Wrestling is at its absolute best when it is real, and there are few more authentic in this business than Kofi Kingston.
Kingston is the reigning WWE champion, a position forever defined by the late Bruno Sammartino. A fighting champion, Sammartino immigrated to the United States from Italy and earned his accolades through toil and tears. He stood as a beacon of hope for Italians, but his ethnicity ultimately served as only a piece of his greatness. People of all backgrounds enjoyed Sammartino, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to fight for ideals such as perseverance, honesty, and professionalism.
Those attributes also describe Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah, better known to the WWE Universe as Kofi Kingston. The reigning, defending WWE champion is working with UNICEF to spread goodwill across the world, beginning with a trip to his homeland.
At the age of 11, Kingston emigrated with his family from Ghana to the United States. He returned last month for the first time since 1994, entering a scene at Kotoka International Airport that was an outright celebration. Kingston was greeted with an overflow of people chanting his name, a band and a security detail to ensure he made it out of the terminal quickly and safely.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect the reception to be nearly as energetic and wild as it was,” said Kingston. “The level of elation I felt for coming home made me feel blessed, and it really meant a lot to me to come back home as WWE Champion.”
Kingston met with family and esteemed chiefs from a wide array of communities, and an integral part of his trip was to stress the importance of education to children and help spread a message of safety to pregnant mothers.
“We were there with UNICEF, and we were able to go to the schools,” said Kingston. “Those kids are in the same position I was in, and I stood in front of them as living, tangible proof that you need to follow your dreams. That’s my role as WWE champion.
“We also went to a women’s clinic that was educating women about healthy pregnancies and having healthy children. It was all about having the best level of health for their children, and the importance of breastfeeding. I was able to share that my wife breastfeeds our kids, and how we believe in that.”
Kingston is embracing an evolved role in his position of WWE champion. He is filled with immense pride that he can represent people who share similar backgrounds.
“It’s important for representation to be prevalent, where someone can look at the screen and see someone that looks like them doing wonderful and amazing things,” said Kingston. “When I became WWE champion, that was a chance for me to represent kids who look like me.”
Representation is of the utmost importance to Kingston, as is embodying a message and work ethic that is universally relatable.
“My story is not just about race, it has transcended race,” said Kingston. “My story had been one of struggle. Anyone, from any background, can relate to struggling. Having a conflict, not believing you could accomplish your goal, and people holding you down and telling you that you can’t do something; I have been in all of those positions. I’ve had the option of quitting or to keep fighting. I want to set the example for everyone, and that doesn’t matter about race, as long as you’re willing to fight to achieve what you want to achieve.
“I think that’s why people were so happy I won at WrestleMania—my story is much bigger than one race. It’s a story where people of all ethnicities can relate. That’s why I’ve put so much pressure on myself to be the best WWE champion I can be.”
The 37-year-old father of two has not allowed fame to redefine his character. He credits his wife for the love and support she gives to the couple’s children when he is on the road, which is often. (“My wife technically has three children,” he added playfully, “if you include me.”)
“If you want to achieve your goals, you have to fight for them, and I also want to teach that to my children,” said Kingston. “Especially after WrestleMania this year, when they were able to come in the ring in front of 85,000 people and wild out, celebrate, and bask in this glory, they have been bit by the wrestling bug. They get a kick out of calling me Kofi Kingston instead of dad. But I want to show them they can be whatever they want to be as long as they are willing to work and sacrifice in order to make it happen.”
Kingston has added his own personal touch to his work in WWE, within each different tag team title reign (he is an eight-time tag champ with five different partners) and his unrelenting enthusiasm alongside Xavier Woods and Big E as part of the New Day. He is seeking to add that same signature of authenticity to his WWE title run, and wants to co-author the next chapter of his career against “The Beast Incarnate” Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar holds the Money in the Bank contract and can cash-in for a title shot whenever he chooses. The former UFC heavyweight champ and his advocate Paul Heyman have intimated that they prefer settling an old score with Universal champion Seth Rollins, who defeated Lesnar at this last April’s WrestleMania, over a pursuit of Kingston’s title. But Kingston has been around the cutthroat business of professional wrestling long enough to know that everyone wants your spot, regardless of what is said publicly, especially when you are the company’s champion.
“I’m not ruling out Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar showing up on SmackDown and cashing in,” said Kingston, who defeated Dolph Ziggler this past Friday at the Super Showdown in Saudi Arabia. “Until Brock actually cashes in his contract, there is always a target on my back.”
Just like Bruno Sammartino did in a bygone era—one increasingly more forgotten as each day passes—Kingston is embracing the opportunity to defend his WWE title, the most notorious championship across the world, in a fight against the best. And the fact that Lesnar is chasing Rollins has only added fuel to the champ’s fire.
“That has been the story of my career,” acknowledged Kingston. “I’m not necessarily believed in. But I would love for him to cash in his contract on me, putting me in that David vs. Goliath role. That’s something I would welcome. I want to become the best WWE champion of all time, so I want to go up against the best competition. And Brock is one of the best. Brock is going to have to be up for a fight if he challenges me, but I’d welcome it.”
Another memorable opponent for Kingston would be Shane McMahon.
The self-proclaimed “Best in the World” just defeated Roman Reigns (courtesy of a Claymore from Drew McIntyre) at the Super ShowDown, and McMahon would be chasing his first-ever WWE world title.
“I would love to fight Shane, and I would love to get Vince in the ring, too,” added Kingston. “I think it’s really cool that Shane is in this role of walking the line of an authoritative figure, but, at the same time, is an active superstar. Shane does some pretty crazy things in the ring, as you see in every single match that he has, so I would love to mix it up with him.”
While Kingston works toward his career-defining moment as champion, he is accomplishing even more outside the comforts of the squared circle.
“My goal has always been to motivate people and to give the sense of belief that they can do anything they want to do, as long as they believe in themselves,” said Kingston. “That’s my role as champion, motivating people to go out and pursue their dream, no matter what anyone else has told them. There is nothing better than being able to achieve your dream.
“And working with UNICEF, it’s an amazing partnership. I’m a big proponent and supporter of UNICEF, and WWE is behind that message of fighting for all people. I’m looking forward to doing more together.”
Carrying the most well-known wrestling title around the world and representing the WWE in new forums is providing Kingston a chance to make his mark on wrestling and bring a dose of positivity to society.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Kingston. “But at the top of the mountain is the start of another mountain. Climbing the 11-year mountain of becoming WWE champion was awesome, but it’s not over by any means.
“Now the real test begins in terms of what type of WWE champion I can be. That’s the mountain we’re climbing right now, but you know me, I’m always up for a good climb. My cardio is always on point, and we’re going to climb this next mountain.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.