"My real name is Joe, and I've been living with leukemia for 11 years. And unfortunately it's back."
With that, WWE star and Tampa-area resident Roman Reigns opened Monday night's telecast of "Raw" to announce his diagnosis and decision to relinquish his Universal title.
Reigns, 33, whose real name is Joe Anoa'i, told the stunned crowd he was first diagnosed at age 22 — at a time when he said he didn't have a job, money, home and had a baby on the way — but it quickly went into remission. But he recently learned the leukemia had returned, prompting him to seek treatment and put his career on hold.
"I'm not looking for sympathy, I'm not looking for you to feel bad for me, because I have faith," Reigns said.
Anoa'i, who played football at Georgia Tech, has appeared in the last four main events at WrestleMania, vowed to return when healthy, saying "by no means is this a retirement speech," drawing loud cheers.
Then, breaking a bit into character, Anoa'i made an impassioned promise that drew even more reaction.
"Because when I'm done whipping leukemia's ass once again," he said, "I'm coming back home."
Added the WWE in a statement: "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."
At that, Anoa'i laid the title on the mat and walked out to thunderous applause, greeted at the end of the runway to tears and warm embraces by Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, his wrestling partners in The Shield.
He was then greeted backstage by WWE executive — and wrestler — Triple H, and other performers who embraced him and offered their support.
EXCLUSIVE: Moments after announcing that his returning leukemia has forced him to relinquish the Universal Championship, @WWERomanReigns is met with an outpouring of support backstage. #Raw pic.twitter.com/JRv0iYLILJ— WWE (@WWE) October 23, 2018
That support extended to Twitter, as both current and former wrestlers expressed their gratitude and encouragement.
@WWERomanReigns My Family And I Are Thinking Of You And Are Keeping You In Our Prayers! We Are Here For You!— Ric Flair® (@RicFlairNatrBoy) October 23, 2018
I haven’t been able to stop thinking @WWERomanReigns and how strong and brave he was tonight on #Raw. Roman put EVERYTHING into perspective tonight and what a hero he is. THANKYOU Roman for being a leader and a fighter. We’ll see you back soon my friend. pic.twitter.com/LK0sstAHBj— Nattie (@NatbyNature) October 23, 2018
Thank you @WWERomanReigns for always sharing your mind, passing along your knowledge, and opening up your heart to the entire locker room. Always reminding us that we are a family. We will all be waiting with open arms when you get back.— Bayley (@itsBayleyWWE) October 23, 2018
Tears. Sometimes there truly are no words. I’ve watched my baby sister in her battle for the last few years & her strength amazes me everyday. She is my hero! I’m lifting you & your entire family up in love & prayers. @WWERomanReigns you are a warrior my friend. See you soon. https://t.co/GpO2gmGt2R— Mickie James~Aldis (@MickieJames) October 23, 2018
@WWERomanReigns’ success was something I aspired for myself since he was an all-conference DT at Georgia Tech over a decade ago. I think of how much he’s achieved but far more importantly, I think of his family & loved ones. All the love and strength in beating this, Big Uce.— Florida Man (@WWEBigE) October 23, 2018
”I want to show my family, my friends, my children and my wife that when life throws a curveball at me, I am the type of man that will stand in that batter’s box, I will crowd the plate,… https://t.co/63BXKlAGUI— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) October 23, 2018
Whether you bleed blue or bleed red, we are family. Whether you work in the United States or you work in Japan, we are all family.Roman we stand next to you as we watch you give the… https://t.co/y4pXm54XIq— The Miz (@mikethemiz) October 23, 2018
Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.