ROMAN REIGNS had headlined four straight Wrestlemanias before this year's event. But earlier this month, at WWE's signature show at MetLife Stadium, he was content simply to be on the card.
"After these past few months, I just wanted to be a part of the process," Reigns says. That's because last fall the pro wrestler—otherwise known as Joe Anoa'i—announced that he had been living with leukemia for more than a decade, and that his disease had returned.
Anoa'i, now 33, was first diagnosed in 2008—he kept it private—but the disease quickly went into remission. "Leukemia feels like a death sentence," Anoa'i says. "That's how I felt when I was first diagnosed 11 years ago. This time, knowing what I'd been through, I immediately felt frightened and alone."
Reigns broke character at WWE Raw in October 2018, shortly after he won the Universal Championship, to announce that he was taking a leave of absence following his diagnosis. "By no means is this a retirement speech," he said, before declaring he would beat his cancer. But the hulking former Georgia Tech and (briefly) NFL defensive tackle, who reached the pinnacle of pro wrestling by portraying a character whose bravery never wavers and who is unwilling to accept defeat, was scared. "I heard that word, leukemia, again," Anoa'i, who has a wife and three children, recalls. "As a father, husband and provider, I was terrified."
He feared his body would deteriorate and that he'd lose his spirit. But Anoa'i responded the way any pro wrestler would after a setback in the ring: He followed his instincts and fought. And against his toughest opponent, the Big Dog had the crowd entirely on his side. "It was all the prayers and blessings from across the world, even from people who have no idea who Roman Reigns is," Anoa'i says. "That's what saved my life."
In February, just a few weeks before Wrestlemania, Anoa'i learned his cancer was again in remission. When he took his leave of absence, he was the face of WWE, but he returned as something even greater.
"Anyone who fights a challenge such as that, and can win repeatedly, that's a person I admire," WWE star John Cena says. "Now Roman can share his story to the world. And he's beginning to use his voice to try to help other people in his condition."
Says Anoa'i, "I want people to know it's the struggle that brings us all together."
Reigns returned to action in March at Fastlane, where he reunited with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins as the Shield, before beating Drew McIntyre a few weeks later at Wrestlemania 35 in his first singles match since October. In the ring he was bold, persistent and strong—vintage Roman Reigns, both as a wrestler and a cancer survivor.
"We're all fighting some battle," Anoa'i says. "Someone is out there connecting with you during your fight, even if you don't realize it. If my story can somehow inspire someone to push another hour, or go through another treatment, then everything I went through was all worth it."