On Monday night, Roman Reigns, WWE Universal Champion and face of the company, laid down the belt and walked out of the ring. Unlike just about every other time I will type out those words, this was not part of the act. “My real name is Joe,” he said, “and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years.” And just like that, everything changed.
Reigns — or Joe Anoa’i, his real name — isn’t Universal Champion anymore. He laid the belt in the middle of the ring after announcing to the world that his leukemia, which he had battled 11 years ago, had returned and he had to relinquish the belt. It was a minor note in the grand scheme of things — a scripted title in a fake sport seems insignificant in the face of real human sickness and potential death. And yet it mattered, because Reigns’s entire persona exists in relationship to that title belt. Since his advent as a singles star four years ago, the tension between his position in the WWE hierarchy and his perceived worthiness for that role has swallowed not just his story line, but often the entirety of WWE. He was the top hero, the heir to Hogan and Austin and Cena, but he was booed cruelly in almost every televised appearance he made.