The 33-year-old wrestler began his remarks by telling the crowd at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., that he felt he owed “everybody an apology." Pointing to repeated promises of his to fans that he would be “consistent” and “a workhorse,” Reigns said, “That’s all lies.”
“That’s a lie, because the reality is, my real name is Joe, and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years," he said. “And unfortunately, it’s back.”
Reigns, whose birth name is Leati Joseph “Joe” Anoaʻi, said that his illness meant that he could not fulfill his role as a WWE champion and that he would be forced to relinquish his belt. He added that he had faith that he would overcome the situation because of how, when he was first diagnosed at age 22, he was “very quickly” able to “put it in remission.”
“Sometimes life throws you a curveball, and right now the best thing for me to do is to go home, to focus on my family and my health," Reigns said. “But I want to make one thing clear: by no means is this a retirement speech.
"Because after I’m done whipping leukemia’s [butt] once again, I’m coming back home.”
Reigns has not been the most popular WWE star, in part because many fans have felt that his rise to prominence was pushed on them by the company. However, his comments Monday provoked an outpouring of supportive chants, while other wrestlers made their feelings known online.
A former college football player at Georgia Tech, Reigns is of Samoan heritage on the side of his father, who was a professional wrestler in his own right. He also has several other close relatives who are or were in the industry, and his family tree includes The Usos and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
After getting tryouts with a few NFL teams, Reigns spent the 2008 season with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. He subsequently moved into professional wrestling, quickly latched on with the WWE and, after getting some seasoning in smaller circuits, began to become a familiar figure to fans nationwide in 2012.
Reigns was set to put his Universal belt on the line in a Triple Threat match against Brock Lesnar and Braun Strowman at the WWE’s controversial Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 2. Now, in Reigns’s absence, those two stars will have a one-on-one showdown for the title.
Reigns produced cheers Monday when he told the crowd, “I will beat this, and I will be back, so you will see me very, very soon." He thanked fans for helping him make his “dreams come true” and for reacting so strongly to his Reigns character, both positively or negatively, to which they chanted back, “Thank you, Roman! Thank you, Roman!”
Reigns then laid his belt in the ring and made his way back to the top of the entrance ramp, slapping the hands of fans along the way. There he was met by his longtime partners in “The Shield,” Dean Ambrose and a visibly upset Seth Rollins, and they shared an emotional hug before disappearing backstage.