On Sunday, April 7th, Kofi Kingston will challenge Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship, doing so after an arduous and trying road that has seen Kingston have to overcome obstacle after obstacle, each seemingly more insurmountable than the last. He’ll look to make history at WrestleMania 35, to cement his legacy, to prove once and for all that after a long and accomplished career full of accolades, that he’s more than a mid-card talent, that he’s more than a B+ player.
Does that story sound familiar? It should, because five years ago at WrestleMania XXX, this was exactly the journey that WWE took on us with Kingston’s challenger, the current WWE Champion, Daniel Bryan. And much like Kingston will hope to do on Sunday, Bryan rose past adversity, with the crowd firmly behind him, to ascend the highest metaphorical mountain of his career and accomplish the crowning achievement of winning the top title in WWE. He was the B+ player, held down by management, remarked upon that he was not championship material. Where Kingston sits now, Bryan sat five years ago and that’s what makes this story so compelling.
Because you would think Daniel Bryan would be sympathetic, understanding even. After all, the road that Kofi Kingston is walking, the journey that he’s been on ever since he dazzled WWE audiences during a gauntlet match in February (but more accurately has been on for over a decade), is not unlike Bryan’s own from 2013-14. But instead, Bryan has become the hypocrite he’s spent the last several months telling everyone else they are. Five years removed from being the B+ player himself, Daniel Bryan is now the A+ player he was told he’d never be. And there he is, telling Kofi Kingston the same thing he was once told, that he’s not championship material, that he won’t amount to anything beyond a mid-card and tag team wrestler, that he’s nothing more than a B+ player.
As far as longterm booking goes, no one is saying that this was WWE’s plan all along. That said, sometimes things just work out and come full circle in a way you never could have expected would be the case five years prior. When Bryan won the WWE Championship in improbable fashion at WrestleMania XXX, in many ways, it was the end to the story. He had ‘YES!ed’ his way to the pinnacle and provided an unforgettable moment that is still considered one of the best and most satisfying championship victories in WWE history. The story had its happy ending but as Hollywood has shown us, there’s always a sequel and that’s where Kingston’s narrative comes in (NOTE: The below video is a fanmade remake of Daniel Bryan’s iconic “Monster” video package from WrestleMania XXX and much like the original, perfectly encapsulates Kingston’s journey to this point).
As Harvey Dent famously coined in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Just over three years ago, Daniel Bryan died a hero. Well, his career did at least, or so everyone thought. In a tearful goodbye, Bryan told the WWE Universe that his career had ended due to the repeated head and neck injuries he sustained that doctors wouldn’t clear him of in order to compete. But Bryan fought hard to return to the ring. He went through experimental treatment, he never gave up, he fought for his dreams and as he went on to say during his return, his dreams fought for him too. Bryan returned a hero, but it was short-lived as less than a year after coming back to WWE, the hero became the villain, turning on AJ Styles to win the WWE Championship in controversial fashion.
Since November 2018, Bryan has been one of the best heels in the company, peddling his green, climate-friendly, ultra-liberal agenda and acting superior to everyone in the stands, watching on TV at home and in the locker room. Made with 100 percent organic hemp, Bryan even reinvented the WWE Championship calling its previous incarnation extravagant and wasteful. Over the ensuing months, Bryan fought off challenges by Styles, Mustafa Ali, Kevin Owens, and several other challengers during his Elimination Chamber title defense. All the while, Bryan’s belittled and downgraded his opponents, none more than Kofi Kingston, who the champion said didn’t deserve a title opportunity.
With Daniel Bryan firmly slotted into the role of the villain, Kofi Kingston has filled the void of the unlikely hero. Prior to his near-historic gauntlet performance on February 12th, one that set the internet on fire as fans remembered just how good Kingston could be as a singles performer, it seemed he wasn’t slotted into any plans beyond being a member of New Day. But something changed that night because much like Bryan’s rise through the “YES!” Movement, everyone got behind Kingston. Despite it being a match that he wasn’t even supposed to be in (Kofi Kingston was a last minute replacement for an injured Mustafa Ali), by the end of the night, his was the name they were chanting as his performance left a lasting impression. But that hadn’t carried over to management, at least not yet, as reports noted that Kingston wasn’t in the company’s plans for the Showcase of the Immortals.
After another strong performance in the Elimination Chamber however, it was hard to deny that the crowd was going to play a role in what happened next, much as they did some five years prior. Bryan was playing the part of the villain exceedingly well, but there was a layer missing. Bryan himself couldn’t hold Kingston down, he couldn’t refuse to wrestle title matches management may or may not have granted. A high-ranking executive needed to do that and to show just how important this story had become, that person was none other than Vince McMahon himself.
Kofi Kingston was set to wrestle for the title at Fastlane much to the excitement and enthusiasm of New Day but McMahon pulled him from the match and replaced him with the returning Kevin Owens. McMahon said Owens was more deserving and that Kingston, frankly, just wasn’t good enough to challenge for the top title. In some ways, art imitated life as this angle continued with Big E and Xavier Woods taking to social media to express their anger at McMahon’s decision, noting WWE’s historical track record of not elevating African American wrestlers to world championship status. “People like us,” Big E stated simply in a video, “are only meant to go so far.”
It’s hard to deny the realism in this story as Big E was right, at least historically speaking. If Kofi Kingston wins on Sunday, he’ll become just the fourth black wrestler in WWE history to hold one of the company’s top titles, the others being Mark Henry, Booker T and the Rock. He’s just the third to compete for the top title at WrestleMania and if he wins, will be the first predominantly black wrestler to win the top title at the top show. And finally, having already won 15 titles in his successful career, including reigns with the United States, Intercontinental and tag team championships, Kofi Kingston will become a grand slam champion, making him just the second black wrestler after Booker T to accomplish this feat and the first in the modern format.
This was at the heart of the story as Kingston, Woods and Big E all poured out their passion and emotions as Kingston was denied chance after chance. And while at the core, it seemed like another telling of a white boss prevailing over a black employee, this journey was so much more. It was about never giving up, persevering, fighting for self-worth and being a role model for all those out there who can’t find a reason to believe in themselves. While Kingston’s skin color was an underlying element, five years later, this was the same narrative that Bryan himself was involved in, on the same side, fighting for the same dream and with the same motivation in mind.
This isn’t the “YES!” Movement revisited though, this is the “KofiMania” movement and it’s all built to this moment at WrestleMania, a PPV where historically, the bad guys always get their comeuppance and the good guy, after being put down and denied for months, can be denied no longer. While Bryan has played an integral part, becoming the authority in a way that he once fought so valiently against, this is Kingston’s story to tell, his happy ending to have. And with his brothers by his side and the crowd fully behind him (as well as most of the locker room), there is no doubt that Kingston’s moment will be as unforgettable as the one Bryan himself had five years ago.