On May 30, Kofi Kingston was 35,000 feet in the air, tucked into an airplane hurtling toward a long-awaited return. And also toward a culmination.
In his bag was a hunk of gold and leather usually considered just a prop for a television show. A fiction. For Kingston, it was no prop or fiction. It was an indication that all the sacrifices, the struggles, the long road trips and scarce time with his family had been worth it.
He was going to Ghana with his newly won WWE Championship belt not to show off, but to show the children of his homeland a world title with a Ghanian name emblazoned on the front.
It had been 26 years since the 37-year-old Kingston last stepped foot in Ghana; life got in the way. His mother wanted to take him and his siblings after he graduated from college, but his focus then was on entering the workforce and preparing to climb the corporate ladder, so he declined. Then he became a pro wrestler, and if you know anything about pro wrestling, you know the schedule is all-consuming.
His decision not to return to Ghana had haunted him in the years since. And it sunk in further in November when Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 to be "the Year of Return," urging all descendants of African slaves to return home to Ghana to visit—and perhaps stay—in commemoration of it being 400 years since slave ships first arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. A commemoration not of slavery, but of resilience and determination.
Kingston was heeding the call. Less than two months after defeating Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania 35 to become WWE's first-ever African-born champion—and a little more than two months before his scheduled title defense Aug. 11 against Randy Orton at SummerSlam—he was going home, finally, and he was going to show the children there how much can be accomplished.
Children born to Akan people in Ghana are traditionally named by the day of the week on which they were born. Kofi means "boy born on a Friday."
"There's a lot of Kofis out there," Kingston says. "So for me to go over there with the most prestigious prize in the history of wrestling and show kids and even adults that anything is possible…
"There is a Ghanian name on the most prestigious prize in the history of wrestling. I wanted to motivate them and show them that through hard work, anything is possible."
Kingston's journey back to Ghana took longer than just an international flight.
WWE's marketing plan for Kingston heading into his WrestleMania title challenge against Bryan centered on two words: eleven years. It was short and easy to remember, but most importantly, it was relatable. Who among us cannot identify with an enduring struggle for success in our lives and in our work?
The 11 years Kingston was with WWE before becoming champion was not just a storyline bullet point, though; it was his life.
When he made his television debut in early 2008, Kingston was billed by WWE as being the first Jamaican athlete in the promotion's history, though he was not Jamaican and had no Jamaican ancestry. Thankfully, the persona lasted less than a year. But even though he was good in the ring and dependable, he quickly settled into the WWE’s middle tier, and before long, his only moment in the spotlight came at the annual Royal Rumble match, where he would avoid elimination in highlight-reel fashion before fading into the background. And there he stayed until 2014.
He did find happiness and contentment over time, both on-screen and behind the scenes, in a close bond with wrestlers Ettore Ewen (Big E) and Austin Watson (Xavier Woods). The three men instantly related to each other in the way of brothers. Ewen and Watson hadn't been in WWE as long as Kingston, but each knew the struggle the other two men had faced, and each knew the mark they wanted to leave on the world. They also all knew how rare it was, especially in pro wrestling, to find colleagues who relate to each other so deeply. They believed they could be something if they were allowed to show their chemistry and friendship on television, and they finally got their wish in 2014, forming the tag team trio The New Day.
When The New Day made its on-screen debut, Kingston, Ewen and Watson portrayed something resembling old-time tent revival preachers. It fell flat with the audience because it wasn't authentic. Version 1.0 didn't last, thankfully. WWE fans would soon see the real Ewen, Watson and Kingston, just with the volume turned way, way up.
This time it instantly resonated with the fans because it was real.
Before long, The New Day was among the hottest acts in the company: six-time tag team champs adorned in neon and hawking New Day products—including a cereal called Booty-O's, ice cream bars and pancakes—while dropping obscure, geeky references.
Modern WWE dialogue is tightly scripted; most of the performers are reciting lines written for them, lines that rarely sound like something a real human would say.
"I remember having rehearsals and people were telling us how to clap. 'You've gotta hold your hands up here.' They were telling us how to be us," Kingston says.
But over time, the group built up a unique level of trust with WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon. These days, when they are handed scripted dialogue, they usually throw it in the trash and rewrite their own version for McMahon's approval.
"I don't get it," McMahon will tell them. "But let 'em go out there and do it."
"That's because he trusts us," Kingston says. "He trusts we'll have the ability to captivate the crowd. We're not out there to make the company look silly; we're there to have the best performance on the show. And if you keep doing that, and you have the audience chanting along and invested, he'll trust you to do it on your own."
If you believe that life is a series of fortunate coincidences, you need look no further than Kingston's 2019 to bolster your view.
WWE fans have always liked Kingston; that's because he is likable. But what happened at the beginning of this year was different. Something changed. Fans began getting behind him to an extraordinary degree.
At the Royal Rumble, the audience badly wanted Kingston to win and secure his first real chance at one of the promotion's top two titles. When he was eliminated by Drew McIntyre, they were angry. WWE management had once again ignored a compelling movement. Instead of giving the fans what they wanted to see, they gave the fans what WWE wanted them to see. The backlash was swift.
But they soon had a chance to rectify their mistake.
Mustafa Ali, a dizzying and exhilarating wrestler, had been scheduled to face then-champion Bryan at the Elimination Chamber event, and Kevin Owens had been scheduled to return as an everyman babyface for a match with Bryan at WrestleMania. When Ali suffered an injury severe enough to keep him out of the ring for months, WWE course-corrected and slotted Kingston into the gauntlet title match headlining Elimination Chamber.
Kingston lost again, but it was the moment the movement began in earnest.
Bryan himself had been the beneficiary of a remarkably similar cause a few years earlier when, instead of listening to the fans and scripting Bryan to win the Royal Rumble, WWE selected Roman Reigns to win. It wasn't that fans hated Reigns; it was a rebellion and reaction to WWE ignoring their wishes and pushing its handpicked star instead of the underdog they wanted.
The underdog they wanted this time was Kofi, and they weren't getting him, so they cheered louder every time he appeared on-screen, as if they could change what they saw as inevitable just by turning up the decibels.
It was the exact response McMahon wanted.
What the fans didn't know is that Kofi's losses, and the frustration the audience felt in the aftermath, were all part of a larger story that would lead him to WrestleMania. McMahon controls the WWE product to a remarkable degree, but that control is highly amplified when it comes to the major storylines leading to WrestleMania.
Fans should have known McMahon was invested in Kingston when he brought back the evil Mr. McMahon character and began stacking the deck against him.
The storyline consisted heavily of racial and class-warfare undertones that everyone assumed McMahon was responsible for. It was actually Kingston, Ewen and Watson who insisted on telling that aspect of his story. When they went on television and said, "People like us don't get to be champion," it was part of the story, but it was also real life.
"It was important for us to walk that line," Kingston says. "The facts are out there. How many African American champions have there been over the course of WWE's history? It's something that was the elephant in the room. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but it was important for us to address it.
"We always talk about how important representation is. It's so important to see someone that looks like you—whether you're African American, Asian, Indian or whatever your background is—doing incredible things. It's just motivation to go out there and do incredible things yourself."
Two weeks after Elimination Chamber, Kingston was told the company planned for him to replace Kevin Owens at Wrestlemania and beat Bryan for the championship. But Kingston knew he could take nothing for granted. WWE storylines are reshaped constantly, sometimes even as a show is live on the air.
"This past week on Smackdown, it was advertised that I was going to be in a match with Daniel Bryan. Obviously that didn't happen," he says. "Everything is always subject to change. It's a very real thing. So I was told what the plan was, but I wouldn't let myself get excited.
"But as it got closer and closer, it became more and more real."
It was real.
Within three seconds of Kingston pinning Bryan at WrestleMania, Watson and Ewen swarmed him. It was not a scripted moment, but one born out of endurance and struggle and kinship.
They were ecstatic for Kingston, and he for them, because it represented the culmination of their shared hopes and dreams. They endured, and they were rewarded.
Today, Kingston is in a hotel room in Toronto. His wife and kids are in the adjoining room. They are here to spend a rare week of family time together. It is the calm before the arrival of the storm the weekend will bring.
Kingston's media and company obligations are immense ahead of SummerSlam. His schedule is demanding, but he relishes every moment of it.
Though he now holds the WWE Championship and is one of the company's top stars, Kingston and The New Day aren't inclined to rest or bask in their accomplishments. They have a new vision to chase: They want to close out an event holding every single WWE title. All of them.
"We're really greedy when it comes to titles. We want every championship—the women's title included," Kingston says with a laugh. "We'll figure out a way to get that one."
It sounds funny, and it is funny, but behind the fun and the neon and the pancakes is a man who wants to motivate and inspire people across the planet to work hard, to endure and to see that anyone can do anything they want to do, no matter how difficult the task. If they want it, if they dream it, they can do it. This is the message he carried from Ghana, the message he has spent 11 long years trying to show the world at WWE.
"Anybody out there who has had a situation where they've had to struggle—when they want something so badly, but they can't quite get it—I am living and breathing proof that if you endure, if you push yourself, if you strive to be your best, no matter what, if you keep on working hard, then good things can happen,"he says. "It might take a decade, but it can happen.
"I take a lot of pride in being that beacon of light and hope for people who are struggling. That's the most important thing for me as a performer, as a WWE superstar and as a human."