Roman Reigns’ rise in WWE from cancer battle, Covid-19 and forgotten lines

Roman Reigns steps into the ring to face Brock Lesnar in one of the biggest WWE matches of all time at WrestleMania 38 this weekend.

The Tribal Chief and reigning Universal Champion puts his gold on the line as he steps up to face nemesis Brock – who also defends his WWE Championship.

Both titles will be on the line in a blockbuster unification bout in Dallas, Texas, in a clash that’s been building for many months.

But while Reigns, 38, readies himself to do battle with The Beast in one of the biggest outings in his career, it’s worth remembering that he has already overcome major obstacles to make it this far.

In just the last few years alone, Reigns has battled serious illness, COVID, and the WWE fanbase on his way to becoming arguably WWE’s ultimate, standout performer.

Going into WrestleMania weekend, we outline just some of what the Head of the Table has battled past to reach his landmark match in Dallas, Texas.

Battle with Leukaemia

Reigns was in one of the top spots in WWE back in 2018, reigning as Universal Champion and heading into a big title defence at Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia against Braun Strowman and Brock Lesnar in a triple-threat match.

However, in an emotional address live on Raw a couple of weeks prior to the show, Reigns stunned fans in attendance and those watching at home by revealed he was suffering with leukaemia – the blood cancer returning some years after the grappler had first battled it more than a decade previously.

Reigns relinquished the Universal Championship before leaving WWE screens to receive treatment and recover.

Reigns seemingly tackled his battle with the illness with his typical determination and bravery, returning to the red brand in February 2019 where he again addressed the crowd in the middle of the ring.

This time the announcement was a far happier one as he confirmed: “The good news is, I’m in remission, y’all… The Big Dog is back!”

The news greeted by a thunderous ovation from appreciative fans, who watched on as Reigns even reunited with Dean Ambrose – now Jon Moxley in AEW – and Seth Rollins as The Shield, allowing the powerhouse the opportunity to return to the hard-hitting life of a WWE Superstar gradually.

Testing Positive for Covid

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Understandably, Reigns would tread carefully with his health after entering remission and, as the global coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, the multi-time former champion opted to again take time away from the spotlight

Reigns was set to face former WCW icon Goldberg in a title match at the upcoming WrestleMania 36 pay-per-view, an event that was ultimately staged in a production studio without live fans after WWE was forced to effectively close its doors to the public.

While the company vowed that its unique brand of entertainment would continue – production of its weekly television shows and monthly pay-per-views were all filmed at their Performance Centre training facility – Roman Reigns withdrew from the event.

In a decision universally accepted and respect by WWE and its fans, the star claimed he couldn’t risk his long-term health by continuing to travel for shows, explaining: “I just had to make a choice for my family.

“The decision was taken mainly because each performer travels so much, and we are all such a diverse group and from all over the place.

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“[I] can't trust the fact that everybody is taking it as seriously and locking themselves down at home like I am.

"I trust my life with my co-workers every time I step foot in the ring, but I just can't put the same trust when it has my children, my wife, and my family involved."

Reigns was away from WWE until that summer, making his comeback at Summerslam to begin his current, incredible run at the top of the company.

The star continued to wear a face covering to and from the ring during some events as he continued to take reasonable precautions as COVID's damning impact on the world remained present.

As we entered 2022, Reigns was pulled from WWE’s Day 1 event and another title defence after confirming he’d tested positive for the virus.

“…Unfortunately, earlier today I tested positive for COVID-19,” he tweeted.

“Due to the proper protocols I am unable to compete as originally scheduled. I look forward to returning to action as soon as possible.

It’s not thought Reigns suffered any serious symptoms as a result of testing positive, and he was quickly back in action with WWE within the weeks that followed.

Struggle for fan acceptance

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While Roman Reigns cuts a very confident and assured figure now, it’s an understatement to say that this wasn’t always the case – at least on screen.

Due to his hugely impressive look, size and athleticism, WWE thrust Reigns into the main event scene in the years following the split of the popular Shield.

Despite his obvious qualities, though, many fans felt unconvinced about his ability to carry the company into the future and felt the former American footballer was being forced upon them.

He headlined WrestleMania in 2017 and defeated The Undertaker in a match lambasted by critics – though veteran Taker has since accepted the lion’s share of the blame for that outing – leaving fans at Raw the next night to furiously chant “F*** you, Roman!” for several minutes after he appeared.

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Later that year, he was embarrassed during an in-ring exchange with John Cena.

Cena and Reigns had been building towards a match and met to trade verbal jabs, only for Cena to obliterate Reigns, slamming him as a "cheap-a**, corporately-created John Cena bootleg."

Reigns looked to hit back but appeared to forget his lines for a moment, leaving the door for Cena to cruelly ad-lib: "It's called a promo, kid, if you wanna be a big dog you're gonna have to learn how to do it."

Though eventually recovering his composure, Reigns appeared embarrassed at the moment that fans used as an example of his apparent unsuitability to be among WWE's elite.

Head of the Table

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Fast-forward five years and the difference in Reigns, now an irritable heel, is remarkable.

Any uncertainty in the performer himself or those watching him have long-since vanished as he continues his record-setting reign as Universal Champion.

He won the gold from Bray Wyatt in a triple-threat bout also featuring Braun Strowman in August 2020, just weeks after his return from hiatus at the start of the pandemic.

Reigns has held on to the title since then for the better part of 600 days, defeating the likes of Edge, Daniel Bryan, Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Rey Mysterio among many others to become one of WWE’s most dominant stars – arguably exceeding the plans set for him when he toiled as a ‘good guy’ baby face years ago.

Now he rarely misses a beat either in his matches or promos, continually receiving awards and plaudits – not least from Lesnar himself who praised Reigns highly in a recent interview.

“I see a f****** superstar,” he insisted to the New York Post.

“I see I guy who came into his own and is a real threat as person and as a character. … Roman has the It factor, has had it. It’s exciting to me.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about this match.”

While it’s hard to be sure just how WrestleMania will play out this weekend, the long-running rumour mill and betting odds for the event have Reigns as a firm favourite.

Some have even speculated Reigns may yet stay at the top of WWE for another year yet – with dreams still being held that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson will return at the 2023 Mania in Hollywood to battle his real-life cousin.

For now, fans in The UK can watch both nights of WWE WrestleMania 38 on WWE Network and on BT Sport Box Office.

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