One of my earliest memories as a kid was watching Superstars with my dad, uncle, and cousin, crowded around a 20-inch tube TV with rabbit ears that sat on top of a non-working dryer (that was for some reason in the kitchen) at my uncle’s perennially under construction house.
More accurately, wrestling was on in the background. What I was usually more intently watching was my dad and uncle throwing toothpicks in each other’s faces while doing poor Razor Ramon impersonations or standing wobbly on chairs, arms raised majestically, while doing even poorer Randy Savage impersonations.
Since, wrestling fandom has come and gone from my life in waves — a nomadic attention span in the face of the daunting investment required to actually consume all of the content produced by modern WWE is not atypical and totally understandable as fans age and add life responsibilities.
My meandering back into the sport, roughly, matched when a lot of people regained interest — the 2011 Summer of Punk. But, as much as CM Punk’s pissed off, bitter, upset at the system, chip-on-his-shoulder persona spoke to me as a mid-30s khaki wearer stuck in a boring desk job, it wasn’t CM Punk alone that renewed my interest in wrestling. It was Kofi Kingston.
Punk famously name-dropped Colt Cabana in his electric fourth-wall breaking pipebomb promo, which introduced me to Cabana’s podcast. One of the most relatable episodes I listened to was Cabana’s interview with Kingston in 2012. The whole interview is great, but Kingston discussing his post-college career dissatisfaction, working in a cubicle proofreading catalog pages for Staples spoke to my soul:
“No matter how excited you seem about it, it’s still paper clips and push pins and ergonomic chairs. I can’t do this the rest of my life.”
He even drops an Office Space reference!
I’ve watched WWE consistently again since that summer in 2011, and thanks to a powerful combination of the Network, insomnia, and an … uh … exciting personal life, gone back and filled in gaps that I missed in years prior. Kingston has been among the most consistently good performers in a variety of mid-card roles throughout that entire time. He’s done it organically, with almost nothing to work with. Consider some of the following:
- He debuted in WWE playing a Jamaican character, with Jamaican music, gear that used Jamaican colors, and vignettes that promoted his Jamaican heritage. He’s … not Jamaican. It’s the type of classic WWE cheeseball gimmick that, in the hands of the wrong performer, would’ve been dead on arrival. It’s also the exact sort of deadend gimmick often given to performers of color. Instead of failing, Kingston’s charisma combined with his unique in-ring work got him over pretty seamlessly. Relatively quickly, Kofi Kingston was so good and so popular with the crowd, the corny WWE packaging didn’t matter and in fact quietly disappeared altogether. That’s a testament to his talent.
- In 2014, when the New Day was formed, rinse and repeat with the lame/borderline racist WWE packaging — vignettes that didn’t make sense, that with less talented performers would’ve thoroughly ruined any chance of popularity for the individuals. But, Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods are so damn good at this that their own natural abilities to connect with a crowd, tell stories that are entertaining, and off-the-charts chemistry as a group triumphed over any poor creative they were hamstrung with. I remember the initial New Day vignettes. I remember myself — and a lot of the collective wrestling internet — groaning with worst case scenarios based on WWE’s history of presenting black performers using the worst stereotypes. Even with the undeniable talent of the three performers, I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted then that the New Day would grow into what they are today.
- Kingston is one of the best tag team wrestlers of all-time, with eight different title runs. The New Day is clearly his most successful team, but he’s won titles with a pretty diverse set of talents — CM Punk, Evan Bourne, and R-Truth. His run with Bourne was disrupted, twice, due to Bourne’s suspensions, and Kingston still recovered. His teams with Punk and R-Truth were seemingly thrown together and made little sense, and both were entertaining.
- He makes everyone look good. On Cabana’s podcast, he talked at length about his belief in helping other performers achieve their best, stating, “I’ve always been willing to help people out.” It is hard to find any match over the course of his career that wasn’t entertaining. He’s had seven combined runs with the U.S. and Intercontinental titles. He’s pinned Chris Jericho — arguably the greatest of all-time in terms of longevity. He’s also served as fodder for debuting talents, like Rusev and Bray Wyatt. He’s college educated, beloved by all fans but especially young ones, and a great face for modern WWE the company in the external PR appearances that they love. His career, in terms of being a talented jack-of-all-trades, is similar to Dolph Ziggler’s. Yet Ziggler has, here and there, been boosted into the main event scene and even has two world title runs (the most memorable of which, coincidentally, came when he was in a faction that included Big E). Kingston has never received those types of opportunities.
- He’s been in seven Money in the Bank matches — tied with Kane for the most ever — and won zero. Damien Sandow and Baron Corbin have won Money in the Bank matches, by the way.
- He’s been in 12 Royal Rumbles, tied for third all-time, and delivered arguably the most memorable spots in the history of one of WWE’s most iconic matches, yet never come close to winning one. For comparison’s sake, Cody Rhodes has been in half as many Royal Rumbles and has more than three hours of cumulative time (among the most all-time) in those appearances.
WWE accidentally realizing that Kingston is a major star — thanks in large part to a totally organic reaction by fans combined with Kingston having incredible matches when he was subbed into the WWE title picture earlier this year — is both gratifying and frustrating. Gratifying is the easy part — anyone who has watched Kingston’s career objectively is thrilled to see one of the most talented, overlooked members of the roster finally get a main event opportunity. And frustrating, because this immensely talented, popular performer has been there since 2008! What took so long?
During this recent run, I’ve thought about Kingston a lot in the context of Punk’s famous promo.
Punk played into the belief that he’d been held down, that the company didn’t want someone like him as the face of their product despite his popularity with fans, that behind the scenes mysterious power-brokers had worked nefariously to limit his opportunities. He delivered his words compellingly, and they told a great story. But were they true beyond the storyline sense?
Perhaps, at least in Punk’s mind, which helped them resonate. But, even before his record-breaking title run, Punk was featured prominently. He’d had world title runs. He’d won Money in the Bank. He was in the main event scene and had worked with major stars. He’d led factions. When he was injured, they put him on commentary. He even got a famous Royal Rumble spot with the Straight Edge Society, where he had a microphone and got to spend a significant portion of the match as the center of attention, an opportunity to add significant nuance to his character.
Were there, surely, people who didn’t want him to succeed? People who didn’t like his look or his attitude or his independent scene credentials? I’m sure that was probably the case. But, in terms of TV time and being prominently featured, there’s not really a reasonable case that Punk was overlooked.
Now apply the sentiments of his promo to Kingston, a talented performer who — despite his popularity — was never really in the main event scene. Someone who did have the ability to talk on the microphone but never got significant mic time to help add motivations to his character. Someone who was shuffled in and out of midcard stories, often working with the same performers repeatedly (hello, endless matches with Ziggler!) with little storyline explanation as to why those feuds continued endlessly. A black performer who, when you factor in WWE’s poor history with handling race, gender, sexuality, etc., would have an extremely credible argument for why seemingly less accomplished performers get more prominent spots than he does.
Kingston has already proven himself as an all-time great, something his mentality when he talked to Cabana in 2012 foreshadowed: “I’ve always been one to try to do things differently, to the point where there’s not many people out there who can do what I do the way that I do it.” He, more than anyone in recent memory, has earned this spot, and had to do more to get there than just about anyone else.
Those realities make this, perhaps accidentally, among the most compelling stories WWE has ever told. Even if it is technically part of a storyline, the history of Kingston and the believability of performers of color having a much harder path historically to main event opportunities within WWE, make the “reality era” aspects of the story resonate even stronger. Kingston’s ascension, and more importantly where they go with this story, has captured my attention as a fan differently than any wrestling storyline ever has. The New Day as performers clearly have the ability to take this story to a riveting, satisfying conclusion. Does WWE?