Creating #KofiMania: How Kofi Kingston became the people's champion

Kofi Kingston celebrates on an episode of WWE "Smackdown Live." (Photo courtesy of WWE)
Kofi Kingston celebrates on an episode of WWE "Smackdown Live." (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Despite being a WWE star, Kofi Kingston is just like all of us. He may not work a traditional 9-to-5 job, but the 37-year-old can certainly relate to the struggles of every single person who does.

Strip away the colorful entrance and ring attire, disregard the elite athletic ability, ignore the thousands of adoring fans. Kofi Kingston is essentially just another guy working to get a promotion he feels he deserves.

And that’s why he’s wrestling in the biggest singles match of his career at “WrestleMania.”

“I’m proud to be that for people who can look and relate to me and what I’ve been through during this actual 11-year struggle,” Kingston told Yahoo Sports. “Being the guy that has been held down by their boss, or have been told that they can’t do or accomplish something. People realize how long I’ve been trying to grind.”

Kingston’s rise to main-event status has been as unpredictable as it has been rapid. For the past several years, the veteran star -- along with Big E and Xavier Woods -- has been a part of the New Day tag team, one of the WWE’s most successful and popular stables of all time.

It wasn’t until an unfortunate injury to rising star Mustafa Ali that Kingston received another shot at singles stardom.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Kingston said. “All I was told was that I was going to be replacing Mustafa Ali, who unfortunately was going to be out with injury. That’s something that you never like to see, especially with a guy who’s young and has so much potential.

“It put extra pressure on me. I normally don’t feel pressure in the ring, but the fact that I was replacing somebody, who, if he were in the situation, would have done some amazing, incredible and unforgettable things in the Elimination Chamber. I knew that my performance had to be along the lines of that in order to not disappoint him.”

Fans quickly became enamored with Kingston thanks to his performances in the time leading up to and at “Elimination Chamber.” Within a matter of weeks, Kingston became arguably WWE’s most popular stars.

“I had no idea where it was going to go and I think the WWE Universe had a lot to do with where it is right now,” Kingston said. “If they weren’t behind me, who would have cared. I’m always indebted to them and I’m very grateful that they have supported this wild ride so far.”

In WWE, crowd reactions mean everything. Whether you’re a heel (bad guy) or a babyface (good guy), if the fans are not behind you, your days quickly become numbered.

That’s a lesson Kingston learned very quickly with the early incarnation of the New Day.

“This is a little bit different because with the New Day, when we came out, people rejected us,” Kingston said. “They actually despised us. We had to turn the people and now they embrace us at a level where they just want to have fun the way we have fun.”

“I’ve never been able to break through that glass ceiling, and now, with the help and the thrust of the WWE Universe, they have helped me get to that point. I think the story is different here because the people realize how long I’ve been trying to grind.”

The glass ceiling Kingston references is ironically similar to the one his “WrestleMania” opponent, Daniel Bryan, faced five years ago in the lead up to “WrestleMania XXX.” While Bryan was going up against the authority figures of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, Vince McMahon stands in Kingston’s way.

Kingston has been referred to as a “B+ player” in this storyline, the same way Bryan was back in 2014.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great moments -- in the Royal Rumble, Money in the Bank matches, Intercontinental, United States championships -- along the way,” Kingston said. “I take a lot of pride in being a great representative for the company over the years, I’ve done a lot for the company and embrace the fans as well. I think people are realizing all of that. Not to toot my own horn, but they’re also recognizing how hard I work in the ring, to do unique things and have great matches.”

While Bryan’s smaller stature was the lynchpin of his storyline years ago, there are racial undertones to Kingston’s storyline this time around. Kingston, who as born in Ghana, has become not just a champion for the people, but one for African-Americans, especially considering his initial rise began during Black History Month.

Throughout the build for this match, Kingston -- and his New Day partners -- have cut promos using very specific language to get their point across.

“We always say that it’s very important to have representation,” Kingston said. “As a child, one that would be watching the WWE product, I think it’s very important for children to look at the screen and see somebody that looks like them doing incredible things. I am so proud to be a beacon of light for people who look like me.”

The message though, extends further than to just one community.

“They can look to TV -- regardless of race -- as a human and that it is possible to overcome impossible odds,” Kingston said. “I take a lot of pride in being the center of all of that and being the representative for all of that. Being able to identify with so many people, I think that’s the reason why this movement has been so powerful. It’s more than just race, or one particular thing. It’s so many different things, so many elements of hope that we’re able to provide.”

In addition to being a beacon for fans, Kingston has also become something of a hero among other stars in the WWE locker room. While Big E and Woods have been alongside their tag partner throughout the journey, the rest of the stars have also been supportive of this effort -- in kayfabe and real life.

WWE star Kofi Kingston celebrates with Xavier Woods and Big E after a tag-team gauntlet match on "Smackdown Live." (Photo courtesy of WWE)

“What we do is entertainment, but there’s an element that is very real about this whole scenario,” Kingston said. “I find myself getting choked up about the love and support that I’ve had. It’s awesome. It’s such a great feeling, such an amazing feeling. I always think that the best storylines on television always have a bit of reality intertwined, and there’s a lot of what is real in this.”

Kingston’s rise has been unique in many ways, one of which is that all of this has taken place while not only keeping the New Day intact, but also involving them heavily in the storyline. Normally, in WWE, a strong singles push for a tag star usually results in the team breaking up or at the very least going their separate ways.

“I feel like it’s not just about me. I may be at the center of it, but the New Day, our goal has always been to elevate one another,” Kingston said. “We always are trying to figure out ways where we can make each other look good, make each other more successful. This whole scenario, it speaks volumes for what the New Day has always been and it epitomizes what we’ve been at our core.”

Even though #KofiMania is just days away, Kingston has refused to allow himself to sit back and admire the work that has gotten him to this point.

“It’s pretty unique to have a singles match at “WrestleMania,” it’s rare to have it for the WWE championship and to have it be supported by the people at such a high level is also rare,” Kingston said. “I think the fact that I have been doing this for so long, I realize how big it is. I have also been around so long to know that as fast as it went from 0 to 100, it can go from 100 to 0, you just never know what will happen tomorrow.”

And in addition to a match at “WrestleMania,” Kingston has a reputation to uphold, and resting on his laurels would certainly be out of character.

“I’m not at that relaxation point yet. We still have a lot of work left to do.”

WrestleMania takes place on Sunday April 7 at MetLife Stadium and will be streamed globally on the WWE Network.

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