Professional wrestling is the only fictional art form that gets criticized for being fictional. For detractors, it’s the go-to jab, how can you care about a sport that isn’t real? For fans, that razor-thin divide between storytelling and reality is the sweet spot, the suspension of disbelief right up to the point where you question what you’re seeing, the blurred line between an athletic competition and a comic-book clash between larger than life heroes and villains. And then, rarely but not rarely enough, there are moments when reality crashes through that divide and pops that heightened storybook bubble that is professional wrestling. Moments like Roman Reigns—real name Joseph Anoaʻi—the biggest name in World Wrestling Entertainment, the company’s current champion, heir apparent to John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson before him, opening an episode of Monday Night Raw by announcing his leukemia had returned after 11 years of remission.
The announcement started as a familiar wrestling promo until it very much wasn’t:
“I feel like I owe everybody an apology. For months, maybe even a full year I’ve come out here and spoke as Roman Reigns and I said a lot of things. I said I’d be here every single week. I said I’d be a fighting champion. I said I’d be consistent, and I said I’d be a workhorse. But that’s all lies. That’s a lie because the reality is my real name is Joe and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years. And unfortunately, it’s back.”
The reaction from the crowd inside Rhode Island’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center is one of the most surreal live things you’ll ever see on TV; it’s the sound of a few thousand people realizing piece by piece that the fiction they paid to see is becoming fact in front of them. Roman Reigns is a divisive character; “I said I’d be a fighting champion” was met with the chorus of boos audiences have come to associate with his appearances. “The reality is my real name is Joe…” and the jeers cut off and slip into a confused silence, “…and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years” sucks both sound and air out of the building. Cancer being mentioned in a WWE ring is like King Kong breaking free from his chains, a real-life monster come to ruin the entertainment.
But watch that segment back and you’ll see just as much confusion as you will shock. A significant part of that tentativeness is the fact that a cardinal rule of professional wrestling is that nothing is sacred in the art of tricking the audience. When Eddie Guerrero died of heart failure in 2005, the villainous Randy Orton crashed Guerrero’s trademark low-rider on an episode of WWE Smackdown just a few months later as part of a storyline. When manager William “Paul Bearer” Moody died in 2013, heel CM Punk dumped his “ashes” on an opponent’s head to further a feud. One of the most memorable segments of all time saw Mark Henry seemingly break character to announce his in-ring retirement due to serious injury, a speech that had the audience in tears for more than ten minutes until Henry dropped John Cena with a surprise body slam. From the moment a carnival attendee first forked over a penny to watch a simulated brawl, pro wrestling has been an art form with deception built right into its blueprint.
But Reigns’ announcement is, tragically, not fiction, which only adds to what made the moment feel so specifically uncanny. It came at the very beginning of a three-hour show, a show that then continued on to tell fantastical stories of undead morticians and demonic tattoos. In the entertainment world, Vince McMahon‘s traveling band of men and women most resembles a three-ring circus, and a circus is nothing if not a “the show must go on” line of work, for better or for worse. When a faulty release trigger sent Owen Hart tragically plummeting hundreds of feet to the ring in 1999, the show went on. When performer Chris Benoit was found dead in his home eight years later, having just murdered his own wife and child, the show, somehow, went on. Even as recently as this week, with WWE gearing up for a show in Saudi Arabia amid the news of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the order of KSA’s royal court, the show is (for now) seemingly going on.
So with the news that the company’s most recognizable star would soon head into cancer treatment, the show went on, but in this case that occasionally questionable edict only highlighted the type of performers that populate this insane profession. There aren’t many words to describe how much guts it took for Roman Reigns to stand in front of thousands of people and tell his story, just like it’s hard to describe what it means for his coworkers to then lace up the boots and perform. Professional wrestlers don’t get enough credit for what they sacrifice, traveling town-to-town for three-quarters of the year to throw their bodies on to ring made mostly of steel and wood. It’s a business that knows far more tragedy than triumph, an art form that takes so much and more often than not gives back fused together knees and necks shoved behind a convention table.
And partly because of that, and partly because the shock of Reigns’ announcement never quite left the arena, the rest of that Monday Night Raw is one of the most oddly moving, heartbreakingly beautiful episodes of TV you’ll ever experience. It’s a night where the audience was rooting equally for characters and the people playing them; it was the type of melding of reactions that all drama—not just in wrestling, but in film, TV, books, and video games—strives for, where real-life emotion informs on-screen art.
The main event of the evening saw the WWE’s tag team titles being defended against Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. For context, Reigns, Ambrose, and Rollins debuted in WWE together in 2012 as a trio called The Shield, and rotated each other’s orbit both off-screen and on ever since, bonded as characters and as people. On the night their actual friend announced his battle with cancer, Ambrose and Rollins still had a performance to put on. Even if you’ve never seen a single wrestling match, I suggest you watch this one because it’s unlikely you’ll ever see something like this again. The crowd alternates between mournfully hushed and impossibly loud, invested in these characters, yes, but equally as invested in the balls it takes for Colby Lopez (Rollins) and Jonathan Good (Ambrose) to be out there at all. The eruption when they win is something that cannot be scripted. It’s a uniquely human roar, comparable only to the shared joy of a hometown Super Bowl win or perfectly played live concert. It’s one of those moments where professional wrestling, that fake sport, is the most real thing on the planet.
And then, before Raw cuts to credits, Ambrose violently turns Rollins, his own tag team partner, in one of the most oft-used dastardly twist endings in wrestling history. Like I said, nothing is sacred; there is no other craft that would use a person’s cancer diagnosis from hour one to fuel a cliffhanger in hour three.
But no tasty storyline is worth a person’s health. Even WWE knows this. Which is why the shot I’ll most remember from this three-hour experience didn’t even take place in front of the crowd. It took place backstage, an obviously shaken but superhumanly positive Roman Reigns departing the stadium, into a rental car and into uncertainty. The show goes on.
More than I’ve ever wanted a title to change hands, more than I’ve wanted someone to kick out at two, more than I’ve wanted a hand to reach the ropes, I’m looking forward to the day when Roman Reigns’, when Joseph Anoaʻi’s, story continues.