Kofi Kingston defends his WWE championship later tonight on the SmackDown Live premiere on Fox against Brock Lesnar.
Earlier this year, Kingston put together an improbable run toward capturing his first-ever world title. It is especially rare to see someone booked on the WWE undercard for over a decade and then move into the world title picture, but Kingston was an outlier, primarily due to his unrelenting hard work and creativity in the ring, in addition to support from the WWE fan base.
Since winning the title at WrestleMania 35 in April, Kingston’s run with the belt has been very good, though just short of great. He feuded with Randy Orton, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, and Dolph Ziggler, but never had a standout storyline that captured the full attention of the business.
WWE’s “Hell in a Cell” pay-per-view takes place this Sunday, and Kingston—who holds an extremely prominent position in the company as champ—is not currently listed on the card. Tonight’s match on SmackDown casts his future as champion in doubt, as it is likely that network executives at Fox would prefer the box office draw of Lesnar to be champ.
Kingston spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the match with Lesnar, his work as champion, and tonight’s premiere of SmackDown on Fox.
Justin Barrasso: Has there been a moment during your run as WWE champion that has stood out to you as the most significant?
Kofi Kingston: This entire reign has been something very special for me. All the way from beating Daniel Bryan, a true ring general and one of the best in the world, at WrestleMania, to Samoa Joe, who makes you earn every inch in the ring, and Randy Orton.
My history with Orton came full circle after a decade and culminated by fighting over the WWE title. I also really enjoyed working with Dolph Ziggler. I used to love how guys like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart feuded over the Intercontinental title, then years down the line fought for the WWE title. That’s what happened with me and Dolph. We feuded for the United States Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, and then the WWE title.
I’ve been fortunate to go up against guys who are just so good, so it’s hard to put my finger on one favorite moment. My goal is to make sure the moment that we’re in is always entertaining. I always want to keep the WWE Universe wanting more.
JB: There is no one in this business quite like Brock Lesnar. You are a perfect underdog in this match, which captures your entire career, too. But does it bother that you work nonstop for WWE, missing time with your family, while Lesnar works a far more reduced, relaxed schedule?
KK: The wrestling business is not a business you get into because it’s fair.
There are so many people who have worked so, so hard, but then get to the main roster and don’t get an honest shot. Just because you work the hardest doesn’t mean you’re going to get a shot. But we are, as performers, know the harder we work, the luckier we get. I know, for me, I wouldn’t have been fighting for the WWE title at WrestleMania if Ali hadn’t gotten hurt and I took his spot in the Elimination Chamber. I wish it were different, but that’s the the wresting business.
So for someone like Brock to come in and come and go as he pleases, I get it. He’s a guy who has collegiate national championships, he dabbled in the NFL and he was champion in the UFC. People look at him and they want to see him. This is David vs. Goliath. I no longer let being the underdog bother me. It’s kind of become my thing. People used to tell me I was too small for the WWE, and now those same people ask me for my autograph for their kids. It’s just what I do, I’m always the underdog, but you’d be foolish to underestimate me.
JB: There is only one WWE title match on the SmackDown premiere on Fox, and you’re the man carrying that title and given that honor. You will obviously walk in with the world title, but will you walk out with it?
KK: We’ll see. I’ve been given this opportunity against Brock, and I’m going to embrace it.
Just to be at the forefront of this is crazy. Fox’s build to our debut has been amazing. We have The Rock on the show, this is the biggest SmackDown ever. Everybody wants to be on this show because we all realize how big this is, and here I am—I’m at the forefront of a new era of SmackDown. There is only going to be one first show on Fox, so it’s an honor to be in this role.