Roman Reigns, born Leati Joseph (Joe) Anoa’i, was, quite frankly, born to wrestle.
He is the son of Sika Anoa’i of Wild Samoans fame, his brother, Matt, is the wrestler known as Rosey, his uncle Afa Anoa’i was the other half of the Wild Samoans and his extended Samoan family members include the likes of Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Yokozuna, Rikishi, Umaga and The Usos, to name some.
Heady, and legendary, company indeed.
As far back as he can remember, Reigns said wrestling was a big part of his life.
Even the fondest memories of his childhood centred around the industry.
“As weird as it sounds, when I was really little (and) when my dad would come home from the road, it wasn’t necessarily something that happened on TV (that I remember),” he said in a telephone interview ahead of Sunday’s WWE Royal Rumble. “When he would come home — it’s funny because now that I look at it, it’s kind of messed up — but we would always just do yard work. He would be cutting the grass and we would be helping out with other things, but just watching him mow the grass around the wrestling ring in our back yard I thought was really cool.”
Even then, the significance wrestling had on his family life wasn’t lost on the young boy.
“It was just me and my sister, and we were the only kids in elementary school that could say that we had a wrestling ring in our back yard,” Reigns said, reflectively, before shifting gears.
“Back then — (today) we do it every single week, we’re on the road — they would go out, because their travelling wasn’t as advanced and convenient as ours is nowadays, for a little bit longer and have bigger breaks in between their runs. So when he would come home, it was always nice to just be able to spend any time we had,” Reigns said, clearly a proud son.
Though he would later dabble in professional football in both the National and Canadian Football leagues (he wore No. 99 in Edmonton while with the Eskimos, yes, that No. 99), wrestling, Reigns said, was always his calling.
“As a smaller kid all the way to high school, that’s all I wanted to do,” he said of a career in the family business of sports entertainment. “That’s all we ever talked about,” he added, before his mind once again harkened memories from his youth.
“I have so many memories of growing up,” he said, adding that among his favourite are the family barbecues that his family would host, which featured wrestlers aplenty.
“We’d have five or six different wrestlers in our family that were at the barbecues,” Reigns said, adding that it was only natural that he would pursue a career in wrestling. “It’s just a wrestling family all the way around.”
But when high school rolled around, Reigns found a second love in football. The natural-born athlete fit right in playing pigskin.
“I started thinking, ‘Oh man, I think I’m going to be able to get a scholarship and play some college ball.’ ”
Which he did, at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a starter for three years and where he was named first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference as a senior.
“Once I got to college, then I started thinking, ‘Oh, well maybe I am good enough to play in the NFL,’ ” Reigns said. “I became extremely focused on that.”
While a football career never panned out — he had stops in Minnesota and Jacksonville of the NFL and in Edmonton in the CFL — a fallback was never far away.
“Like I said, in our family, wrestling’s always there,” Reigns said. “If it’s not in the front, it’s in the back of your mind.”
And it was while playing football that the thin young man filled out and became the six-foot-three, 250-plus pounder who these days commands the ring like few others.
“I gained some football weight, (and) I knew how I looked when I was leaned out and in better shape, and when I wasn’t wearing pads and being in decent form, I feel I had that opportunity and I had the right look and the right pedigree that they’re looking for. So for me, it was always an option.”
Coming from such a long line of successful wrestlers certainly comes with its perks, but it also comes with the added pressure of filling the shoes of those who came before you. In Reigns’ case, he doesn’t see it as pressure.
“There’s a bit of pressure with anything you do,” he admitted. “I try not to translate it as pressure. I look at it as responsibility. I feel like I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunities that I have. And what’s really cool for me is … the things that I’ve seen, I know a bunch of my family members and my father and uncle and so many before me have seen these things and they’ve walked the path that I’m walking now. For me, it’s about lifting that bar. There’s a certain standard that was set for me and my cousins. For us, it’s about lifting it and leaving the WWE a better place than we found it.”
That’s no easy task in today’s world of extreme scrutiny and worldwide coverage. Today’s performers face many of the same challenges as those who came before them, but also the challenges of social media, three-hour broadcasts, worldwide travel, a newly launched network, the PG era, and the fact that WWE is now a publicly-traded company. Asked if today’s environment is more challenging, Reigns stopped short of calling it challenging, but admitted it has its own, unique issues.
“I think there are a lot of constraints,” he said. “Nowadays, too, we’re so much more available as far as social media and Twitter and Instagram and all these things that I don’t have,” he added with a chuckle, before turning serious. “There’s a reason why I don’t have them, (why) I don’t tweet a lot. (It’s) because you can see me on the (WWE) Network, you can see me on Monday Night Raw and if you get too much of something, it’s not good and it’s not special and I feel like we are special. They call us WWE superstars for a reason, there should be a mystique behind us,” he added, his wrestling heritage coming through. “People shouldn’t know what I’m doing every day. I don’t want them knowing when I’m going to the gym or what I ate, so I’m not going to tell people that.”
He also addressed the challenges of living up to the standards laid by previous generations.
“Like you said, we’re a publicly traded company, we’re a PG company, so what used to happen and what some fans are craving, what they want us to do, that’s not realistic for us to do that and we have to be more creative and we have to learn how to go around it and sometimes be a little more mature,” Reigns added. “I can’t go out there and tell people to just start cramming stuff up their butt left and right. The girls don’t wear thongs and things like that. There’s a lot more riding on the line nowadays, I think, and you know what, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that responsibility to be able to step and know what’s been done before me, know what works and what doesn’t, and then finding out what works for now. It’s all about now and the future. That’s what the Network is. It’s the future.”
There is no better example of someone who handles the modern challenges, embraces them and continues to thrive despite them than John Cena. He’s both a role model and target, Reigns said.
“I have a ton of respect for John Cena and what he’s done,” Reigns said. “He started when it was a bit more edgy and you could get away with stuff and that helped him get over and he took on the responsibility and he ran with it in stride. With that being said, we’ve seen him and I’m sure I’m not the only who would say this, but there’s a whole bunch of us who feel it’s no longer his time. He runs down that ramp saying, ‘My time is now’ … well I know a whole a handful of talent personally that, we don’t feel that way anymore. There’s no disrespect for anything that he’s done. If anybody can get to that level and walk in his shoes, that means something.”
Reigns enters Sunday’s Royal Rumble the favourite based on his dominating performance last year, in which he set a new bar for eliminations and came within an eyelash of winning it, being the final entrant to be eliminated.
Since then, his former stable, The Shield, broke up, he went down with an injury that sidelined him for months, and he’s seen the likes of Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar, on a reduced schedule, rise to main event status. No matter, Reigns said, he knows exactly where he wants to go.
“I guess you could look at it as being difficult, but I look at it as a process,” he said when asked if it has been challenging coming off injury and re-establishing himself. “I look at everything as you’ve got to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. There are things that have to happen. I was at a certain point before I got hurt. I don’t look at it as trying to get back to that, I look at it as this is a new path, this is a new road that is possibly going to take me to an even better destination. It’s one of those things that everything happens for a reason. I’m proud of where I was and I’m proud of where I’m going.”
There isn’t a hint of doubt in Reigns’ mind entering the Rumble, where he’ll look to repeat and exceed his performance of 2014.
“I’m going into this thing as the elimination record holder, the guy who has been in the final two,” he said, matter of factly. “I’m going to be in the ring with a lot of guys I threw out last year. I think the rest of the superstars, they know what’s going on here, they know I have the experience, they know that this type of situation, these are types of matches I thrive in — the specialty matches, the Survivor Series, the Royal Rumble, any type of stipulation match — I have an obvious skillset that allows me to thrive and hit home runs. That’s my mindset. I have what I didn’t have last year. I did pretty damn good last year, with no experience. What can I do this year?”
Not only that, Reigns said, but he’s going in more determined than ever.
“I’m also going in with a chip on my shoulder, knowing that I had it in the bag,” Reigns said, referring to last year’s Rumble. “I speared Dave Batista in the middle of that ring, I scooped up his limp body and right there, it just slipped out of my hands. I know you have to take it all the way. Don’t drop that ball before you cross the goal line. That’s a mistake that I’m not going to make this year.”
A mistake-free Rumble appearance, and victory, means a spot in the main event of WrestleMania, which comes with newfound wealth and success. Professionally, there is no greater opportunity. But for Reigns, the personal achievement of headlining WrestleMania would be as good as anything that could happen to him professionally.
“I would just be completely, completely honoured and humbled,” he said of the winning the Rumble and earning the spot at WrestleMania. He then puts that significance perfectly into perspective.
“You have to realize how many really good wrestlers — the greatest performers — never had that opportunity. Money aside … business aside, there are a lot of guys that deserved to have that opportunity, but it’s just the way it is. Not everybody is going to have the winning lotto ticket, not everybody is going to be able to get on the ride — the cutoff happens. To have that opportunity, it (would be) just flattering.”
Much as he was when he discussed watching his dad mow the lawn when returning from the road, Reigns becomes reflective.
“To be able to have my dad look at me and know exactly what’s happening, and to be that proud of me …” he said, a hint of emotion in his voice. “You know, you win the Royal Rumble, it’s quite obvious you’re going to go and headline WrestleMania, so to be able to give my dad that, it would mean the world to me.”
Roman Reigns, born Leati Joseph (Joe) Anoa’i, was, quite frankly, born to wrestle.