A year after cancer revelation, WWE's Roman Reigns embraces change

On October 22, 2018, Roman Reigns opened up an episode of “Monday Night Raw.”

On the surface, nothing seemed awry. The coveted television spot is one that Reigns, then the WWE’s Universal Champion and one of the company’s biggest stars, was frequently featured in and there were two pay-per-view events taking place over the next four weeks.

Instead of calling out Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman — his upcoming opponents — Reigns broke kayfabe and made a shocking revelation.

“My real name is Joe and I’ve been living with Leukemia for 11 years and unfortunately it is back,” Reigns stunningly announced that night.

Reigns was forced to relinquish his championship and step away from WWE to receive treatment. In a few poignant moments, the WWE landscape was turned on its head.

The decision to reveal his diagnosis weighed heavily on Reigns. For 11 years he had been in remission and few knew of his prior bout with leukemia.

“With this being a performance-driven industry and it being based off popularity and opinion, the last thing I ever wanted to do was try and use this news to gain traction or anything like that,” Reigns told Yahoo Sports. “That’s why for all of those years, nobody ever knew. I wanted people to respect my performance and the journey that got me there.

“It was one of those situations it was either be truthful or just disappear. I didn’t want to just disappear, I felt like that would have been disrespectful to the fans and the people who support me. I just didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want to keep a secret. I wanted them to hear it from me so I could say I wasn’t a victim and I didn’t want anybody’s sympathy. I was adamant that this wasn’t a retirement, that this was setting up the comeback.”

Just over four months after Reigns’s announcement, the then 33-year-old star returned to WWE, his leukemia in remission once again. In the year since his announcement and eight months his return, WWE and its fans have seen a different version of the former champion.

“I wanted the world to know what was going on with me and it felt like a billion pounds was lifted off of my chest,” Reigns said. “It felt so good to share that and receive the support simultaneously. It was a huge shot of confidence for me.

“When you have someone like myself who has had so much investment over the years that I have been with WWE, for me to kind of just disappear like I did, that leaves a huge void. I’m just so proud about how my teammates, the locker room, my coworkers really stepped up and made it work by taking that next man up mentality and kept the show going.”

Prior to his departure, Reigns had become one of the most successful and polarizing stars in WWE. Reigns performed in the main event of WrestleMania four out of the six times he appeared on the card and there was a perception among a portion of fans that he was receiving an unfair “push.”

While the mixed reaction never fazed Reigns, he does admit that being in the biggest matches on the biggest cards was something that drove him earlier in his career. Since returning to action in February, Reigns hasn’t had a single championship match and has only appeared once in the main event of a pay-per-view.

“Before it was always ‘I want to be on top and I need to stay at the top,’ but for me, there was just something about this year where participation was like being in a title match,” Reigns said. “There’s just been something very poetic about just being there, being healthy enough to be there, being able to participate and be present, bonding with my friends, creating for the live crowd.”

Reigns stepping back from the championship picture has opened the door for new opportunities in the ring and the fan reaction has shifted in recent months. Where the crowd was generally split 50-50 on Reigns before he left, many of the boos have become cheers.

“I’ve enjoyed the reactions I’ve been getting lately,” Reigns said. “It might not be quite as noisy as it can be at all times, but it is a positive reaction and I have enjoyed switching it up.

“Sometimes you can fall into a bit of a groove, obviously working with Brock quite a bit and a few other household names we’ve been in the ring with quite a bit. Me being in the ring with guys like Buddy Murphy or Erick Rowan, newer faces who haven’t gotten quite as much time, that always winds up being a good match for me. As long as I can continue to perform and go out there and put my time in for the fans, that’s great.”

New matches aren’t the only doors that have been opened for Reigns over the past year, however.

WWE recently announced a new partnership with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the world’s largest non-profit aimed at battling blood cancers, with Reigns at the center. While Vince McMahon’s company has worked with myriad cancer-fighting foundations in the past, Reigns’s personal battle adds a new layer.

“This is the greatest opportunity that I have ever had and I’m so proud,” Reigns said. “It’s so much more fulfilling than I ever thought I would be. It really does feel good to entertain people but to really support people and help them through hard patches and get back on their feet, there’s nothing like that. I’m as proud as I could possibly be.”

The platform Reigns has is about to blow up as well. With WWE’s “Smackdown” show set to debut on Fox tonight, an entirely new — and larger — audience will be introduced to a healthy Reigns, but his message and his story won’t be something remains hidden.

“I feel great,” Reigns said. “That’s always the most important thing. It starts with me, I have to make sure I take care of myself this way I can take care of everybody else. That’s where I’m at now, just enjoying it and taking these opportunities I have outside of the ring and run with them.”

What a difference a year makes.

Related: 10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018

10 PHOTOS
10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018
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10 highest-paid WWE stars in 2018

10. Kevin Owens — $2 million (£1.43 million). This is Kevin Owens' first ever appearance on the Forbes list of top-earning WWE stars, but the 33-year-old's activity in the ring and reign as Universal Champion helped him crack the top 10 in 2018.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

9. Dean Ambrose — $2.2 million (£1.57 million). Dean Ambrose is one of the most charismatic wrestlers. He is also one of the busiest WWE athletes and was the second most active wrestler last year.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

8. The Undertaker — $2.5 million (£1.79 million). The Undertaker has been around for almost three decades and is beloved for his spine-tingling ring entrances. He is a smash hit with WWE fans, which means he hardly has to wrestle to feature in the top 10 as his merchandise sales still earn him a pretty penny.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

7. Seth Rollins — $2.7 million (£1.93 million). Seth Rollins is a staple of WWE main events and overcame knee injuries to return to the big matches last year. Forbes says Rollins' popularity with fans means he gets a good salary from merchandise sales.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

6. Randy Orton — $2.9 million (£2.07 million). Sports entertainment is clearly in the family blood as Randy Orton is a third generation professional wrestler. A nine-time WWE champion, Orton has one of the most iconic in-ring poses and made 11 pay-per-view appearances in 2017.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Andrew Toth/FilmMagic)

5. Triple H — $3.2 million (£2.29 million). Triple H now wrestles less frequently than he has in previous years, but the 48-year-old, an executive vice president since 2013, receives a base wrestling salary as well as a $1.7 million executive salary, including bonuses and stock awards.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

4. AJ Styles — $3.5 million (£2.5 million). AJ Styles has featured for many professional wrestling brands like Ring of Honor, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He moved to WWE in 2016, worked more WWE dates than any other wrestler in 2017, and is the current WWE champion in his second reign.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)

3. Roman Reigns — $4.3 million (£3.08 million). Roman Reigns is one of the biggest names in WWE and this alone means he polarises fans. Some loathe him, some love him, and others love to loathe him. Regardless, he has headlined four WrestleMania events in a row — an impressive feat.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by Ron ElkmanSports Imagery/Getty Images)

2. Brock Lesnar — $6.5 million (£4.65 million). After a stint in UFC where he became world heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012. Lesnar is a five-time WWE world champion and has headlined some of the biggest events WWE has staged, including the most recent — WrestleMania 34.

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

1. John Cena — $10 million (£7.15 million). A 16-time world champion with WWE, Cena has followed The Rock to Hollywood. He still competes in the Raw and SmackDown brands for WWE, but has featured in movies like 'The Marine,' 'Trainwreck,' and 'Ferdinand.'

Source: Forbes.

(Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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