WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns left wrestling fans stunned when he broke character to reveal he’s battling leukemia.
Reigns, whose real name is Joe Anoa’i, made the announcement on Monday’s edition of the WWE flagship show Raw. Dressed in street clothes and fighting back tears, the 33-year-old said he would be forced to relinquish the WWE Universal title and seek medical treatment.
“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,” Reigns told a shocked crowd in Providence, R.I.
The former football player, who had a brief stint with the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos, further revealed that he was originally diagnosed in 2008 at age 22, though he quickly went into remission. He’s been fighting the disease ever since.
Reigns, who played college football at Georgia Tech, has appeared in the last four main events at WrestleMania, the company’s yearly pay-per-view extravaganza. The WWE Universal Champion said during the announcement that he plans on returning to the ring when he gets healthy.
The WWE released a statement shortly after Reigns’ announcement.
“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,” the company said. “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.”
Reigns spent time in Edmonton as a defensive lineman with the Eskimos in 2008. He played in three CFL games with the team, recording nine tackles and a forced fumble.
The Eskimos tweeted their support for their former player on Monday night after he announced he was stepping away from the ring.
“We would like to wish Joe Anoa’i (aka @WWERomanReigns) the best in his battle with leukemia,” the team tweeted. “Stay strong ✊ #OnceAnEskimoAlwaysAnEskimo”
—With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich and The Associated Press