In 2008, Anoaʻi was signed by the Edmonton Eskimos. Wearing the number 99, Anoaʻi played for one season with the Eskimos, featuring in five games, of which he started three. Anoa'i described himself as having "started off signed to the practice squad and then every once in a while I'd get activated for a few games... if someone got hurt or they needed an extra D-tackle to rotate in". Anoa'i's "biggest game" was described to have come against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in September, where he tied for the team lead with five tackles and a forced fumble. The Eskimos released A'noai on November 10, 2008, ending his stint of under a year.
In 2012, Leakee became a main eventer in singles competition, and he pinned Florida Heavyweight Champion Leo Kruger during a tag team match on the January 8 episode of FCW television. On the February 5 episode of FCW television, he defeated Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins in a triple threat match to become the number one contender to the FCW Florida Heavyweight Championship. He failed to win the championship when he lost to champion Kruger the following week. Leakee later won the FCW Florida Tag Team Championship with Mike Dalton, before dropping it to CJ Parker and Jason Jordan. When WWE rebranded FCW as NXT Wrestling, Anoaʻi, with the new ring name of Roman Reigns, made his NXT debut on the October 31, 2012, episode, defeating CJ Parker.
The Shield then quietly ended their association with Punk while beginning a feud with John Cena, Ryback, and Sheamus that directed to a six-man tag match on February 17 at Elimination Chamber, which The Shield won. The Shield had their first Raw match the following night, where they gained success against Ryback, Sheamus, and Chris Jericho. Sheamus then formed an alliance with Randy Orton and Big Show to face The Shield at WrestleMania 29, but The Shield emerged victorious in their first WrestleMania match. The following night on Raw, The Shield attempted to attack The Undertaker but were stopped by Team Hell No. This set up a six-man tag team match on the April 22 episode of Raw, which The Shield won. On the May 13 episode of Raw, The Shield's undefeated streak in televised six-man tag team matches ended in a disqualification loss in an elimination match against Cena, Kane and Bryan.
On May 19 at Extreme Rules, Reigns and Rollins defeated Team Hell No in a tag team tornado match to win the WWE Tag Team Championship. They made their first televised title defense on the May 27 episode of Raw, defeating Team Hell No in a rematch. On the June 14 episode of SmackDown, The Shield's unpinned/unsubmitted streak in televised six-man tag team matches came to an end at the hands of Team Hell No and Randy Orton, when Daniel Bryan submitted Rollins. Reigns and Rollins defeated Bryan and Orton at Payback to retain the WWE Tag Team Championship. Further successful title defenses followed against The Usos on July 14 during the Money in the Bank pre-show and The Prime Time Players (Darren Young and Titus O'Neil) at Night of Champions. On the September 23 episode of Raw, Reigns was pinned for the first time while on the main roster courtesy of the Usos when the Shield participated in and lost an eleven-on-three handicap elimination match.
In August, The Shield began working for chief operating officerTriple H and The Authority. On the October 14 episode of Raw, Reigns and Rollins lost the WWE Tag Team Championship to Cody Rhodes and Goldust in a No Disqualification match, following interference from Big Show. At Hell in a Cell, Reigns and Rollins failed to regain the tag team title in a triple threat match. Tension began to appear within The Shield, especially between Reigns and Ambrose, as Ambrose was the only member left with a championship. At Survivor Series, Reigns was the sole survivor for his team in the traditional five-on-five elimination tag team match after eliminating four opponents. After losing to Punk in a handicap match at TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs, Reigns defeated Punk in a singles match after a distraction from Ambrose on January 6, 2014, making him the only member of The Shield to have beaten Punk. At the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, Reigns entered the Rumble match at number 15, and set the record for most eliminations in a single Rumble with 12. He eliminated both his Shield teammates, and was the runner-up in the match after being eliminated by Batista. The next night on Raw, The Shield competed in a six-man tag team match against Daniel Bryan, Sheamus, and John Cena, with all three members of the winning team qualifying for the Elimination Chamber match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The Shield lost the match via disqualification after The Wyatt Family interfered and attacked Cena, Bryan, and Sheamus. The Shield wanted revenge and a six-man tag for The Shield against The Wyatt Family at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view was arranged, in which The Shield lost. Despite more tension, The Shield reconciled in March.
Roman Reigns in April 2014.
In March, The Shield began feuding with Kane, which turned all members of The Shield into faces (fan favorite characters). Over the next few weeks, The Shield continued exchanging assaults with Kane, who was joined by the New Age Outlaws, leading to a match between the two teams at WrestleMania XXX, which The Shield won. The feud with Kane also prompted The Shield to sever ties with Triple H, who reformed Evolution to counter them. The Shield defeated Evolution at both Extreme Rules and Payback. When Batista left Evolution in June, Triple H initiated "Plan B"; this involved Rollins turning on The Shield and aligning himself with Triple H.
Reigns and Ambrose eventually went on their own ways later in June, marking the end of the Shield. On the June 16 episode of Raw, Reigns competed in a battle royal to qualify for a spot for the Money in the Bank ladder match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Money in the Bank; he won by last eliminating Rusev. At Money in the Bank, Reigns failed to win the title. At Battleground, Reigns participated in the fatal four-way match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, which Cena won to retain the title. The following night on Raw, Triple H had planned on announcing Randy Orton as the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but Reigns attacked Orton, causing Triple H to lose faith in him and replace him in the title match. This prompted a feud between Reigns and Orton which culminated with Reigns defeating Orton at SummerSlam.
After Seth Rollins (former Shield stablemate) injured and took out Dean Ambrose (also former Shield stablemate; Ambrose and Rollins were feuding after the Shield split up), Reigns would attack Rollins during Rollins' "eulogy" for Ambrose. This lead to a brief feud between Reigns and Rollins which directed to a match at Night of Champions. However, Reigns underwent a legitimate emergency surgery on an incarcerated hernia days prior to the match. As a result, Rollins was declared the winner via forfeit and Reigns was ruled out of action indefinitely. Reigns returned to television on the December 8 episode of Raw when he accepted the 2014 "Superstar of the Year" Slammy Award. Six days later at TLC, when Big Show interfered in John Cena's match against Seth Rollins, Reigns attacked both Big Show and Rollins, leading to Cena's win. This started a feud between Reigns and Big Show, which resulted in Reigns defeating Big Show multiple times by count-out and disqualification.
On January 25, 2015, Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble match after entering at number 19 and eliminating six other wrestlers, including Big Show. During the match, The Rock made a surprise return to help Reigns fend off Big Show and Kane. On the following night's Raw, Reigns acknowledged being part of the Anoaʻi family for the first time on WWE television. On the February 2 episode of Raw, Reigns lost to Big Show, marking the first time Reigns had lost via pinfall in a one-on-one match on the WWE main roster. Also on that episode, to clear up the "controversy" of the Rock's intervention in the Rumble, Reigns agreed to put his WrestleMania title shot on the line, with his opponent being determined as Daniel Bryan. Reigns' feud with Bryan culminated at Fastlane, where Reigns defeated Bryan to solidify a WrestleMania main event title match against Brock Lesnar. Bryan endorsed Reigns after the match. Reigns' "journey" to WrestleMania was described as him having "chatted with [Lesnar's manager] Paul Heyman one week, got a shirt, and then played tug o' war with" Lesnar. At WrestleMania 31, after Reigns had wrestled Lesnar for fifteen minutes in the main event title match, Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to change the ongoing match into a triple threat. Rollins pinned Reigns to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Reigns would reignite his feud with Big Show after Show cost him his triple threat match against Ryback and Orton on the April 6th edition of Raw and chokeslammed him on a taxicab on the April 12th edition of Raw. This lead to a last man standing match between Show and Reigns at Extreme Rules, which Reigns won. At Payback, Reigns failed again to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship against Rollins when he lost a fatal four-way match that included also Ambrose and Orton.
The Roman Reigns character was established by WWE as the "powerhouse" and "heavy hitter" of the Shield, as well as an "exceptional athlete". Noted as the least talkative of the Shield members, in mid-2013, Reigns' character was tweaked from "the quiet muscle who was given one or two lines" to being "ultra-confident", only needing "a few words to make his point" and a source of leadership with "quiet strength". CM Punk later revealed that he was constantly reminded to make Reigns look "really, really strong" in the match at the December 2013 TLC event, despite the Shield being scripted to lose. Reigns was awarded the 2013 "Most Improved" Wrestling Observer Newsletter award. When the 2014 Royal Rumble match came down to only Reigns and Batista, Reigns was cheered despite having been a villainous character for more than a year. Reigns later acknowledged the match with its "extremely vocal" audience reaction as a "cool situation" and a "surreal moment". In mid-2014, Stone Cold Steve Austin said that he saw great potential in Anoaʻi, while David Shoemaker of Grantland wrote that Anoaʻi had "mystery and intensity", as well as "superstar written all over him".
"Every critic I’ve ever had, they weren’t wrestlers [laughs]. Every wrestler I’ve ever had critique me, they were always into my stuff or what I’m doing out there. For a non-wrestler, someone who doesn’t even know how to lock up, and if we did lock up, they wouldn’t know what to do, for them to critique any of us, it really does pop me".
Anoaʻi in an interview published in January 2015
"I don’t think I’m headbutting with [hardcore fans], I feel like they are headbutting me. [...] One thing that kind of confuses me is that it is a performance, it is a show, there is a storyline. When people start doing the 'He deserves this, He deserves that,' really did Brad Pitt deserved [sic] to be Achilles in Troy?"
Anoaʻi in an interview published in March 2015
After the Shield disbanded, Reigns (unlike the other ex-Shield members) retained much of the Shield's aesthetic including ring attire, theme music and ring entrance. It was noted in July 2014 that Reigns was receiving "a vocal seal of approval" from live audiences. Despite this, comparisons were made between Reigns and John Cena; wrestler Mikey Whipwreck commented in 2015 that WWE had the Reigns character "talking and kind of trying to be like John Cena" on televised shows, which Whipwreck predicted would become "very polarizing". Whipwreck also said Anoa'i did not have the ability to either "protect his character and how it comes across" or "put his own spin on his character". Commentators from the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter variously criticized Reigns in 2014 and 2015, writing that he is "already getting the John Cena type treatment. He has the look that women love and the kids because he almost has the look of a superhero [...] His in-ring work is decent for what he can do but his moveset is very limited." Also noted was his "forced promo delivery", as well as his "petulant and annoyed" "body language and facial expressions" for a top babyface acting as a "turnoff to many fans". Matt O'Brien of WrestleView felt in March 2015 that "the past year has just been us talking about [Reigns] having potential, but he hasn't really grown. If anything, the breakup of the Shield has exposed him."
In response to reports that Reigns was set to receive a main-event push leading into WrestleMania 31, critics from the Wrestling Observer, Pro Wrestling Torch, Grantland and WrestleView raised concerns from late 2014 to early 2015 that Reigns, despite being "not fully ready", was "being pushed too hard, too soon" while WWE tried to make him their next "flagship star", "no matter how fans reacted". His quick ascendancy up the card was compared to Diesel's in 1994–1995. WWE was also criticized by TV.com staff for having Daniel Bryan and Paul Heyman endorse Reigns after Fastlane with "two shockingly transparent promos... attempting to illustrate Reigns' greatness". In response to comments that Reigns was "not ready" for the top spot, Triple H said that no one is ever ready to be thrust into that position. while Paul Heyman said detractors were "blind to how talented this young man is [...] He has adapted to this business as fast as anyone I've ever seen".
Reigns' win of 2014 Superstar of the Year Slammy Award garnered surprise to the point of accusations of WWE vote-rigging, but both PWInsider and Dave Meltzer stated that the fan vote was legitimate. A month later, Reigns was a close second place for the 2014 "Most Overrated" Wrestling Observer Newsletter award. In an interview published in January 2015, Anoaʻi described himself as "kind of getting like a mixed vibe from time-to-time", with "a lot of love" and "hate in the middle of it". During the 2015 Royal Rumble match, Reigns was booed during and after the match, despite portraying a heroic character and being endorsed by The Rock. Writing a few months after the Rumble, Paul Heyman suggested that the negative reception Reigns received was due to the fans being led to believe that fellow Rumble participant Daniel Bryan - who had been eliminated midway through the Royal Rumble match - would make a "miraculous comeback" at the event, leading to Reigns being seen as "the guy standing in Daniel Bryan's way". Triple H acknowledged the negative fan response to Reigns on televised shows, but said that Reigns received more favourable responses at house shows. WWE reportedly confiscated anti-Reigns fan signs both pre- and post-WrestleMania 31. In March 2015, Jason Powell of Pro Wrestling Dot Net said regarding Reigns, "I can't remember a WrestleMania main eventer not speaking on the go-home show. They really went out of their way to protect him". Also, Dave Meltzer was asked if there had been anyone less over than Reigns while main-eventing WrestleMania. Meltzer answered, "No, there has never been". At WrestleMania 31, Pro Wrestling Torch described Reigns as receiving "universal boos" and middle fingers, as well as noting that Reigns needed security for his entrance through the crowd, yet the WrestleMania main event match was very well received by Pro Wrestling Torch and the Canadian Online Explorer and the event itself was reported to be the highest-grossing WWE event in company history. On the post-WrestleMania Raw, Reigns was booed throughout his main event six-man tag match.
Despite the fan backlash in early 2015, Reigns' performances were widely praised by reviewers. David Shoemaker of Grantland said that Reigns had "exceeded all expectations" from after the Royal Rumble to Extreme Rules. This sentiment was echoed by critics from prowrestling.net and Rolling Stone, who felt that Reigns had "delivered big in three consecutive pay-per-view matches" at Fastlane, WrestleMania and Extreme Rules, including "a star-making performance" at WrestleMania where Reigns "proved that he belongs". In April 2015, The Miz speculated that the backlash against Reigns was due to fans wanting to cheer who was 'made' by the fans, as opposed to someone pushed by 'the system'.