2019 has been the year of Kofi Kingston in the WWE.
He won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 35 – a victory 11 years in the making – in one of the more emotional moments in company history. Kingston’s reign has continued all summer as he looks to redefine what a champion is from being the serious person who squares off against an old nemesis in Randy Orton to the happy-go-lucky, pancake throwing member of The New Day alongside Big E and Xavier Woods.
Now, nearly six months into his title reign, he has his biggest challenge yet: Brock Lesnar.
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Kingston will square off against “The Beast” for the WWE championship on the debut of “Friday Night SmackDown” with the brand moving to its new home on FOX broadcast television to cap off WWE Premiere Week.
Sporting News recently spoke with WWE champion Kofi Kingston about facing Lesnar, his championship run, and why he loves being the underdog.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
SPORTING NEWS: Obviously, “SmackDown” moving to Fox and network television is a big deal. You’ve been part of lot of big shows over the years in WWE. How does this feel different?
KOFI KINGSTON: This feels different in the sense that it’s probably the biggest ordeal that we’ve had in WWE. For me, at least the last 11 years that I’ve been on the roster, this is huge, man. I think being mentioned in the same breath as the NFL and NASCAR, when you have Sunday football and Thursday Night Football and you have WWE commercials that are airing and people who I haven’t spoken to in probably 10, 15 years, are calling me and sending me messages about “I just saw you on the football game” and “SmackDown is going to be on Friday nights!” It’s such a huge reach. I feel like WWE and Fox, the partnership, it goes hand-in-hand, like a hand in a glove.
We’re all about making our shows as big as we can possibly make them. Fox does it all the time with the NFL. We do it with our show. Now, we’re going to be combining forces and it’s going to be bigger than ever. So, to be at the forefront of it all, myself and Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship on “Friday Night SmackDown,” it’s amazing. This is the opening show, the debut show. The Rock is going to be on it, the guy who started this whole “SmackDown” movement. He’s going to be here on the show. It’s just crazy. It’s the biggest that “SmackDown” has ever been and this is the biggest thing that I’ve been a part of since I’ve been a member of the WWE roster. It’s great – it’s awesome.
SN: You mentioned your match with Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship. I don’t believe you’ve been in the ring too much with Brock before. When is the last time you guys were in the ring together?
KK: The only time that Brock and I have been in the ring together wrestling one another was the “Beast in the East” WWE Network special which is about five years ago or something like that. Brock had just come back to WWE after a long hiatus. I had the task of slaying “The Beast.” Back then, I didn’t do it. I failed. But I’ve grown a lot as a performer. I’ve grown as a superstar, as a competitor. I feel like I’m at the top of my game right now. I’ve conquered a lot of mountains being the WWE champion and Brock Lesnar is the next mountain to conquer. He’s the next one that I have to climb and I look forward to it. A lot of people are worried about it, a lot of people are scared for me.
But, for me, I welcome this challenge with open arms. I embrace it. This is what one has to do to be considered in the same echelon as the greatest WWE champions of all-time. I look forward to it. I look forward to the challenge. One of my goals has always been to be one of the greatest and be considered as one of the greats. We’re going to find out on Friday. It will be a doozy, as they say.
SN: You said that people are worried about you. That’s part of the escapism that comes with this business. People can look at it and wonder what is going to happen. We just saw what Brock did on “RAW” where he beat up Rey Mysterio and his son Dominick. What it’s like to be a part of something that has a combustible element and realism that is brought to the table?
KK: I always say that the best storylines in wrestling hinge on reality. You look at, for example, when Brock Lesnar does a German suplex, it is way different than when anybody does it. Brock is reckless out there. People fall differently when Brock throws them. He’s a beast in every sense of the word. People’s worries – they’re legitimate. They worry about me. They worry about people who go up against Brock Lesnar because they’ve seen what he’s been able to do. In UFC, he was able to do his thing over there. He was also able to be a national wrestling champion in NCAA multiple times. He’s dabbled in the NFL. Brock Lesnar is a legitimate beast.
So when you figure that he’s going to go up against somebody like myself who is not the stereotypical wrestler. When you think professional wrestler, you think WWE superstar. You don’t think about a guy with skinny legs who has no inner chest. A guy who is barely over six feet (tall). You don’t think about someone like me, somebody who doesn’t weigh 225 pounds. You think of someone who looks like Brock. So, not do you have this story of David and Goliath, you have legitimate concerns. It’s great from that level. You want people to be interested. You want people to have a little bit of nerves. You want people to see what’s going to happen next. And the thing about me is that what I do is beat the odds. I love it when I’m underestimated, even from before I was signed with WWE. I told people this is what I wanted to do and everybody laughed at me. Everybody told me that I’d never make it because I wasn’t tall enough, I wasn’t strong enough. I didn’t exude the “qualities” of a wrestling superstar exudes but, lo and behold, I’ve been able to work my way to the top. I’ve been able to not rely on my stature. I had to rely on being good. Being one of the best in the ring, being someone who can carry the load and now, fast-forward to all those people who doubted me back in the day, they ask me for autographs for their kids.
I take a a lot of pride in making people believe. I take a lot of pride in being able to defeat the odds because that provides motivation for people that they can go out there and do the same thing. If you work hard enough, if you believe in yourself, you work as hard as you possibly can, great things can happen and I love being the guy that can go out and provide that sense of motivation for people to go out and tackle their dreams. It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m right at home right now. This is where I’ve always been and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SN: When people they think about Kofi Kingston, they think of this fun-loving guy with The New Day, but you’ve been involved in some pretty serious storylines that have involved realism over the past year when it comes to your journey to WrestleMania, winning the WWE championship and at SummerSlam against Randy Orton. Why do you think it has worked out to have so much realism in your storylines?
KK: As I said, the best storylines out there always hinge on a little bit of reality and I’m very aware of that when I’m thinking about what I’m trying to accomplish in the ring from a storyline perspective, from whatever it is I say on the mic. Especially now, we live in an age of social media where people have a lot of access to not only us as WWE superstars but what might have happen in a story behind the scenes. For example, myself and Randy Orton are on a very real level when I was on the come up, rising through the ranks, trying to get to the WWE championship and get to the main event scene. Randy Orton was a guy who had a lot to do with me not getting through that glass ceiling on a very real level. There were always rumors about whether that was true or not. Finally, 11 years later, we get to address what actually happened.
So, for the people who were questioning, now they’re enthralled in what’s happening next because now, despite the fact that this guy tried to hold me down, here I am on the top of the mountain. I hold the greatest, the most prestigious title in all of wrestling. That is what gets people to watch and be interested. For me, that’s what it’s all about. You want to make memories. You want to do things that allow people to feel. People, when they are affected emotionally, that is when they like the product the best and that’s what I’m striving for is to get people to remember and be entertained and be emotionally affected by what it is I do in the ring.
SN: How do you balance the good times and the goofiness of being a part of The New Day with those times when it calls for you to be more serious, especially as WWE champion?
KK: For me, I like to do both. A lot of people online are like “oh, I can’t take you seriously because you’re out there throwing pancakes. That’s not what a champion is supposed to do.” For me, I’m trying to do a lot of different things. I’m trying to, number one, redefine what a champion looks like, what a champion is capable of doing, and how a champion has to act because if I’m going out there and throwing pancakes and dumping Booty-O’s cereal on people and wearing unicorn horns, that’s all fine and well because they are enjoying the show. That’s the main goal. You’re supposed to enjoy yourself when you come to a WWE show. And when that bell rings, I get out there and I handle business.
I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s beat me in a ring and is like “oh, I can’t believe this guy”. We saw at WrestleMania that people were so emotionally affected. I had so many people sending me videos on Twitter of them watching the match and emotional and crying and just so happy. And that’s the goal. Myself, Woods and E, we can do both. We can do a lot of things and we do a lot of things well. We multi-task and we show people that it’s possible to achieve their goals and to do it while having fun and being yourself, most importantly despite what anybody thinks. You can have as much of an opinion as you want. At the end of the day, I’m still gonna do me. Outside the ring have fun, inside the ring take care of business.
Setting that example for people is important. Going out and being the best champion that I can be is more than just being in the ring. It’s being able to do go to a school and talk to children, go to an anti-bullying campaign and show kids tolerance and respect for each other’s differences. It’s going to hospitals for Make-A-Wish and putting a smile on a child’s face who might be having a tough time. It’s being able to go to a military base and say thank you to the Armed Forces and the people who are fighting for our freedom and put smiles on their faces. So it’s about doing a lot of things. Myself, Woods, and E, we take a lot of pride in being able to do all of those things and wear all those hats. We just like to make people believe they can achieve their goals and also be themselves while doing it.
SN: You had this incredible moment at WrestleMania where, after 11 years, you finally won the WWE championship. There was thinking from some that as great of a moment as this is, how long is he really going to be the champion? Here we are, six months later, and you are still the champion. Are you surprised you’re still the champion?
KK: Yeah, I wouldn’t say surprised by any means because you have to go out for every single performance and believe in yourself and take things one day at a time. I always joke around and say that I’m going to be champion until the end of time. Is that realistic? Probably not, because nobody’s done it yet (laughs). At some point in time, it will have to come to an end. But for the time that you are champion, you just keep on going. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep on marching. That’s what I’ve been doing since April, just going out and trying to have the best matches I can possibly have, having the best performance that I can possibly have and being the best champion that I can possibly be. It’s really all about just taking everything one day at a time and try to be the best every single day.
SN: You’ve had a career of perseverance. You’ve been open about times when you thought about walking away, the rough times you’ve been through in your career and then you become part of The New Day. Can you even put into words what working with Big E and Woods has done for you both personally and professionally?
KK: First and foremost, I’ve made two of the best friends I’ve had on this planet, two guys who I call my brothers. We have traveled together for over five years. We’ve never been into any kind of fights or altercations. Every single time that we get together, it’s always good times. Whether we’re doing something together on television or not, any time we circle back together, it’s picking up where we left off and everything is awesome. From that perspective, it’s been awesome to meet two people in this industry that I jive with. We all just get along so well. It’s rare. It’s rare to have that kind of connection with anybody on the roster, let alone two people who, without them, I wouldn’t be here right now.
And then getting into the career aspect, being able to form this group with them, I’m always so grateful that they asked me to join with them because it has been an amazing ride. I thought that I was having a lot of fun and then I got with them and realized this is what it’s supposed to be like. This is the fun you’re supposed to be having as a WWE superstar and it’s been incredible. We’ve been able to shatter so many records together and do some incredible things together. I’m just so fortunate to have come across two guys, two upstanding gentlemen who I do consider to be my brothers.
SN: You’ve had a very long and impactful career so far with WWE. What haven’t you done yet that you look forward to doing?
KK: I always had a silly goal of holding every single title in WWE and I feel like I’m well on my way to doing that. Obviously, the Universal title is one that I haven’t held but also the women’s championships. Now they have women’s tag team championships and I want to find a way to somehow do that because myself, Big E and Woods, we’re really greedy when it comes to gold. Nobody is in the clear from our sights. We want all of them. 205 Live championship, maybe we’ll have Big E cut down to 204, then what? Then we’ve got Big E – will he be Little E or will he just be E? Who knows. We’ve got a lot of things that we want to try to accomplish. It’s just a matter of figuring out a way to do it. But for the time being, the goal is Brock Lesnar at “SmackDown” on Friday and climbing that mountain and proving a lot of people wrong and the people who supported me, proving them right and doing what we do.
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