On Oct. 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’ 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 after 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 it 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 on Friday night, an entirely new — and larger — audience will be introduced to a healthy Reigns, but his message and his story won’t be things that will remain 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.
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