Wrestling fans who tuned in to Monday’s edition of WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” were in for a shocking moment when Roman Reigns announced he was relinquishing the Universal Championship belt he won at this year’s SummerSlam.
The reason: he’s been living with leukemia for the past 11 years, and recently learned the disease had returned.
The former NFL player, whose real name is Joe Anoa’i, opened the sports entertainment show with a rare moment of candor, telling viewers that “the reality is my name is Joe and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years and unfortunately it’s back.”
He continued: “Because the leukemia is back, I can’t fulfill my role. I can’t be that fighting champion and I’m going to have to relinquish the universal championship. 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.”
Anoa’i, 33, tried to be circumspect. “Sometimes life throws you a curveball and the best thing for me to do is to go home and focus on my health,” he said. “But I want to make one thing clear: by no means is this a retirement speech because after I’m done whupping leukemia’s ass, I’m coming back home. And when I do, it’s not going to be about titles and being on top, it’s about a purpose.”
That purpose, he explained, is “to show you all at home and my family and my children and my wife that when life throws a curveball at me, I will choke up and I will swing for the fences every single time. I will beat this and I will be back so you will see me very, very soon.”
Shortly after the segment aired, WWE released a statement: “Tonight on ‘Monday Night Raw’, Roman Reigns (aka 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. 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’s fellow wrestlers and celebrity fans took to social media to let him know they’re pulling for him, sending their thoughts and prayers via Twitter.