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Wrestler Roman Reigns Announces He Has Leukemia, Relinquishing the WWE Universal Championship

Wrestler Roman Reins, holding the championship belt he is relinquishing.
Roman Reigns puts his belt down.

Joe Anoa’i, who wrestles in the WWE under the name Roman Reigns, announced on Monday night that he is leaving the ring to battle leukemia. The wrestler opened Monday Night Raw with a heartfelt statement that moved freely between kayfabe and reality:

I feel like I owe everybody an apology. For months, maybe even a full year, I’ve come out here and spoke as Roman Reigns and I said a lot of things. I said that I’d be here every single week. I said I’d be a fighting champion, I said I’d be consistent, and I said I’d be a workhorse. But that’s all lies. It’s a lie because the reality is my real name is Joe, and I’ve been living with leukemia for eleven years. And unfortunately, it’s back. And because the leukemia is back, I cannot fulfil my role. I can’t be that fighting champion. And I’m going to have to relinquish the universal championship.

Anoa’i, who played football at Georgia Tech and for the NFL, went on to discuss the aftermath of his first bout with leukemia, when, in his words, “football was done with me,” expressing his gratitude to the WWE for giving him a home. (This seems like a good place to note that, home or no, the WWE classifies its wrestlers as independent contractors and requires them to buy their own health insurance.) Here’s the video:

Despite his prognosis, Anoa’i is optimistic about the future, as he explained in his speech’s stirring conclusion:

After I’m done whooping leukemia’s ass once again, I’m coming home. And when I do, it’s not going to be about titles or being on top. No, it’s about a purpose. I am coming back because I want to show all of you, the whole world, I want to show my family, my friends, my children, and my wife, that when life throws a curveball at me, I am the type of man who will stand in that batter’s box. I will crowd the plate, I will choke up, and I will swing for the fences every single time. Because I will beat this, and I will be back, so you will see me very, very soon.

The wrestler then laid his championship belt on the mat and left the ring, as the crowd chanted, “Thank you, Roman.” It’s strange, and a little disconcerting, to see Anoa’i’s illness so thoroughly integrated into the WWE’s theatrics: Lou Gehrig seems to be the model, and Gehrig did joke about the Giants, but watching the video the WWE released of Anoa’i saying teary goodbyes to his coworkers feels a little like reading someone else’s mail. Anoa’i himself gets annoyed at the camera crew following him at the video’s end, when he’s walking through the parking lot with his suitcase alone. (This seems like a good place to note that, as independent contractors, WWE wrestlers have to make their own travel arrangements.) Here’s what he had to say when he noticed the camera was still on:

You guys are just … enough, already! Enough. Don’t get my rental car, it’s not a good one. It’s not even a full-sized SUV. I came last minute, I wasn’t prepared.

The video ends on a shot of Anoa’i’s rental car.