to just say that I am not able to perform right now and just leave it at that, or do I want to share what’s going on with me?” Reigns recently said to ESPN.com. “I have always done a pretty good job of separating the character and myself. I’m pretty private, and I am still a pretty big fan of that, but I just felt this was a situation I didn’t want to keep a secret anymore. I felt like there would be a release of pressure if the people knew what was going on with me.”
Reigns revealed all. A strong contrast from the first time he was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 22, when only those in his inner circle knew what was going on. He understood his announcement was going to elicit a strong reaction, even though at the time he wasn’t exactly sure what that would be.
His intent was never to make this a story of pity or the rise and fall of the “Big Dog.” But Reigns felt obliged to embrace the fear, because stepping away from his superstar persona and looking the fans into their eyes and speaking with full transparency meant those with life-threatening illness could relate. And he could give them hope — even if Reigns himself was just as frightened.
He maintained a brave face that night and told us the story of Joe, a common man who is scared but strong. Reigns didn’t need a belt to engage in this fight against a worthy opponent. He just needed time and treatment, support and love.
For nearly a half a year, outside a handful of public appearances, Reigns remained relatively quiet until it was announced in late February he was going to return to Raw for a health update.
The wait “felt like an eternity,” but the moment would be worth it.
‘I’m in remission, y’all’
Those were his words that night in Atlanta — four words that would rocket their way through the social sphere into newspaper headlines and television broadcasts. Joseph Anoaʻi was going to be OK. Roman Reigns was coming back.
In some ways, Reigns is old school. His character is his character and his personal life remains private. He’s the conquering tough guy inside the squared circle, but a low-key, affable human being whose family comes first away from his on-screen persona.
But the dichotomy of entertainment and real world is a littler grayer today. Reigns, arguably the most polarizing figure ever in this business, realizes he can’t fully return to the same character as he was before his diagnosis of leukemia.
He aspires to be more than a hotshot WWE star because fans want to bear hug the person who overcame a disease that takes nearly 60,000 lives a year in the United States.
While regaining the Universal title remains a top priority, out of the ring he wants to share his message of strength and overcoming the odds that really matter in the game of life. It means there’s a little more of Joe in Roman these days.
“This wasn’t the path I thought I’d see myself going down,” Reigns said. “But when you’re dealt the cards you’re dealt, you have to play that hand. I am on this platform. I’m a figure who is on television every single week who’s watched globally. I feel an obligation to myself and others to let them know my story.
“I want to give people with cancer hope, motivation and inspiration. Or just the knowledge they’re not the only ones going through this. I want to connect with them, and even if it’s just one person, to let them know they’re not alone. And if that’s the case, my story serves its purpose.”
And now …
For a half-decade, Reigns has been the guy, the ostensible hand-picked golden boy who main-evented WrestleMania four years in a row. That won’t be the case this year.
“To be honest, it’s nice to have a little bit of that [in-ring] pressure off me,” Reigns said. “For now anyway. For me it’s about being in the moment and enjoying the process in a different way.”
On Sunday, Reigns will take on Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania 35. McIntyre has ascended to become one of the greatest forces and notable villains in the business. He’s big, he’s bad, but most of all, “he’s hungry.”
For Reigns, that’s the most alarming part of his this battle — to face someone who’s just as motivated as he is, someone who fiercely wants to be the czar of the WWE and who will stop at nothing to get there. McIntyre has had his chance in WWE before, but something is different this time around.
And the fact is, McIntyre has outplayed Reigns in the psychological battle leading up to the event largely because he has antagonized not Reigns, but Joe, as we saw in a recent episode of “Monday Night Raw.”
“When you start dragging my wife and kids into it, dragging them into the public life, you’re making this personal,” Reigns said.
Of course, this is all part of the storyline, the depraved heel and the dirty tactics, but by invoking Reigns the person, we’re reminded of everything he has been through. The doubt and insecurities. The suffering.
When Reigns, in response to McIntyre’s taunting, said, “If you want the spotlight, just ask me and I’ll shake your hand and punch you in the mouth,” you have to believe there’s some truth behind the threat. Not just because it sounds like words a combatant like Reigns should say, but because of what it truly represents.
Reigns spent months overcoming a lethal opponent out of the ring, and whether or not he beats McIntyre, Joe will leave WrestleMania a winner.