It’s difficult to look at someone like Joseph Anoa’i and think about fear or insecurity. Anoa’i, a former collegiate football player-turned-professional wrestler, stands 6-foot-3 and is built like a nightclub bouncer.
In WWE, Anoa’i’s character — Roman Reigns — is one of the most unstoppable forces within its ranks and has a finishing move called the “Superman Punch.”
Yet, when it came time for Anoa’i — not Reigns — to make a startling revelation to the world last October, none of that mattered. Not the size, not the look, not the confidence, not the main-event billing.
Despite having addressed the WWE crowd hundreds of times in the past, Joseph Anoa’i was scared.
“It’s funny because there were so many different emotions going on but the one that really stood out … was fear,” Anoa’i told Yahoo Sports. “I was insecure about letting people know, I was insecure about how they would react.”
That night, Oct. 22, 2018, Anoa’i announced he was battling leukemia — again. Throughout his entire career with WWE, it was a secret that weighed on him. Despite having beaten the cancer into remission a decade earlier, few knew the fight Anoa’i had waged and the duress he was under.
When Anoa’i revealed his diagnosis and announced he was taking a leave of absence to undergo treatment, the crowd embraced the often-booed star.
“Once I got the feedback and the level of support that I got, it was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Anoa’i said. “I thought ‘God, I wish I would have told people about this a long time ago and not hide it and ball it up inside.’”
A little more than four months after Anoa’i left, WWE teased that he would be making an announcement on “Monday Night Raw.” As the moment to reveal to the world that he had beaten cancer into remission approached, Anoa’i had that feeling once again:
“When we got to the comeback speech, I was scared because I wanted it to be perfect and I wanted people to really understand and really feel my gratitude toward the outreach,” Anoa’i said. “It was one of those situations where the closer we got, I was getting writer’s block, everything was going fuzzy on me. I couldn’t think straight and I think it was just my nerves. I kept telling myself, when you get out there, you’ll know what to say. Instinct will take over.”
Met with a hero’s welcome, Anoa’i slipped seamlessly back into the Roman Reigns character, but a lot had changed during his absence.
The same night Anoa’i announced that he had leukemia, his Shield stablemates — Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins — captured the Raw tag team championship in a moment that appeared to happily bookend an emotional night before Ambrose turned heel on Rollins, effectively decimating the trio that has been at the center of WWE for better part of the past decade.
It was a decision and booking that was jarring for everyone involved.
“That’s where it’s hard,” Anoa’i explained. “The majority of the time, we’re just factoring in Roman, the character, but who I really am, Joe, was all over that first segment. We really broke the fourth wall down and it was so real it changed the dynamic of the crowd and emotion. It’s like hitting a wall almost in a car wreck, getting that kind of news.
“For me, as Joe, it was hard to tell, but as Roman, I just thought ‘next man up’ like in any professional sport or form of entertainment, the show must go on. I felt comfortable with that fact that we need to continue to entertain our fans, push these storylines and our product. As long as I was on board with it, it wasn’t going to be tasteless. I think it came off great, it had such a huge impact that night.”
While WWE continued to chug along, so did Anoa’i. Surrounded by family and friends, Anoa’i went through treatment and once he was healthy enough, began working again, albeit in a different industry.
“To be able to go out and be able to work once I was able to past some of the physical pain and the first few obstacles of the process, to be able to exercise my passion for creation, to be able to be on set and try something new, to see a new form of entertainment before my eyes, it was really neat,” Anoa’i said of his time working alongside his cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on “Hobbs & Shaw.”
“For me to kind of be in the moment and enjoy the island, that energy that I can’t even describe, that was really nice and really cool. I was able to take a hold of my life even if there were a few things going on with me that I couldn’t control, I still had the power to do something I wanted to do, I wanted to experience and see with my own eyes.”
In Reigns’ absence, his former Shield partners continued to feud on and off, and as Rollins secured a main-event match at “WrestleMania” in April, rumors swirled about Ambrose and his possible departure from WWE.
Between Reigns’ return, Ambrose’s impending departure, and Rollins on the precipice of becoming the top guy in WWE, there appeared to be no better time than now to once again reunite the Shield, potentially for one last time this Sunday at the “Fastlane” pay-per-view event.
“I’m super excited because to have gone through what I have gone through and have the perspective that I have, a lot of my heart is on my sleeve and in what I am doing right now,” Anoa’i said. “With the future being a little bit blurry, I just want to take advantage of the three of us being around, what we’ve built, this crazy foundation that we all stand on together. If this is going to be the last opportunity that we have, I want to make the most of it and enjoy it.”
For Anoa’i though, Sunday’s match isn’t just for the sake of getting the band back together, it’s a crucial final step in his return from battling leukemia. After his initial bout with the disease forced him to end his pursuit of a football career, Anoa’i recognizes the significance of the moment.
“I’m really proud of the things I’ve done, my career, and the moments I’ve had, but I’m not ready to be done,” Anoa’i said. “I’ve achieved stuff in WWE, for this team. With football, I didn’t really put any work in besides Georgia Tech and my college. There was no deep attachment. Even now, with the amount of work I put into this company, it wouldn’t have felt right for me if I was never able to return to the ring and wrestle a match.”
“The comeback wouldn’t be official if I didn’t have this match. The true checking of the box will be whenever that bell rings on Sunday and once we get that match completed I know everything is all good and we’re going to be alright.”
Fastlane will stream live this Sunday at 7pm ET on WWE Network.