The untold truth of Kofi Kingston

On April 7, 2019, Kofi Kingston made history. For the first time in the 67-year history of the WWE, when Kingston pinned Daniel Bryan in front of a crowd of 82,000 fans, the company had a World Champion who had been born in Africa.

Kofi's journey to the top of World Wrestling Entertainment was an interesting one for reasons that went far beyond his place of birth, however.  In 14 years with WWE, he's done almost everything that a wrestler can do. He's been a Triple Crown Champion. He's been a Grand Slam Champion. He's been part of a faction that became so beloved that they got their own breakfast cereal. He has even, as improbable as this may sound, been Jamaican, although that hasn't been the case since around 2009. From his humble beginnings to a championship reign at the top of the card, here's the truth behind Kofi Kingston.

The "Jamaican" Sensation

First things first: Kofi Kingston — or Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah, to use the name he was born with — is not Jamaican. In fact, he has no familial connection to that Caribbean Island at all, but in the world of pro wrestling, that's never really been a problem. Way back in the '90s, the legendary Mick Foley cut a promo referencing this particular phenomenon, noting in WCW, he'd "seen it all a hundred times" through the magic of pro wrestling: "I've seen a tough Jewish kid from Brooklyn become a black man from Macon. I've seen a farm kid from Nebraska become an overnight rap star sensation. I've seen a kid from New Hampshire become a Frenchman."

So when Kofi debuted in WWE in 2006, it wasn't as the guy who had been born in Ghana and grew up in Boston. Instead, it was as "The Jamaican Sensation," Kofi Kingston, decked out in Rastafarian colors and putting on an accent to match. What's surprising about his entry into pro wrestling's long legacy of geographically misplaced superstars, though, is unlike most cases of wrestlers playing characters with significantly different origins than their own, this wasn't a gimmick given to him by a promoter. Instead, it was one Kofi came up with himself, a joke he made up on the spot that stuck around and sparked a remarkable career.

In an interview with New York's Hot 97, Kofi talked about a moment during his wrestling training where each student had to cut a promo. These "promo days" allow wrestlers to cut loose — they're generally just in front of the other students and trainers, sort of like a class presentation where you might get suplexed at the end — but it's also a chance to show you can work the mic as well as the mat, and do something that lets you stand out. Kofi had been listening to Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock album, and decided to cut a promo in a Jamaican accent. The other wrestlers loved it, and Kofi did the character, and soon after, he was signed to WWE. 

True Kofi begins

While his time playing a Jamaican character on TV is looked back on with more than its share of laughs at how goofy it was, it was a little more stressful at the time. As he said in the Hot 97 interview, he was getting heat from both sides: Jamaicans, who were justifiably angry that WWE was billing him as the first-ever Jamaican superstar to work for the company despite the fact that he'd never even been to the island, and Ghanaians who assumed that he was playing a Jamaican character because he was ashamed of his actual heritage. That second group found the gimmick pretty easy to spot, too, since, as he said, "Kofi is a very Ghanaian name. It's like Mike or John, you know what I'm saying? It's the name given to a boy born on Friday."

Then came the October 19, 2009 episode of Monday Night Raw. During a segment where a team of superstars were fighting amongst themselves, Kofi grabbed the mic and said — in his real voice — that they all needed to come together and work as a team. The response, from a very confused Triple H: "I got a question. Matter of fact, I have a problem. Aren't you supposed to be Jamaican?" With that, the gimmick was dropped… aside from Kofi continuing to use his very Caribbean-flavored entrance music. 

The human highlight reel

If you've seen one clip of Kofi Kingston in action, it was almost certainly from one of his appearances at WWE's annual Royal Rumble. It's one of the biggest events of the year: a 30-person battle royal where a new competitor enters every 90 seconds, and where wrestlers are eliminated if they're thrown over the top rope and both feet touch the floor. 

The key part there? "Both feet touch the floor." That's been the source of both intentional and unintentional controversy — just ask the Big Show about what happened in 2000 if you want to hear how that goes — but it's a rule that's built for dramatic moments where someone is almost thrown out before making a recovery. In most cases, that involves sliding back in from the ring apron, or pulling themselves back over the top rope. Kofi, however, always goes just a little bit further, and it's become his annual trademark.

In 2011, Kofi saved himself from elimination by walking on his hands across the floor of the arena before making it back into the ring. In 2013, he landed on the broadcasters' table, then used one of their chairs to pogo-stick his way back. 2014 saw him caught by a fellow wrestler who then draped him across the guard rail separating the crowd from the ring, leading Kofi to make an incredible leap back into the ring. In the years since, he's crowd-surfed, been carried by his tag team partners, and even hopped on one foot using a platter of pancakes to avoid touching the floor. The one thing he hasn't done? Despite all of those saves, despite the fact that he provided some of the most memorable moments in those matches, Kofi Kingston has never actually won the Royal Rumble, or even made it to the final four.

Say hello to the good guy

He's won championships, staved off elimination from the Royal Rumble through unforgettable acrobatics, and made arenas full of wrestling fans love unicorns, but one of the most notable things about Kofi Kingston has nothing to do with the physical aspect of wrestling. Instead, it comes from the way his character has been presented to the crowd. 

With the exception of a brief period when the members of the New Day were meant to be annoying, overbearing goofballs rather than, uh, beloved, entertaining goofballs, Kofi has never really been a villain. He's always been a babyface (one of the good guys) which is pretty remarkable in itself. Heel turns — a heroic character becoming a villain — are one of the major sources of drama in the ongoing saga that is pro wrestling, and for a character to remain interesting and marketable as a good guy for over a decade is an achievement. 

As for why he's never embraced the dark side, well, the reason for that has everything to do with the physical side of wrestling. Kofi's in-ring style is built around fast-paced, high-flying action, punctuated by those annual heart-stopping saves at the Royal Rumble. That's the kind of style that people want to cheer for — nobody wants the bad guy to save himself through hard work, athleticism, and a plate of pancakes, but everyone remembers cheering for the good guy who pulled it off.

Kofi vs. cops

Before he was a part of the New Day, Kofi Kingston often traveled with fellow wrestler CM Punk, and — perhaps ironically, given his role as a squeaky-clean good guy in the ring — the two wrestlers often found themselves having to deal with the police. 

At a panel at a comic book convention, CM Punk told the story of what he called one of many times that he and Kofi had been pulled over while traveling together, as the heavily tattooed, formerly long-haired wrestler and MMA fighter said, "Because of how I look, and I'm with an African-American gentleman with dreadlocks, and you cannot tell that cop that there is no weed in the car." The really ironic part? Punk, in both real life and in-character as a pro wrestler, is straight edge, and those heavy tattoos include "DRUG FREE" across his knuckles. 

In that instance, Punk was driving when the pair were pulled over, and when the police officer insisted that Kofi get out of the car, he did so, and was promptly handcuffed while Punk remained in the car. By the end of the night, there were a total of eight police cars, including K-9 units, surrounding the two wrestlers for what had been a "simple" traffic stop, leading Punk to seriously worry that they would be arrested on false charges. Fortunately, that didn't happen, and while Punk says that he went off on the cops with a scathing, promo-style rant, the ever-polite good guy that is Kofi Kingston kept a much cooler head.  

The New Day's misfired origins

The one brief blip in Kofi's status as the eternal good guy came in 2014, with the formation of the New Day, a trio made up of Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods. For the most part, though, their particular brand of "villainy" involved playing the trombone and talking about how their opponents were "booty." Originally, though, it seemed like the group was going to go in a very different and much more serious direction.

On Raw in summer 2014, there was a segment where Kofi and Big E, having lost a tag-team match, were approached by Xavier Woods. Woods, wearing a white suit with glasses — a very uncharacteristic look for him — told them that they couldn't get ahead in pro wrestling by "shaking hands and kissing babies," and that "we do not ask any longer. Now, we take." From that original segment, it appeared that the concept for this new stable was going to be three black wrestlers who had become fed up with not getting opportunities despite their hard work, with at least a few undertones about the company's real-life history of undervaluing black wrestlers. It's premise that WWE had used before to varying degrees of success in the '90s, and it's a far cry from what we eventually got when the team made their official debut a few months later.

So what happened? Well, those original segments aired in late July 2014. On August 9th, in Ferguson, Missouri, a black teenager named Mike Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson. The incident brought issues of racism and violence into the public consciousness. It's entirely possible that this had nothing to do with the way the three wrestlers were eventually debuted as the New Day in November with no real mention of the storyline from over the summer. Given the timing, however, it's easy to speculate that someone at WWE realized having a team of black wrestlers railing against racial injustice and portraying them as the bad guys would be an even worse idea in 2014 than it had been in the '90s. 

The New Day gets over

When Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods, and Big E redebuted in November of 2014 as the New Day, it was a far cry from those first few segments over the summer. Instead, they were introduced with a series of bright, energetic videos that paired the wrestlers up with a gospel choir, embracing the power of positivity!

Unfortunately, there's no faster way to get wrestling fans to boo someone than to tell them they should be cheering, and the New Day wound up becoming heels anyway just by virtue of being too overbearing. The thing is, the more ridiculous their antics got, the more the crowd embraced them. That happens pretty often in pro wrestling; characters like the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and, more recently, Kevin Owens, all became beloved superstars by just being too entertaining as bad guys. Before long, the New Day followed the same route, and it turned out that they had actually used that "power of positivity" that had initially been intended to annoy the audience to become fan-favorites, which only made their antics get bigger and more ridiculous. For a while, the official WWE store was selling unicorn-horn headbands. At one point, they even made their entrance at WrestleMania by popping out of a ten-foot tall box of Booty-Os cereal while dressed as DragonBall Z characters, which is like three different layers of goofiness going on at the same time.

But they weren't just a comedy act. Those years also saw some fantastic wrestling from the three performers, including a lengthy span as the SmackDown Tag Team Champions — their third of four championship reigns was, at the time, the longest since the title's inception — and a series of matches with the Usos that culminated at Hell in a Cell 2016. 

B-plus player?

In the lead-up to 2019's WrestleMania 35, Kofi found himself  — and his partners in the New Day — embroiled in a storyline that saw Kofi being denied a shot at WWE's highest championship despite earning it time and time again. The chief obstacle here wasn't Daniel Bryan, the defending champion who, like Kofi, had once been denied opportunities despite winning over the crowd with incredible athleticism and charisma. It was Vince McMahon himself … or at least, the fictional version of Vince McMahon that the real-life guy plays on the camera. 

He was the one who took Kofi out of a promised championship match in favor of another wrestler, and then told him he could only earn his shot at the title if he defeated a gauntlet of five other wrestlers, one right after the other. Kofi did that, wrestling for over an hour, but McMahon then added a sixth match, against Bryan, that Kofi lost. He was given insurmountable odds, but in the end, he overcame them, and got his shot at the biggest show of the year.

Of course, that was all the fictional storyline that was playing out on TV every week. It did, however, have some basis in real life. Kofi had, after all, been with the company for eleven years, and even had a history of real-life conflict with Vince McMahon. As wrestler Chris Jericho noted in his book, Vince had taunted Kingston as a rookie, telling him "maybe one day you'll get over," which is wrestling slang meaning "become popular with the fans." Kofi was encouraged by Jericho to fight back, and during their altercation, Vince went for a double-leg takedown and kicked off a brief fight with a happy ending. Vince wound up telling Kofi that he was glad he stood up for himself, and after a decade that's seen him win every active championship in the company, it's safe to say that Kofi got over in a big way.

The first African-born World Champion

WrestleMania 35 was arguably among the most significant WrestleManias (WrestlesMania?) in the history of the WWE. It was the first 'Mania to be main-evented by female wrestlers, with Becky Lynch defeating Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey to win the company's two women's titles, cementing Lynch's place as the top star in the company, regardless of gender. And it was the show where Kofi Kingston won the WWE Championship, becoming the first African-born World Champion in the company's long history.

It's not just the fact he was born in Ghana that puts Kofi into rarefied air, though. On April 7, 2019, he became only the fourth black man to hold the WWE's top title — and, if you want to be really precise, only the second to hold the specific WWE Championship. Here's another fact that'll really blow your mind: the first black man to hold that title? Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who won his first WWE (then WWF) Championship as recently as 1998. The only other black men out of the 51 to hold the championship were Booker T and Mark Henry. 

The unfortunate fact, and one that came up throughout Kofi's chase for the title, is pro wrestling has often been slow to recognize black performers, a problem not limited to the WWE. There wasn't a black World Champion anywhere in wrestling at all until 1992, when Ron Simmons (better known for his time in WWE as Farooq) won World Championship Wrestling's top title. Of course, wrestling historians are often quick to point out there's slightly more diversity to the title history than those statistics might indicate. The fourth-ever WWF Champion was Puerto Rican superstar Pedro Morales, the Iranian-born Iron Sheik captured it in 1983, and it was also held for most of 1993 by Yokozuna, a Japanese character played by a Samoan-American wrestler. That last one might not be the best argument in favor of pro wrestling's history of diversity, but regardless, Kofi has secured his place in history just as much as he's secured it in the hearts of wrestling fans around the world.