Inside the rebirth of Roman Reigns: From hated to hero and back again

Illustration by ESPN

ROMAN REIGNS STOOD in a WWE ring, his slick, long hair pulled back into a ponytail. The red WWE Universal championship belt sat on his left shoulder, while he held a microphone in his right hand.

It was Oct. 22, 2018, and as had been happening for years, the Raw crowd booed Reigns as soon as he put the mic to his mouth. Reigns had been positioned as the top babyface -- or good guy -- in WWE. But the fans were rejecting it, treating Reigns like he was undeserving of that role.

What Reigns said next turned those fans that night in Providence, Rhode Island, from hostile to stunned to respectful. Reigns told them that his real name was Joe, that he had been battling leukemia for more than a decade and that cancer had returned to his body. He said he had to give up the Universal title and go away indefinitely for treatment.

Reigns, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound former All-ACC defensive tackle at Georgia Tech, let down his guard. He dropped character. And he confessed a secret to millions that only his closest friends and family knew up to that point.

"It was the most terrifying thing I've ever had to do in front of a live crowd," Reigns told ESPN.

Four months later, Reigns returned to WWE and announced his remission. A year after that, Reigns stepped away again, removing himself from a high-profile WrestleMania match, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The starts and stops have given way to a new Reigns, a villainous, more authentic character that ironically has finally earned the fans' respect. Reigns, now dubbed "The Tribal Chief," will go into the biggest match of this historic run -- a record of 575 days holding the Universal title -- against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 38 on Sunday in Arlington, Texas. His journey to the moment seemed anything but clear just two years ago, but through a strategically planned return, Reigns, as he says, is "The One" that not only leads WWE now at this moment, but has emphatically changed the game.

Going up against Lesnar is symbolic. The two met at WrestleMania 34 in 2018 and the match was booed lustily because the fans had not accepted Reigns. "The Tribal Chief," the vision laid out by Reigns and his on-screen -- and off-screen -- adviser Paul Heyman during Reigns' pandemic sabbatical, has become one of the most compelling WWE personas in recent years, a mob-boss-inspired character who rules over his fiefdom with a toxic blend of respect and fear. Both Reigns and Heyman said they might not have returned to WWE unless they were given permission by WWE CEO Vince McMahon to execute this story in a mostly unscripted fashion.

And Heyman believes the foundation of "The Tribal Chief," also called "The Head of the Table," was built that evening in Providence when Reigns divulged the most personal and sensitive of secrets.

"I think it starts on that night," Heyman said. "Because what he learned on that night was he could be honest with his vulnerability and his fears and his sensitivities and his trials and tribulations and his sacrifice with the audience and not have to worry about being judged."

THE FIRST TIME Heyman met Reigns was around 1988 in Panama City, Florida, when Reigns was just 3 years old. Heyman was the assistant head of creative for the Alabama-based Continental Wrestling Federation (CWF) at the time. Reigns' father, Sika, was wrestling for CWF and often brought Reigns into the locker room.

"He had more charisma at 3 years old than an entire locker room filled with future Hall of Famers," Heyman said. "You could just tell right there there's something very special about that young man."

Professional wrestling is the family business for Reigns, whose real name is Leati Joseph Anoa'i. His father, Sika, and uncle, Afa, made up the well-known tag team The Wild Samoans, whom Heyman once managed on-screen. Reigns' cousins Yokozuna, Rikishi and Umaga were all WWE stars. Reigns' late brother Matthew was known in WWE as Rosey. Rikishi's sons Jimmy and Jey Uso make up The Usos, one of WWE's current best tag teams. And Reigns' grandfather was best friends with Peter Maivia, the grandfather of The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. Reigns and Johnson share a Samoan heritage and consider themselves cousins, even if not by blood.

Football, though, was Reigns' first passion. He was a top high school player in Florida before going on to become a three-year starter at defensive tackle at Georgia Tech, where he played on a team with future NFL Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson. Reigns was voted first-team All-ACC in 2006 with 40 tackles, two recovered fumbles and 4.5 sacks.

He went undrafted but was signed by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007 before being released when he was diagnosed with leukemia at 22 years old. Reigns had a short stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars before playing one season in the Canadian Football League with the Edmonton Eskimos. When he was released by the Eskimos, Reigns retired from pro football and refocused himself on the job title he was destined for all along: professional wrestler.

In late 2009, Reigns was sleeping on the couch of Jey Uso while trying to make it with Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), a Tampa-based WWE developmental promotion. Jey and Jimmy Uso, cousins of Reigns, would come back to Florida after being on the road with WWE and watch him working out at FCW with trainer Tom Prichard. They knew he had something unique.

"He stayed at my little broke ass apartment," Jey Uso told ESPN. "I saw him rolling in the ring. I already knew he had it. He caught on so quick.

"We're all naturals, straight up. We're born to do this."

At FCW, Reigns caught Heyman's eye once again. Heyman had just returned to WWE as the on-screen manager or "advocate" for Lesnar, who was making his wrestling comeback in 2012 after a stint as UFC heavyweight champion.

"You could just tell [he] was going to be the next megastar in the industry, because he filled the frame for every micro-moment that he was on television," Heyman said. "You could tell -- you could just see it. His charisma permeated the television screen. We had found our next great star."

Reigns checked every box. He was good-looking, had an incredible physique, was an excellent athlete and everything he did had a certain magnetism to it. In 2012, he debuted in WWE with The Shield, a three-man stable in which he was alongside Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. The group was a hit, starting out as heels, or villains, before becoming babyfaces.

The Shield split up in 2014 and Reigns was almost immediately pushed as WWE's next big babyface singles star -- a successor to the likes of Hulk Hogan, The Rock and John Cena. Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble match, earning him a title shot at WrestleMania 31, and was jeered heartily for it. WWE continued to position Reigns as the top star on the roster, with accolades and championships rolling in, but fans refused to accept it, booing Reigns at every turn.

WrestleMania 34 against Lesnar was arguably a culmination of all those hard feelings, what Reigns described as the fans "rebelling against us." It was the main event of WWE's biggest show of the year and the crowd in New Orleans booed it. When Lesnar got back through the curtain after winning, he threw the Universal title belt at Vince McMahon out of frustration.

"Obviously, people don't want to be told what to do and I think there's always going to be some backlash for the booking, being that we are the biggest company," Reigns said.

Six months later, Reigns was in front of another crowd that couldn't stand him to make a speech about how his cancer had returned, in real life. Reigns' battle with chronic myeloid leukemia was unknown to many, and the announcement came as a complete shock. When WWE panned its camera to show the crowd, there were fans in tears as Reigns spoke.

"I think it takes real balls to go out there and be vulnerable in front of the world, especially when they think you are a bad motherf---er," Jimmy Uso said.

Reigns announces his battle with leukemia has returned

WWE Universal champion Roman Reigns reveals his battle with leukemia has returned and has to relinquish his title, but vows to beat cancer again.

THE NEXT FEW months were a dark period for Reigns. He thought he was experiencing gout -- an inflammation of the joints -- due to his diet. But it was really high uric acid levels caused by leukemia. Reigns had "crazy arthritis" from his feet all the way to his hips, he told ESPN in 2019.

"For about the first month, month and a half, I couldn't really walk around much," Reigns said of the treatment. "It was really painful."

Worse still was the mental toll it took. He carried fear about his health and his future, what it all would mean for his wife, Galina, and their children. He knew WWE had his back, but he worried that the business "would leave me behind."

"You don't know what the fan is going to want," Reigns said. "And what new could come. What's that new, shiny thing that swims by? I think there was a lot of internal struggle there."

Reigns was placed on oral chemotherapy treatment and made a relatively speedy recovery. Reigns returned to WWE on Feb. 25, 2019, and announced on Raw that he was in remission to a huge ovation.

The fans were back on his side, it seemed. But was it real? Or just a respectful nod out of sympathy for someone making a comeback from a frightening medical issue? Reigns still wanted and knew he was capable of something more. Yet again, though, there would be a setback.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States hard in March 2020. Reigns was scheduled to challenge for the WWE Universal title against Goldberg at WrestleMania 36. But on April 3, 2020, it was announced that Reigns was pulling himself from the match and from WWE indefinitely due to coronavirus. Reigns, as someone who has battled leukemia, is immunocompromised, and Galina at the time was pregnant with twins. Reigns said his conversation with McMahon about his decision "wasn't a good one."

"We didn't have enough information [about COVID-19]," Reigns said. "We didn't have a proper protocol for protection. I think I made the very smart choice in stepping back and kind of game planning and figuring this thing out and seeing where it went."

Meanwhile, Heyman had just about finished his near-decade-long run as part of Lesnar's act. Lesnar lost the WWE title to Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania 36 and his contract expired shortly after. Heyman was off television, but while taking that time away, he was on the phone with Reigns, helping devise a plan to bring them back into the fold with a brand new presentation.

Reigns acknowledges he got very comfortable during his time away at the start of the pandemic. He and his family, including newborn twins, moved into a new Florida home, which he describes as a "compound" that had "everything I need." Reigns, 36, had already made millions and said he was smart with his money. He had headlined WrestleMania four times and was a multiple-time former world champion. If he was going to leave the new house and his family to go back to that grueling road life with WWE, during a time of uncertainty, it would have to be for something remarkable.

"It has to be groundbreaking," Reigns said. "It has to be history-making."

Heyman was in the same boat. He was comfortable hanging things up as an on-screen character after more than three decades as a hugely influential promoter, executive and performer. Then came the idea for "The Tribal Chief." Reigns and Heyman devised a character that would be kind of a Tony Soprano- or Michael Corleone-inspired personality, who would assert his dominance over WWE as "The Head of the Table."

"I just kept going back to 'power,'" Reigns said. "I just want to be viewed as the most powerful superstar of all time, when it comes to WWE and sports entertainment. I just really wanted to convey this portrait of strength. Almost like a Mafia-style power. Not only is it respect, but they fear me."

Over phone conversations, Reigns and Heyman laid out this concept of a vulnerable-yet-iron-fisted leader who sometimes showed kindness and mercy. But as soon as he became insecure, as soon as he felt that power slipping away, "The Tribal Chief" would bring the hammer down. Heyman would act as Reigns' on-screen consigliere, his "special counsel." It was a storyline that both men hoped would be different and completely dominate the industry. Not only that, but they felt it would be more true to Reigns' real-life personality, specifically his unbridled ambition to be the best.

"That's the yearning," Heyman said. "That's what we both crave. That's what we both desired. That was the only reason why we were both going to come back on television. I was very satisfied with my career ending as the advocate for Brock Lesnar and the body of work that I put together in 30-plus years.

"But there was the vision that we could achieve something together that neither one of us could achieve on our own. I didn't just throw the name special counsel out there. This is what I do for Roman Reigns -- in front of the camera and behind the scenes."

Reigns returned as "The Tribal Chief" with Heyman by his side in August 2020. He quickly won back the WWE Universal title in a triple-threat match with "The Fiend," Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman. His first story arc as champion again was a masterstroke. Reigns needed to get his cousin Jey Uso on board with him as the head of the family. Jey was angling for a title shot. Reigns beat him on two straight pay-per-views, the latter an excellent "I Quit" match inside WWE's infamous Hell in a Cell structure.

Jey and later Jimmy Uso reluctantly had no choice but to fall in line with Reigns as the boss of the clan. The three, plus Heyman, combined forces as a unit they called "The Bloodline."

"Just like a cocky, sadistic, still cool guy you want to be around, but you know this guy might slap me or, I don't know, buy me dinner," Jey said, describing his cousin's new character. "He's hot and cold at the same time."

Reigns has been Universal champion since August 2020, going through opponents such as Kevin Owens, Rey Mysterio and even John Cena. At WrestleMania 37 last year, Reigns pinned both Daniel Bryan and Edge at the same time, emphatically cementing him as the industry's biggest star yet again.

A key to "The Tribal Chief" character and its stories has been authenticity, Reigns said. The Usos both said Reigns and Heyman are the ones essentially explaining to them their parts backstage, where the stories are heading. Most others in WWE have writers that lay out what they say and do.

"I just knew if I'm gonna make this what it needs to be, I have to be able to connect to it," Reigns said. "And nobody can really write that for me. I have a writer and they do put stuff on paper. But that doesn't necessarily mean I want to use it and/or even want to look at it. So, it just depends. A lot of times I will read it, and if I'm not into it, then I'm just not into it. And I've gotta make it mine. "

When Lesnar was set to return last summer, it was pretty clear a story had to be put together between him and Reigns with Heyman, Lesnar's former advocate, in the middle. WWE has been telling that story since August and it will all culminate Sunday at WrestleMania 38. Reigns and Lesnar have met at WrestleMania twice before, but this feels like the best told of those stories.

"I see a f---ing superstar," Lesnar told the New York Post earlier this year. "I see a guy who came into his own and is a real threat as a person and as a character. ... Roman has the 'it' factor -- has had it."

"The Tribal Chief" has a catchphrase that he tells other characters in WWE: "Acknowledge me." It has been a long, wild road for Reigns as a human being and a character. But he has left WWE fans no choice but to acknowledge him as one of the greats.

"In terms of a great run, in the modern era to hold the title for almost 600 days? It's unheard of," Heyman said. "And there he is on TV every Friday owning SmackDown, the likes of which we haven't seen since Stone Cold [Steve Austin] and The Rock owned the Attitude Era [in the late 1990s].

"One man owns this era, and that's Roman Reigns."