Leati Joseph Anoa’i, known to WWE fans as Roman Reigns, opened up the broadcast of “Monday Night Raw” by announcing he has leukemia.
“My real name is Joe, and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years,” Anoa’i said, in front of the crowd at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island. “And, unfortunately, it’s back. And because the leukemia is back, I cannot fulfill my role — I can’t be that fighting champion — and I’m going to have to relinquish the Universal championship. … I want to make one thing clear: By no means is this a retirement speech. Because after I’m done whipping leukemia’s ass once again, I’m coming back home.”
After the announcement, the WWE sent out a news release with a few additional details on Anoa’i’s condition.
“Tonight on Monday Night Raw, Roman Reigns [a.k.a. Joe Anoa’i] announced that he is relinquishing the WWE Universal championship and taking a leave of absence from WWE as he once again fights leukemia, which had been in remission since late 2008,” the WWE said in the statement. “Reigns is taking his battle with leukemia public in an effort to raise awareness and funds for research in order to advance cures for the disease.”
Anoa’i last performed in a WWE ring Oct. 15, in the main event of “Monday Night Raw.” It’s unclear when Anoa’i received the diagnosis that his leukemia had returned.
Anoa’i, 33, played college football for Georgia Tech and attempted to play for both the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars. He then played a season in the Canadian Football League and retired from football in 2008. He ultimately signed with the WWE in 2010, debuted onscreen for the company in late 2012 and has become one of the most recognizable performers in the WWE.
After making his announcement, Reigns laid down the title belt in the ring and was then embraced at the top of the entrance ramp by teammates and close friends Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. To eliminate any doubt as to the veracity of Reigns’ condition, and whether it was simply a fictional move for the show rather than a real circumstance, WWE commentator Michael Cole made a statement once the show returned from commercial break.
“We come out here every Monday night to entertain. That’s what we all do,” Cole said to the TV audience. “We live in this alternate reality sometimes, and I think we all forget that we’re real people. And the superstars in the locker room are real people, and reality came up here and bit us tonight. And all I want to say is prayers are with you, brother, go get ’em.”
Anoa’i was scheduled to perform in a three-way match against Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman in a headlining match at the WWE’s “Crown Jewel” show Nov. 2, which had been scheduled to take place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; WWE announced later in Monday’s broadcast that Strowman and Lesnar would go one-on-one at “Crown Jewel” to determine a new champion. The WWE has said it is monitoring developments in Saudi Arabia concerning the country’s alleged role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.