WrestleMania 35: The meteoric rise of Kofi Kingston offers hope, representation for WWE fans
How Kingston went from last-minute substitution to WWE title challenger in less than two months
In an industry so reliant upon deception to seduce and entrap its audience to a level of suspended disbelief, it's refreshing how often the best stories being told in professional wrestling are the ones so visibly rooted in truth.
As 11-year WWE veteran Kofi Kingston enters the biggest match of his career at WrestleMania 35, (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET, WWE Network), fueled by the whirlwind -- and largely unplanned -- phenomenon known as "KofiMania," the storyline that has taken him to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, is very much a case of art imitating life.
"The best storylines on television always have a little reality to them," Kingston told CBS Sports on Thursday. "A lot of times they are unplanned and just happen and then all of a sudden they just catch fire. For me to be in the middle of this fire is awesome."
While Kingston has certainly had a decorated WWE career on the tag team and mid-card title level over the past decade, including a five-year run as one-third of the overwhelmingly popular tag team The New Day, imaging the 37-year-old as anything more than a longshot to find himself competing for the WWE championship in front of 75,000 people in 2019 would've felt unthinkable as recently as two months ago.
But as Kingston, born Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah in the west African nation of Ghana, so eloquently put it while taking a break from pinching himself amid a demanding WrestleMania week media schedule, nothing short of fate itself intervened on his behalf.
An injury to rising star (nee Mustafa) Ali opened up an opportunity for a member of The New Day to replace him at the WWE Elimination Chamber pay-per-view on Feb. 17. Five days earlier, on the go-home episode of SmackDown Live, Kingston was chosen by his teammates to represent their group in a gauntlet match to determine the last entrant in that weekend's six-man bout.
What happened next was nothing short of a cosmic mix of timing, performance and a WWE fanbase so hungry to see one of the industry's longest running "good guys" finally get his due that they collectively made it their mission to let their voice be heard. While Kingston's hour-plus performance on SmackDown -- opening the match by defeating WWE champion Daniel Bryan and lasting until the final two -- was a physically impressive feat to behold, the soundtrack provided by the fans was intoxicating.
But it wasn't until Elimination Chamber days later in Houston -- in front of a crowd Kingston described as "electric" -- that the idea really began to manifest. Something organic and outside of the script had been birthed and fueled to a level so strong that it was destined to force WWE chairman Vince McMahon's hand. He may not have known it then, but McMahon would wind up changing the booking of his biggest show of the year, and in doing so, alter the path of Kingston's career.
Over the next six weeks, Bryan went from what appeared to be a collision course against a returning Kevin Owens toward an unlikely feud against Kingston who, in a brilliant case of WWE irony, was being held back by McMahon and roadblocked within the storyline in a manner consistent with how Bryan's character was handled in his memorable build to winning the title at WrestleMania 30 in 2014.
The more Kingston's character was denied opportunity on screen, the more the fans rallied to lift him up as a hero. Kingston admits the level of audience reaction continues to humble him. While walking out for a contract signing opposite Bryan during Tuesday's go-home episode of SmackDown, he paused as he prepared to gear into character and couldn't help but notice at how many "KofiMania" signs and T-shirts flooded the arena.
But why now? And why Kingston? It's a question that even one third of the "Powers of Positivity" can't quite put his finger on.
"Who knows, man? Honestly, it's kind of a fate thing if you believe in that kind of thing," Kingston said. "If Ali doesn't get hurt, I'm not in this position -- period, point blank. For me to be in that position, I realized it wasn't just something I wanted to do for a long time, it was something people wanted to see for a long time. It has been an amazing journey."
Watch our complete interview with Kofi Kingston below, and keep on reading for the rest of the story.
Despite the incredible momentum he quickly acquired, Kingston admits the roller coaster ride his character embarked upon before finally securing a title shot on the March 26 episode of SmackDown -- when New Day teammates Big E and Xavier Woods won a dramatic tag team gauntlet match -- very much mirrored the real-life journey of the unknown he was walking out backstage.
A self-proclaimed "one day at a time type guy," Kingston had experienced firsthand over his WWE career the phenomenon of receiving great booking only to see it dissipate regardless of performance. He quickly recalled nearly stealing the show with his performance in a Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 25 only to not be booked for Raw the following night. Kingston had the same thoughts when recalling a memorable 2009 feud with Randy Orton that seemed to stall just as it was heating up.
An improbable road to WrestleMania 35 may have started to become clear for fans who quickly bought into the storyline as it was changed and unfolding, but Kingston revealed that nothing was ever completely set in stone -- at least to his knowledge.
"Vince McMahon doesn't get involved with just anybody, so it's a big deal when he gets involved with the things you are trying to do in the ring," Kingston said. "That means you are doing something right. At some point I was just like, 'I think we have something here.' But I don't know. I've been around long enough where I have seen things go from zero to 100 and they go from 100 to zero at the drop of a hat. So I'm not getting excited until it actually happens and I get there. Even if you are told one thing, the card is always subject to change.
"It was a lot of not knowing. I think people think that it's a lot more organized or set than it really is when it comes to storylines. Things are constantly changing. We might go into the mindset of thinking something is going to happen one day, but as soon as we get to the building, it's completely changed. Then by the end of the day, it's changed back. Or it's changed in the middle of the ring. That's the best thing about this job that you don't know what's coming -- not just as a fan but a person in the middle of a storyline."
The brilliance of Kingston's story entering Sunday certainly rests in the realism of his underdog and blue-collar character overcoming the labels of being a "B+ player" to embark on such a meteoric rise to a title shot on the grandest stage.
But what separates this angle as great, as opposed to simply good, is the nature in which WWE is cryptically playing upon its own underwhelming history of failing to consistently promote wrestlers of color to the world heavyweight championship level. That sprinkle of realism has allowed the storyline to appeal more strongly to so-called "smart fans" fully aware of those facts.
Although members of the New Day never addressed it directly, there have been constant references made in dialogue to WWE and McMahon not wanting "guys like us" to succeed; it made Kingston's journey feel as real as it possibly could be.
In the same year that WWE made the historic decision to have women headline and main event WrestleMania for the first time, it also has the opportunity to have Kingston join Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as just the second African-American WWE champion since the title debuted in April 1963. (While in WWE, Booker T. and Mark Henry won versions of the world heavyweight championship -- also known as the "big gold belt" -- before its 2013 unification with the WWE title.)
"When we say 'guys like us,' it could mean anything. I wear pig tails, I skip, I twerk. These are the guys who you don't see in these roles," Kingston said. "Obviously, being African-American in this role is so important, too. We always talk about representation and how important it is for people to be able to look at their screens and see people who look like them so you know for a fact that anything is possible. That is so important. We take a lot of pride in being able to represent African-American males doing great things on TV.
"It transcends all of that because of the whole underdog story because people struggle everyday and they look to people for motivation. For me to be a guy who is able to motivate somebody to great things, that is awesome. I take pride in being that somebody who can be a light and a beacon of hope for people of all races, genders and backgrounds that they can look at this story and believe anything is possible."
While representing his race is a big motivator for Kingston, who is the first African-born wrestler to win a title in WWE, he's also hoping to spread the message that hard work and staying the course really does pay off.
"[My career] has been a lot of ups and downs. You start thinking, 'What do I have to do? Is it going to happen or is it not going to happen?'" Kingston said. "But you always have to stay ready. You always have to believe and that has to be the end goal. I always tell people that I always keep my blades sharp in the event that I'm called upon that I will be able to perform. When you stay ready, you ain't got to get ready."
When it comes to Sunday's ring walk and the emotions that he expects to feel, Kingston can almost guarantee it will be overwhelming after such a long journey to get to this point. He'll have his family — including his father, wife and two sons (ages 3 and 6) -- watching from inside MetLife Stadium, but he'll also have his New Day teammates by his side.
In an industry where Kingston has seen firsthand how many successful tag teams, even at the championship level, are paired with people they don't actually like, he considers himself lucky to have found such a profound feeling of family on the road working alongside Big E and Woods.
It was 2014 when the two WWE newcomers, unhappy with their position in the company, approached the veteran Kingston in hopes of forming a faction. Although they found an instantaneous rapport, it took the trio a while to win over WWE fans upon The New Day's launch. Five years and five tag team title reigns later, Kingston believes the fan-friendly trio has already done enough to warrant Hall of Fame consideration and outright said his current singles push would never have happened without their unwavering support.
"I really do consider myself fortunate for having crossed paths with these guys, and I really do consider them my brothers," Kingston said. "We spent more time with each other than we do with our families, literally. We have traveled together for the last five years and never had any kind of fights or altercations, knock on wood. It really is a great bond and I'm really fortunate to be associated with these guys.
"For me, as cliche as it is to say that my dreams are coming true, all I have ever wanted was to be in this position. Being on the roster for 11 years and all the grind to get to this point, it's all paying off now and I'm so, so excited about it."
Check out our ultimate WrestleMania 35 preview, and subscribe to the State of Combat with Brian Campbell podcast by hitting the link in the embed below.
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