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He’s already made a vow for the biggest night of his life: “I plan on tasting my own blood.”
And that’s fitting, considering everyone else can smell blood.
The people do not like Roman Reigns. They don’t like his character, his storyline, his way. They do not like him. There seems to be a constant torrent of vitriol on social media for the World Wrestling Entertainment star. There’s the all-caps screaming: “IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM IS ROMAN REIGNS READY TO BE WWE CHAMPION AND BE LABELED AS THE GUY,” which was written by the handle “RobbyTheBrain.” And there’s the profane. Oh, there's the profane.
This isn’t the "love-to-hate" hate, either. This isn’t Rowdy Roddy Piper hate, which was true love. This is refuse-to-play-along hate. When Reigns was bailed out by The Rock at the “Royal Rumble” in January, paving his way to the main event at Sunday’s WrestleMania 31 from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., there was a simultaneous explosion of joy at seeing the “People’s Champ” and explosion of derision for this other guy.
“I have a good bit of doubters and haters,” he said. “Go ahead and irritate me and piss me off. Because when I’m in that mindset, I’m unstoppable.”
He plans to be unstoppable at WrestleMania, facing off against WWE champion Brock Lesnar for the title. Fans will be apoplectic if Reigns wins, as they see him as a silver-spoon-clutching heir to a throne rather than the kind of everyman-superhero that most babyfaces embody. He has an unfortunate name, Roman Reigns, as the target is right there in the moniker. This is America, home of the brave and land of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. We have no use for “Roman Reigns.” Just ask “Hunter Hearst Helmsley,” the Connecticut blueblood who became the water-spewing Triple H.
It is ironic, though — if irony is possible in a world where steel chairs do no damage and referees become unconscious from a light shove — that they hate this guy so much. His fake story doesn’t seem to be working but his real story would resonate with anyone. When he’s cut open at WrestleMania, he will be Roman on a pedestal. What bleeds out, though, will be Joe from Pensacola.
Joe is Joe Anoa’i, a member of one of the most successful families in pro wrestling history. The Anoa’is include the Wild Samoans, Umaga, Yokozuna, Rikishi, the Tonga Kid, Rocky Johnson and The Rock. So Joe, whose father is Sika, knew the impact of his sport from birth. When his older brother, Matt, would go to school as a boy, he would hear his classmates tell him, “My dad hates your dad’s guts!” Then the family would move elsewhere, to a new school and a new class where a new kid would say, “Man, your dad scares me.”
“It was like gypsy life,” said Matt Anoa’i, who is 15 years older than Joe. “Dad started wrestling when I was five years old. Once he got started, it was pretty much me, my dad, mom and our dog. We’d travel around in a Toyota. … Every year I would have to switch schools because he would have to switch territories.”
Matt loved it, and eventually built his own wrestling career as Rosey. But the road grew wearisome, and the family settled down in Pensacola, Fla. They built a wrestling ring in the backyard — one that stands to this day.
To understand Roman Reigns, this rusty 16-by-16 ring is the place to start.
“Yokozuna, Rikishi, they were all training in that backyard in that ring,” Joe said. “I remember watching those guys go at it. A wrestling ring in the middle of the yard, surrounded by uncut grass.”
There’s none of the indignation of Roman Reigns when he speaks of this ring. Joe Anoa’i fawns over the memory. The ring was his living room, his playroom, his family room.
“We knew one day we’d be fighting over the tag team championships,” he said. “In my family, you can’t get away from it. Every BBQ, every family dinner, we’re going to talk about wrestling.”
A dream was born, but in a way a young kid was overshadowed. Every single member of the Anoa’i family who went into wrestling had a giant-sized personality to go with that giant-sized frame. The Wild Samoans, the Tonga Kid — those wrestlers were loud well before the days of 10-minute-long primetime television soliloquies. From the back of every arena and the fringes of every state fair, they were eminently watchable.
Joe Anoa’i, one of the youngest, was a little different. He was quieter. His idol was Bret Hart. “Every time he’d come out with that leather jacket and give his sunglasses away to a kid in the crowd, I used to dream about being that kid,” Joe said. “That hair, all that gear. To this day I still think he has kickass gear. He seemed like a standup guy. A really nice dude. He is a very cool dude.” Roman Reigns looks a lot more like Bret Hart in the ring than he does his father or his cousins.
And the personality matches Hart as well. “We carry the same type of characteristics,” Matt said of his little brother. “We’ve always let actions speak over words. Joe’s been a mild-mannered, quiet-type person. He was the guy who you had to worry about because he was always the silent one.”
Joe was also the one who would go the farthest outside of wrestling.
Over the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, Reigns has been in touch with a lot of people who he’d like to invite. One of them is a former teammate from school: Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
“We’re trying to coordinate,” Reigns said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to come.”
Joe Anoa’i isn’t the only one in his family who played football; Matt suited up for Mississippi Delta, and many know The Rock played at the University of Miami. But Joe very nearly made it to the NFL. The Pensacola News Journal named him Defensive Player Of The Year in high school, and he was a three-year starter and captain for Georgia Tech as a defensive lineman. He was even named first-team all-ACC as a senior in 2006. Anoa’i went undrafted but was signed by the Minnesota Vikings, and he said he was extremely close to making the team.
“I was right there,” he said. “I was as close as you can imagine. It just slipped through the fingers. It wasn’t meant to be. I signed, went to rookie camp. But I didn’t pass my physical. I had some medical things going on. I’m convinced I could have made the team.”
Anoa’i’s medical situation has long-since cleared up, but the lingering disappointment stuck with him. He signed with Jacksonville and ended up playing a full season with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Then he left the sport. “I didn’t take full advantage,” he said. That’s been a motivating force throughout his wrestling career, and probably always will be.
“Once he played in Edmonton, it seemed like he was doing good up there,” Matt said. “When we talked, I think he wanted more.”
Pro wrestling was the dream he held onto, and the powers in the community were happy to see him involved. Matt said former WWE announcer Jim Ross made a special effort to reach out.
“JR had an eye on him,” Matt said. “Jim always had Joe in the back of his mind, because when he did show up, Jim would always make it a point to say hi to him.”
It didn’t take long. Anoa’i signed a developmental contract in 2010 and he was at the “Survivor Series” pay-per-view two years later. This is where some of the resentment of him has built. Fans gravitate to the hardscrabble stories, and they simply don’t see what Reigns went through. He doesn’t even talk much about the disappointment of football.
“I’m from a wrestling family,” he said. “I had different opportunities and different doors. I don’t have an independent background. I didn’t wrestle for a tiny promotion. I didn’t break my arm and have no insurance.
“Some people respect some stories and don’t respect other stories,” Anoa’i said. “I’ll be damned if anyone is going to disrespect what I’ve been through. I’ve had plenty of obstacles in my life.”
His relatively quiet nature may have cost him as well. But most fans forget how indistinct The Rock was when he came onto the scene in 1996.
When “Rocky Maivia” first turned heel, he ran into the ring in a referee’s jersey, interfered with a match, and then just raised his arm in triumph. There was no trademark sneer, no raised eyebrow, no catchphrases — nothing about the scent of what he may be cooking. He was more or less a statue. The rest of his persona emerged later.
And the fans didn’t like it. Then too, there was a sense that Vince McMahon was pushing the prodigy. There were chants of “Die Rocky Die!”
Nearly 20 years later, The Rock is one of the greatest wrestling legends of all time. It’s easy to see where he is now, and harder to remember the beginning. Reigns is still closer to the beginning. And he’s very much a product of his own beginning.
“I think [if people knew more] they would not necessarily look at me differently, but look at my family differently,” he said. “They think, ‘Man that must be a really wealthy family.’ We’re like a lot of other families. We have our ups and downs. If you look at that picture of that run-down backyard with the grass growing, it’s not a prize-fighting wrestling ring. It has a lot of blood and sweat. That’s the foundation of our family.”
Joe Anoa’i was back in Pensacola last week, during the countdown to the biggest night of his life. He was there to visit and to celebrate: when Sika and the others were barnstorming, there was never a thought of headlining a global event like WrestleMania. The Anoa’i family, spending three decades rising through a single profession, is as American as stories go. And the quiet little boy has not only made it to the top rung on his professional stage, but he’ll perform at the site of Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. In a way, he’s made it to the NFL stage, too.
“This is a matchup of a lifetime,” Joe said.
It’s really the matchup of many lifetimes. And whether they cheer or jeer him on that stage, the blood he’ll spill there will have traveled farther than almost anyone knows.