IT WAS A STORYLINE twist even the most astute WWE fans never saw coming.
On Oct. 22, 2018, Roman Reigns entered the ring in Providence, RI, uncharacteristically dressed in street clothes and greeted with a mix of cheers and jeers.
The reaction was to be expected. At 6'3", 265 pounds, the strong, athletic, and ring-savvy halfSamoan, half-Italian bruiser had become one of the most polarizing WWE Superstars on the roster. Reigns—a six-time WWE champ who had headlined the previous four WrestleManias—had built a massive fan base during his six-year tenure. But there also were factions within the WWE Universe that viewed his main-event push as forced and used any opportunity to let him know it. As Reigns stood in the center of the ring, mic in hand and the WWE Universal Championship belt draped over his shoulder, he took an extra beat before he spoke. He wasn’t there to goose the crowd or further a story angle, he was there to reveal that the man behind the character—Leati “Joe” Anoa’i, a husband and father of three—had leukemia and would need to step away from WWE for treatment.
“It was such a heavy moment,” he recalls. “If that was going to be my last 10 minutes out in that ring, I didn’t care what noises they made. I wanted to feel everything.”
Unscripted and partially scripted WWE bits can be memorable. (The Brawl for All tourney in 1998, CM Punk’s 2011 “pipe bomb” promo, and Edge’s 2020 return to the ring all come to mind.) But Reigns’ off-script monologue connected on a different level. It wasn’t someone with an ax to grind; it was a visibly rattled, healthy-looking 33-yearold athlete—a larger-than-life WWE Superstar at the top of his game—confessing that he’d been pulled into a fight with cancer for the second time in 11 years.
It was gut-wrenching to witness and a reminder that cancer is indiscriminate and something nobody can muscle his way out of—not even Roman Reigns.
Before he was “the Big Dog,” Joe Anoa’i was an athletic kid from Pensacola, FL. Though his family had deep roots in pro wrestling—’90s and ’00s WWE Legends such as Yokozuna, Umaga, and Rikishi are all part of the same bloodline (and though Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson isn’t technically related, they refer to each other as cousins)— he didn’t grow up privileged.
“There’s a huge misconception that I grew up with a silver spoon,” he says. “It wasn’t like that. I lived in a small one-story cinder-block home with three bedrooms and one bath.”
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