How Roman Reigns found 'Joe' and reevaluated his life through his battle with leukemia

As one of the more polarizing WWE superstars in modern history, one able to elicit seemingly equal measures of cheers and boos at every turn, Roman Reigns wasn't quite sure what to expect last October when he entered the ring to deliver shocking -- and very real -- news about his future.  

The 33-year-old Reigns, real name is Joe Anoa'i, told the Raw crowd that a battle with leukemia would force him to vacate his universal championship and put the future of both his life and career in jeopardy. For the first time, he also revealed publicly that the cancer was returning from a previous battle 11 years ago. 

The reaction he received was as genuine as it was overwhelmingly positive. Knowing better than anyone the opinions of his critics, Reigns credits the outpouring of love with lowering his anxiety about sharing something so private with the world and ultimately fueling his resolve to keep fighting. 

"It was like a huge redeeming quality on our society to me where it was like, 'No matter what really goes down, we have your back,'" Reigns told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast [subscribe now on iTunes, Spotify and elsewhere]. "All entertainment and storyline aside, they all got behind me. Everybody put their arms around me and just made me feel like everything was going to be OK. 

"At a point where I was extremely scared and extremely insecure about everything, our fans and the WWE universe were able to kind of settle me down and make me know that everything is going to be alright. [It was like,] 'There is a lot of people backing you and regardless of our opinion and what we think, we are all pulling for you and hoping for the best.' When I got that kind of outreach, I felt like I could literally handle anything at that point."

Gone from WWE television for the remainder of the fall and early winter, Reigns made an emotional comeback on Feb. 25 when he announced his cancer was in remission and his return would be immediate. On Sunday, following the recent reunion of The Shield, Reigns will take part in his first return match at WWE Fastlane in Cleveland (streaming live at 7 p.m. ET on the WWE Network) when he teams up with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose to face Bobby Lashley, Drew McIntyre and Baron Corbin. 

Reigns grew up in the wrestling business as the son of WWE Hall of Famer Sika of the Wild Samoans and the brother of the late Rosey, who also competed. The majority of Reigns' cousins -- from The Usos to Yokozuna, Rikishi and Umaga -- also went on to great success as wrestlers. But going through such a harrowing experience in his latest battle with cancer has understandably changed the perspective of the father of three in terms of his life and career. 

Removed from his insanely busy schedule as a WWE global icon while recovering at home with his family, Reigns was reminded about living in the moment and enjoying the little things. 

"It gives you such important perspective on things and for me it's that life is short and tomorrow is not guaranteed," Reigns said. "I don't want to just stack up too much as far as my professional goals. Now I want to start checking off more personal goals -- the relationships, the personal impact I have on the different people I meet and am involved with; just taking the time to really enjoy the second half of my career. 

"If I have two, three, four, five, six years left I just want to put everything I have into it because regardless of whether you are in perfect health, your body can't wrestle it's whole existence. It just is what it is. It's a rough life, it's a rough job and career. So I just want to enjoy the last few years that I have and be able to do it at a high level."

When he delivered an in-ring promo to Rollins on last Monday's episode of Raw, urging his former Shield partner to make up with Ambrose and reunite their trio by citing that life was short, Reigns admits he was pulling from some very real emotions. He went as far as admitting "there was a lot of Joe in that promo," which brings up an interesting debate. 

It's no secret the trouble Reigns has had with fickle fans who, likely due at least in part to his preferential booking and WWE's refusal to turn him heel, routinely booed his superhero character. It also hasn't been lost on Reigns how over as a babyface he has been the more he brings out his true self into his character. 

Could Reigns' future see more Joe and less Roman? 

"That's the kind of weird territory I'm in," Reigns said. "I took the mask off of Joe and I introduced him to the whole world. The weird place that I'm in is I've actually been able to separate who I am in real life from the Roman character. I've always been pleased the way I have been able to maintain my reality from what I do and create but life happens. This is not an ideal situation. I never wanted to have to reveal this type of information or relinquish the goals that I worked for. But the fact is, it is what it is and every fact happens for a reason."

Reigns admits he's more charismatic, laid back and loose in real life than he portrays in the Roman character. A self-appointed "goofball," he's also more of a jokester and is excited about adding more range to his character. 

But the future of Reigns' character, at least as it pertains to the reunion of the Shield, remains uncertain through WrestleMania. A big part of that is the fact that Ambrose's contact expires in April and WWE made the surprising move in late January of announcing that he wouldn't be renewing his deal (which caused some to believe it's a work). 

"Storyline wise, we can always make the adjustments that we need," Reigns said of Ambrose. "I think with the impact of him leaving, we've all seen creatively that this could be the last time. So I think there was an urgency to get the band back together, so to speak, because you never know. You never know if he's going to come back. You never know if he's going to be able to leave and still feel comfortable coming back. I have no clue."

After a pair of incomplete attempts to reunite The Shield over the past year, the performer Reigns is excited about what kind of story the trio can tell given the timing of Ambrose's exit. 

"I don't know what the future entails. All I know is that we have each other for the next few months so we might as well do something special, especially with the fact that the last couple attempts just didn't turn out right," Reigns said. "Whether it was the first time where I got sick and was out or when Ambrose got hurt. The last one being what it was, it didn't feel for our group of perfectionists, it didn't feel perfect. 

"With this time crunch on us and not knowing what the future entails, we have this chip on our shoulders to get this one done and make it great to really hang our hat on this performance. I think we all thrive on that type of pressure when we put that on ourselves to make it as high end as possible. That's what we are all about, putting out the best product."

Listen to our exclusive interview with Roman Reigns below, and be sure to hit the subscribe button to get State of Combat delivered to you each week.

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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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