WWE champion Kofi Kingston on breaking racial barriers, 'SmackDown' moving to FOX and NXT as a third brand

For over a decade, WWE Champion Kofi Kingston has captivated wrestling fans all around the world with his exciting blend of athletics and infectious charisma. The happy-go-lucky Ghanaian recently made history by becoming the WWE’s first-ever African-born WWE Champion.

In the company’s 50-plus-year history, only one other man has had a similar story — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is half-Samoan and half-black. Nonetheless, WWE had never seen a dark-skinned, full-blooded African WWE Champion until this year.

In April 2019, Kofi Kingston made headlines by defeating then-WWE Champion Daniel Bryan in a 23-minute all-out war at WrestleMania 35 for the biggest prize in all of sports entertainment.

“It means the world, especially when we talk about representation being so important," Kingston said. "For me to be the first African-born WWE Champion is incredible because now, people who look like myself can look at TV and see on WWE television that anything is possible because I’m doing it."

This, however, was not a rivalry built on the premise of skin color or ethnic background. Rather, it was a story about an honorable company man who, for 11 years, put on incredible matches and did exactly what was asked of him — capturing the hearts of the WWE Universe along the way.

For 11 years, Kofi Kingston was always positioned as a strong mid-card talent, winning secondary titles such as the United States and Intercontinental championships on multiple occasions, as well as being a 9-time Tag Team Champion, but never fully ascending to the world title scene.

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Kingston initially made his WWE debut in 2008 as a Jamaican caricature — utilizing a fake Jamaican accent while conversing about beautiful islands and trouble in paradise. Although Kingston had no actual Jamaican ancestry, the West African took the ball he was given and ran with it for nearly two years. Kingston eventually dropped the Jamaican act he was given and transitioned into the real-life persona that he portrays today.

In January 2010, Kingston almost had a taste of main-event glory when he was scheduled to win the Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 26 until it all came crashing down. The Money in the Bank guarantees the victor a shot at any world championship for upwards of a year, but those plans changed when Kingston accidentally botched a spot in a match against Randy Orton and John Cena.

When being set up for Orton’s signature punt kick, Kingston got up too early, which led to Orton being forced to improvise. The incident ended up holding Kofi back and stalling his main-event ascent for the rest of the decade.

“It was a very real thing, not a storyline thing when Randy Orton didn’t want me to get to a certain point in WWE," Kofi stated on his real-life heat with Orton. "As you saw 10 years ago, I was kind of on the rise and logic would suggest that I would have become champion based on the run I was having at the time and Randy Orton put a stop to all of that."

For the next nine years, Kingston maintained a prominent role in WWE’s midcard scene, winning several championships along the way and never giving up in the eyes of the WWE Universe and WWE management. Eventually, in 2014, Kofi Kingston, along with wrestlers Big E and Xavier Woods, formed the New Day, a stable that would eventually go on to be 6-time Tag Team Champions and counting.

The formation of The New Day proved to be Kingston’s saving grace, as he aimlessly floundered around WWE programming for some time before forming the stable. The New Day struggled to find their footing in their initial stages, but eventually, the trio went on to break the record of being the longest-reigning WWE Tag Team Champions by holding the titles for 483 days and winning the titles on six different occasions.

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On the Feb. 12, 2019 edition of SmackDown Live, Kingston was chosen as the replacement for up-and-coming star Mustafa Ali in the Elimination Chamber match — a specialized cage match that features six wrestlers, four of whom enter the match after 5-minute intervals — for the WWE Championship.

That same night, Kingston participated in a gauntlet match — a series of one-on-one matches in which two wrestlers start the match and the loser gets replaced with another wrestler until participants run out — to determine the final entrant in the Elimination Chamber match.

For over an hour, Kingston fought through formidable opponents including Samoa Joe, Jeff Hardy and then-WWE Champion Daniel Bryan before being eliminated by AJ Styles. The hour-long performance saw the rebirth of Kofi Kingston’s main-event rise once again after nearly a decade of trials and tribulations in WWE. What began as a replacement for another injured wrestler quickly became an overnight sensation and, thus, #KofiMania was born.

“[Without the fans,] this moment doesn’t happen, you know what I’m saying, if they didn’t demand for me to be there,” said Kofi as he expressed his adulation for his fans. “Everybody before the show is chanting Kofi Mania… it’s awesome when [fans] say it and they bring their signs and everyone’s talking about how they followed me throughout my career. I’ve always really tried to just take a moment with a fan if someone comes out to me and wants a picture or says hello.”

“I really try to take a moment with them because it would have meant the world to me if I would have met one of my heroes and he were to take a moment with me. I just try to put myself in their shoes,” Kofi humbly stated.

In the Elimination Chamber match, Kingston outlasted five other opponents before ultimately being pinned by Daniel Bryan, who retained his WWE Championship. In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, WWE put Kingston through the wringer by making him participate in yet another hour-long gauntlet match in which he defeated all five opponents, before being surprised with a sixth opponent in Daniel Bryan, to whom Kingston ultimately lost.

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WWE gave Kingston one last chance by forcing New Day members Big E and Xavier Woods to run a 6-team gauntlet match, which they won, giving Kingston his WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 35.

Kingston went on to win the WWE Championship on the Grandest Stage of Them All in front of 80,000 people in a sold-out MetLife Stadium.

Kofi Kingston versus Daniel Bryan received rave reviews and was praised as one of the best matches of the night, both in terms of physical nature as well as its deep-rooted storytelling.

Today, Kofi Kingston is still the WWE Champion and has successfully defended his title against stars like Samoa Joe, Dolph Ziggler and Kevin Owens. Kingston’s career eventually came full-circle after he entered a feud with Randy Orton for his WWE Championship — nearly a decade after Orton halted Kingston’s main-event rise.

On feuding with Randy Orton a decade later for the World Championship, Kofi stated, “The best angles and the best stories always hinge on reality. Throughout the history of WWE, all the best storylines have a little touch of what’s real behind them. For me, this is very, very real. Everyone is having a great time with the story and so am I, but there’s a very real level to it too — very important part.”

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The two eventually faced off at SummerSlam, in which the match ended in a double count-out. Kingston's and Orton’s feud continues this Sunday, when Kingston defends his WWE Championship against Orton at WWE Clash of Champions. The event emanates live from the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina and will be streaming live beginning at 7 EST/4 PT on the WWE Network.