Roman Reigns added the WWE Universal Champion to his list of achievements in 2018, after defeating Brock Lesnar at Summerslam. But sadly his reign didn’t last long. And there’s a heartbreaking reason why he was forced to hand the title back after just two months.
Born Leati Joseph Anoa’i in Pensacola, Florida in 1985, Roman Reigns initially pursued a career as a footballer. After playing for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets while studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he was signed by the Minnesota Vikings, and then the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, he soon left both teams without having played a single game.
Reigns finally made it onto the pitch in 2008, when he joined the Edmonton Eskimos. He played in five games for the Canadian Football League team. However, after being released once again, he decided to quit the game. He then switched his focus to wrestling, and in 2010 he landed a deal with its biggest organization, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Originally competing under the guise of Roman Leakee in the Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), Reigns achieved his first victory against Fahd Rakman. Two years later, he was crowned the territory’s tag team champion alongside Mike Dalton, and very nearly became the heavyweight champion himself. The star then adopted his more familiar moniker of Roman Reigns, assuming a more nefarious character.
Reigns first gained national attention when he joined Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose to form The Shield at the 2012 Survivor Series. The trio became renowned for attacking WWE Champion CM Punk’s main enemies, having been paid by Punk’s manager Paul Heyman to do so. They also developed feuds with the likes of Ryback, John Cena and Sheamus. In 2014 Reigns left The Shield to go solo.
It proved to be an inspired decision. Reigns went on to become one of the most decorated WWE wrestlers of the decade. He picked up three World Heavyweight Championship titles, was crowned the United States Champion and won the Royal Rumble. In 2014 he was named the Superstar of the Year.
And Reigns’ achievements didn’t end there. He broke records for the most eliminations in both the Survivor Series and Royal Rumble. He also became the 17th Grand Slam Champion and 28th Triple Crown Champion, following his victory at the Intercontinental Championship. And in August 2018 he was given the chance to add a new belt to his haul.
Reigns took this chance with both hands. Indeed, at the annual Summerslam event, the star ended Brock Lesnar’s 504-day reign to lift his very first Universal Championship title. Reigns later defended his crown in a bout against Finn Balor and a Hell in a Cell battle against Braun Strowman which, thanks to interference from Lesnar, resulted in a no contest.
Following the drama of this particular encounter, Reigns, Lesnar and Strowman were invited to compete in another Universal Championship title battle at the WWE Crown Jewel in November 2018. But just weeks before the match, Reigns made an appearance on Raw which left the wrestling world stunned. The star announced he was stepping down as Universal Champion, and sadly it was for a heartbreaking reason.
Speaking in the ring, Reigns told fans that he was now facing a much tougher battle – leukemia. The star had first faced the disease 11 years previously, but eventually went into remission. However, with the leukemia now returning, Reigns felt like he had no option but to go on hiatus from wrestling.
Admitting he couldn’t “be that fighting champion” any longer, Reigns thanked the crowd for their continued support over the years. He said, “Y’all have made my dreams come true. It didn’t matter if you cheered me or you booed me, you’ve always reacted to me and that’s the most important thing and for that I have to say thank you so much.”
But Reigns was keen to point out that he wasn’t announcing his retirement and declared he’d be “coming back home” after beating the disease. He said, “When I do it’s not going to be just about titles or being on top. It’s about a purpose.”
Reigns also told Raw viewers that he’s in a much better place to battle the disease than he was the first time around. He said,“When I was 22 years old, I was diagnosed with this. And very quickly I was able to put it in remission. But I’m not going to lie, that was the hardest time in my life.”
He went on to add, “I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a home and I had a baby on the way.” The baby in question was daughter Joelle, who was later joined by twin boys in 2016. The mother of Reigns’ three children is Galina Joelle Becker, whom he married in December 2014.
Reigns was adamant that he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He told the crowd, “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.”
However that didn’t stop many of his peers from wishing him well. Editor of TJR Wrestling, John Canton, tweeted, “Very emotional start to #Raw with Roman Reigns announcing he has leukemia and needs to obviously step away from wrestling. He gave a great speech, the fans chanted his name and supported him. He gave up the Universal Title. Then he got a hug from his Shield brothers. God bless.”
Finn Balor also took to Twitter to offer his support. He said, “His real name is Joe & he’s a stand up guy! Inside the ring one of the best I’ve battled with. Outside the ring one of the most genuine people I have ever met & learned from. See you soon good brother #ThankYouRoman ( ..and he smells great).”
“Stunned. I liked and respected him from the moment I met him. Sending my very best wishes and prayers for you, Joe,” tweeted Mick Foley. “Thank you Roman. My love and prayers go out to you and your family We are with you!” posted Daria Berenato.
Prior to his shock announcement, Reigns had visited several youngsters battling similar diseases. In September, the star joined fellow wrestlers such as Dana Warrior and Sasha Banks to bring some bedside cheer to a local children’s hospital. The visit was in aid of Connor’s Cure, a charity set up for Connor Michalek, a nine-year-old who sadly passed away because of brain cancer.
Shortly after the announcement, Reigns tweeted his appreciation for all the well wishes. “Thank you to everyone who’s reached out,” he said. “I can’t put into words what it means to me. Your energy and positivity motivate me to get better quickly to get back in the ring, but for now I’m going to spend time with my family and focus on health.”