Last week, Leati “Joe” Anoa’i, better known as WWE star Roman Reigns, gave an interview to the L.A. Times about his latest battle with leukemia, which he’s currently in remission from. If you’ve been fortunate to avoid internet wrestling discussion as of late, then it may have read as overly vague at one point:
“My big concern was my daughter, who is 11. So she’s right at that age where she’s hearing all those misguided opinions and hearing different things from different people. I thought that as long as she hears it from me, ‘This is what is going on with dad, and I don’t want you to worry,’ that she would be okay. And she’s been great.”
What were those “misguided opinions,” exactly?
A whole lot of internet stupidity speculating that his cancer was a hoax, stemming in part from him going from diagnosis to remission in about four months. That the former college football star turned “Big Dog of WWE” looked too healthy and came back too quickly to have ever had leukemia in the last few months. He even had his trademark long hair! AFTER CANCER!
To understand why anyone would even consider such nonsense, even setting aside the specifics of Anoa’i’s leukemia, some background information is required: Thanks to a mix of bad timing, bad writing and the man himself being a little too inexperienced at the time, WWE’s push of Reigns as a top singles star got off to a rough start. Perhaps most famously, he was booed heavily when he won the 2015 Royal Rumble, which put him in the main event at WrestleMania, a spot fans expected Daniel Bryan, who was returning from a neck injury, to get. Just a few weeks earlier, too, he had been doomed with the lasting memory of a segment on SmackDown where he referred to his former stablemate Seth Rollins “as a sniveling little suck-up sellout full of sufferin’ succotash, son!” Not exactly a good fit for a guy who initially got popular as silent muscle.
Moreover, since WWE doesn’t exactly have the cleanest record when it comes to honesty, transparency and morality, it’s easy to be cynical about their motives. After all, this is a company that, among many other things, does paid propaganda for the Saudi royal family, has tried to get journalists fired and is making a habit of saying they’re “investigating” allegations of sexual misconduct, only to never follow up. And because other scripted TV shows don’t devote time to actors announcing that they have cancer, you’re probably starting to get an idea of how this happened. Throw in Reigns going into remission in about four months, and while it doesn’t make the idea of a cancer hoax any less stupid, you can at least plot out the thought process, especially as conspiratorial thinking becomes more and more mainstream.
“Yeah that cancer was definitely fake,” read one idiotic tweet, this one replying to a WWE post of a Reigns GIF. “I knew @WWE was trying to push @WWERomanReigns and trying to get people to cheer him by giving us this fake cancer bullshit,” began another, posted directly to a different user’s timeline. “I’ve lost people to cancer and never seen them make a miraculous comeback in a few months.” On Monday, when this year’s WWE “Warrior Award” recipient was announced (don’t ask), one fan asked, “You didn’t want to give it to roman reigns and his fake cancer storyline?” A day earlier, when WWE star Alexa Bliss tweeted a link to a cancer patient’s GoFundMe page, one reply read, “These are the people who need to be supported…. instead of some fake cancer survivors.”
It didn’t help convince the conspiracy theorists that Reigns had two acting gigs — one of which features him shirtless and in shape according to a photo that The Rock posted — during the latter part of his hiatus as well.
That was a month before he revealed he was in remission, so it was easy for the skeptics to pounce on how the strapping, handsome wrestler/former football player didn’t exactly look sick. “You beat a second relapse of Leukemia in less than 6 months without losing any hair, filming a movie and coming back in better shape than when you left,” wrote one Quora user. “As a Cancer Survivor and someone who lost a mom and sister to Leukemia, I say Fuck You Joe A’noai [sic] you are a lying priece [sic] of shit.” A few weeks later, the revelation of the second film role during his recovery led to tweets like, “Here’s proof I think that cancer shit is fake no offense dont [sic] get but [sic] hurt as I tell the truth.”
Hell, even non-humans took notice. Searches for some variation of “Roman Reigns fake cancer” got popular enough that shady-looking bots like “Marajuana [sic] News” started preying on them to direct fans to buy things. That was far from the only robot to take notice, too: The bullshit conspiracy theory has gained enough traction that Google’s search result suggestions if you type in “Roman Reigns leukemia” include “Roman Reigns leukemia is a hoax” and “Roman Reigns leukemia kayfabe.” (“Kayfabe” being an industry term referring to the reality/story divide.)
Anyway, you get the idea.
Making this significantly stupider is that it took the bare minimum of research to determine that Reigns’ recovery is completely realistic. This is even setting aside the fact that a post-return documentary on the WWE Network fleshed out important details like the type of leukemia Anoa’i has and that a routine blood test flagged irregularities, which led to an early diagnosis. Further, the speech in October where Anoa’i — making it clear that he was speaking as himself — announced his diagnosis contained enough hints that made it clear that his leukemia was a chronic type: “The reality is, my real name is Joe and I’ve been living with leukemia for 11 years. And unfortunately, it’s back.”
Those who picked up the clues and talked to doctors had an inkling that Anoa’i has Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, which turned out to be correct and which has a 90-percent survival rate after five years.
This should be cut and dry then, but the conspiracy theorists were loud enough that frustration over the skepticism was such that it started enveloping more and more discussion of Anoa’i, his illness and the future of the Reigns character. Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer, who’s covered the business longer than anyone, even got roped into the larger discussion of the baseless hoax theory when he made some inelegant comments about how the WWE has framed Anoa’i’s recovery. Meltzer’s style has long been to encourage readers to read between the lines, and in more informal settings, like podcasts, social media and message boards, he sometimes leans too far in that direction, maybe expecting his audience to be more in sync with him than they really are. When it came to the leukemia story then, Meltzer would sometimes address the WWE’s vagueness about his condition, often with non-explanations along the lines of “well, you know why that is.”
Those who have consumed Meltzer’s content for decades — and thus, have learned to decode it — generally interpreted that as “WWE brass felt that being vague would generate more sympathy.” But with the conspiracy theory already having caught fire, Meltzer’s comments became something that those in the pro-fake leukemia camp could latch onto, no matter if Meltzer has repeatedly outright said that the illness was completely legitimate.
But between the WWE’s sketchy reputation, questions as to why the WWE left any mention of the movie roles out of the return documentary and one terribly phrased Meltzer statement on a podcast covering said documentary (“He actually said the pill was oral chemotherapy, but it really… I don’t think it was.”), the larger conversation took a dark turn.
Additionally, WWE women’s division star Lexi “Alexa Bliss” Kaufman quickly replied with supportive emojis, only to delete the tweet before long. Meltzer had actually amended and clarify his comments a few hours earlier, saying that “there’s no reason not to believe” that Reigns took oral chemotherapy, “so I stand corrected on that,” but the damage was already done.
So what does all of this mean exactly?
For starters, it’s a damning indictment of the perception of the WWE, where nothing is ever as it seems, in part because of the nature of the wrestling business and in part because of the underhanded way in which the company often conducts its own. But more broadly, it’s yet another sad example of the world we now live in — where every mass shooting or tragedy becomes a target for “false flag” bullshit and truther-ism. And so, like how “crisis actors” have replaced grieving victims of school shootings, cancer can no longer just be cancer. It’s merely an excuse to generate cheap heat for a lukewarm act who can’t otherwise get over.