Story by Bill Hanstock
Photos by Mark Mann
If you were going to create a professional wrestler in a laboratory, you’d have a hard time coming up with one more perfect than Roman Reigns. The 6’3”, 260-plus-pound Reigns is almost impossibly handsome, with hair so lush and healthy that it borders on satire. Inside the ring, Reigns oozes charisma, ability, and athleticism, almost daring you to find something wrong with him. The WWE Superstar is one of the most popular, prominent and accomplished people on the entire 100-plus-strong roster. Both he and the announcers on weekly television programming will be happy to remind you that Roman Reigns is the Big Dog, and WWE is his yard.
Outside of the ring and away from WWE, Reigns is Joe Anoa’i, a native of Pensacola, Florida, who currently resides in Tampa with his wife and children. The 34-year-old is poised and confident at all moments, but soft-spoken, polite, and a genuinely lovely human being. Joe is the latest megastar to come from the Anoa’i family—one of the most extensive and storied pro wrestling families. You may have heard of his father, Sika: one half of the Hall of Fame Wild Samoans tag team. Or you’ve probably heard of his cousins, Yokozuna, Umaga and Rikishi. If all else fails, you almost certainly know about his most famous cousin of all: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Recently, Reigns spent time away from the ring due to a battle with leukemia. He used that hiatus, in part, to portray an art-imitates-life role as a relative of Dwayne Johnson’s character in the Fast and Furious spin-off film Hobbs & Shaw. Reigns says the experience was good for his soul, and although he did debate whether he should take the role beforehand, he ultimately felt like it was something he needed to do. “I felt like it was important for me to show that even though this crazy thing is happening to me I still have a life, I still have a passion, I still have goals,” he says. “And if there’s nothing necessarily holding me from achieving those then I might as well take advantage and do it, and show the world that it is possible, and put a whole new paint job on blood cancer.”
For a span of several years during his career, Reigns’ positioning at the forefront of WWE programming and storylines rankled many fans, who felt it was a case of “too much, too soon,” despite Reigns being one of the most prominent and popular men in the company when his faction – The Shield – dissolved and he struck out on his own in 2014. Reigns received healthy choruses of boos everywhere he went, and eventually fans’ propensity to shower Reigns with jeers became written into the show as a sort of metatextual crowd participation.
That all changed when on October 22, 2018, Reigns revealed to the world that after 11 years of remission, he had been diagnosed with a recurrence of leukemia, and would be relinquishing his Universal Championship and taking time away from WWE. In an instant, Reigns went from polarizing figure to universally beloved. The fact that he had never let the public know he was a cancer survivor made him seem even more superhuman in the eyes of fans and proved that his nice-guy act wasn’t just an act.
Even his announcement became something of an ugly subject, as he, WWE, and fans had to deal with a disgusting but insistent group of cancer truthers, who insisted there was no way Reigns could have had leukemia, let alone twice. For Reigns, however, all this constant negativity just washes over him, because he has something far more important on his mind: his family.
“I just think of my kids, man,” says Reigns, a smile creeping into his eyes and the corners of his mouth. “I just think about my daughter. I think about my sons. I don’t want them to think I was the guy that took the easy way out. I want them to look at me like I’m bulletproof. Like, ‘Man, that guy took a lot [of abuse] … and he did it for us.’”
No one can doubt either his dedication to the pro wrestling business or to his Samoan heritage, because he quite literally wears his history on his sleeve. “It all revolves around our cousin Eki – Umaga,” explains Reigns, referring to the late “Samoan Bulldozer,” who died in 2009. “At the time, he was a big WWE Superstar and he passed away way too early, but he was the one that was the fuel behind us getting tatted up. He had this lady back in Pensacola that was kind of hooking him up, giving him a little bit of a discount here and there, and he was getting a lot of work done at the time. He was just showing her different prints and trying to give her the heads-up of our culture, and the customs, and the patterns, and the sequences that kind of fit and how they mold together.”
Reigns’ entire right arm and right pectoral sports dense, deep-black, intricate and lush linework that evokes his Polynesian ancestry. You might recall that Dwayne Johnson has a similar Polynesian tribal motif on his left arm and pectoral, almost making him a mirror image of Reigns. But the placement and broad strokes are where the similarities between the two men’s pieces end.
Reigns first got his shoulder tattooed in a traditional basket-weave pattern back when he was playing football at Georgia Tech. “My cousins, the Usos, used to call it ‘the shoulder pad,’” laughs Reigns. “They used to make fun of it.”
“When I did the arm I did it Wednesday, Thursday, and I was back out Friday,” Reigns continues. I literally flew out that Friday and was wrestling. We did a Shield six-man [tag team match] against Sheamus, John Cena, and Randy Orton, and at the time Sheamus was rough in there. It felt like he was killing my arm. I had to Saran-Wrap the whole arm and then throw Under Armor sleeve over it, and luckily it worked because, we were in the Shield, you know, the tactical outfits. But yeah – it was a crazy week, for sure.”
Reigns often has thoughts about getting more work done — connecting the work to the back of his shoulder blade, continuing all the way down his latissimus on his side — but he says he isn’t going to any time soon. “My wife and daughter tell me no,” he says. While he has honored his heritage through his art, Reigns doesn’t have any interest in the traditional Samoan hand-tapping or chieftain-style body suit. “Man, you got to sacrifice [for that],” he says. “Because that’s like two weeks straight, man. The horror stories I’ve heard man, and not only that, they cover every [inch], outside of your genitalia. They’re in your crack, you know what I mean? There’s a deep commitment, no pun intended. I don’t know if I’m there yet.”
It’s important to both Reigns and his cousins that they are able to literally wear their representation on their sleeves week in and week out on WWE television. “For me, [the tattoo] represents our culture,” Reigns explains. “It represents that I am one of the sons of Samoa. I’m one of the sons of the Pacific. You see all my cousins with them. On a night like Monday Night, [on] Raw you see the Usos come out. They’re representing our culture. And you see me come out. We’re represented throughout a three-hour broadcast multiple times.
“I think every time that we get to be around our culture, or we get to run into anybody that is from a familiar background or ethnicity, they always love how we represent,” Reigns continues. “For me, it’s just a representation of our people, of our bloodline, within the wrestling world and just our family in general. We’re very proud of it.”
Reigns continues to show his family pride for WWE week in and week out, staying on the road over 200 days each year. Although it can be a grind, he says that the best part of his job is being able to make someone’s day, no matter where he is or what he’s doing.
“People catch me in the wild” he says, “Whether it’s a Walgreens or a CVS ... they’re just like, ‘I’m gonna tell my son I saw you.’ Or like a little kid [runs into me and] it just brightens him up. You can literally, with this platform and this career, you can make people’s days.
As for the downsides? “The hardest part is not being with your kids every day. I mean, that’s just what it is, but the key is, with this type of lifestyle, is get [your time with them] in. Get it in now, knock it out of the park, do your five to 10 years [in the business], and then enjoy yourself. Then you can sit in your kingdom and really enjoy it, and they know you did everything for a reason.”