“Saw the new day comin, and it look just like me” – Mos Def “Love”.
WrestleMania 35 – Kofi Kingston holding the WWE title above his hand, flanked by his partners Xavier Woods and Big E (who make up the popular faction, The New Day) – after months of the most unlikely rise to main event status we’ve seen since his opponent, Daniel Bryan did the same half a decade ago – immediately became my favorite wrestling moment of all time. Easily.
People often want simple answers when it comes to race and racism, so it’s been easier to say that WWE has never had a black world champion. The Rock apparently doesn’t count because he’s half Samoan and for a bevy of reasons there’s a belief that he doesn’t signify as black enough to count.
Booker T and Mark Henry apparently don’t count because they won iterations of the belt that appeared on WWE’s secondary show, Smackdown (in that case, Kofi’s win wouldn’t count either, right?).
The truth here is that WWE has had black champions but that doesn’t erase its long, long history of lowest common denominators of storytelling when it comes to race (and women and the LGBT community and the disabled and and and).
I’ve spent the last few weeks preparing myself for the seemingly inevitable disappointment of yet another black wrestler – this time New Day’s Kofi Kingston, the 11-year veteran who got his first title shot of his career on Sunday – falling short in a championship match against a white counterpart – this time the mega heel Daniel Bryan, defending the championship as the corporate antithesis of the underdog character he used to be.
Despite the fact that all of the storytelling tropes leading up to Kingston’s match vs Bryan at WrestleMania 35 seemed to signal a triumphant night for Kingston, the history of wrestling was always echoing in the back of my mind. So I was genuinely surprised when the New England native pinned Bryan to become the first black wrestler to win the WWE title at WrestleMania.
Because I remember. I saw it all. I saw Booker T lose fair and square at WrestleMania XIX after weeks of Triple H berating him with racist dog whistles about his background and sting in jail. I remember The Rock being the first babyface to lose a WrestleMania main event at WrestleMania 2000 (then again the next year).
I have seen year after year with white champion after white champion while black stars are relegated to the mid card. And I’d allowed myself to be reserved to the idea that, despite The New Day being at or near the top of merchandise sales every year, none of the three men would ever hold a title. I’m so happy Kofi never stopped believing.
Kofi Kingston never should have gotten to this moment, because wrestlers who look like him don’t get moments like these. He was hamstrung with a fake Jamaican accent and gifted with unmatched athleticism that made him a marvel every Royal Rumble, but he could never break through the glass ceiling.
He came close – in 2009 he had a magnetic feud with Randy Orton culminating in a memorable brawl in Madison Square Garden – but he’d find his ceiling and get dragged back to the middle of the pack. Kingston continued to evolve, forming tag teams (and winning championships), tweaking his singles character (and winning secondary championships) before joining Woods and Big E in what ostensibly looked like just another stereotypical faction for black wrestlers. This time in the form of Creflo Dollar adjacent black preachers.
But somehow, against all odds, the trio turned that gimmick into gold – they turned a trumpet into a beloved character; “Booty-O’s” into something sold at FYE; unicorns into merch gold and record-breaking tag title reigns. They showed us that we can dance without shucking and jiving. That we could be hilarious without being caricatures. That we could love each other without fear. They showed us that we could be unapologetically us no matter what.
And we loved them for it. We sat our kids in front of TVs and showed them the New Day. We pointed at Kofi, Xavier and Big E and allowed ourselves and our children to believe.
Still, through all the New Day success, the singles titles, or even title matches, never came even though it was clear that any of the three men were capable. And if a title match were to come, Kofi seemed to be last on the list. He was older than both men and didn’t have that Vince McMahon-beloved physique of Big E or the mic chops of Xavier Woods (he proved the latter wrong in the last few weeks).
But Kofi is the legend. He’s the one who’s been there, who built so much of the groundwork that allowed New Day to become what it is. The New Day’s ascent has been a dream come true for black wrestling fans who have endured for lifetimes waiting for this moment. The trio surpassed even my wildest dreams of what I’d see for black wrestlers. New Day didn’t just give us championships and moments, they have spent five years of something we rarely see in entertainment: genuine love between black men.
When Kofi lost his title shot two months ago at Elimination Chamber we saw Xavier and Big E lifting him up, giving him his proverbial flowers. As Kofi took every step to the title, it was his two friends cheering him on and celebrating every move. And when Kofi finally won the belt, his brothers held hoisted him up. They showed us what it was like to have true, unfiltered support and brotherhood. They showed us what it meant to have a family.
They showed us that success just hits different when the people who walked arm-in-arm with you the whole way are at the finish line waiting for you. Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods and Big E have changed wrestling forever. They disrupted the status quo and became champions in places where black excellence is rebuffed at every turn.
Shad Gaspard, who spent his time at WWE as part of the group Cryme Time – two black men who wore big chains, sagged their pants and robbed people for their gimmicks – posted an IG video of his reaction to Kofi’s title win in real time. In the video, Gaspard is standing next to Hassan Hamin Assad who wrestled with WWE as MVP, a cocky athlete who had to wear an outfit that covered up his Malcolm X tattoo while wrestling.
The two men, despite their impressive talents, never moved beyond the WWE mid card while they were with the company. As the referee counts to three, Gaspard is immediately moved to tears but it’s Assad’s reaction that sticks with me.
The former United States champion is unmoved at first, staring at the TV without a reaction. It’s like he’s in shock, in disbelief at what he saw. Then it hits him. His face curls as he looks at Gaspard. They embrace, the impact of Kingston’s win finally settling in both men’s spirits. It’s a collective exhale. “Finally.” Finally, we saw ourselves holding up titles. We saw ourselves winning where nobody wanted us to.
Meanwhile, inside the ring Kingston, Woods and Big E are dancing with the new champ’s kids; a future generation that will know what it’s like to see the culmination of black excellence, black resilience, and black power. It’s the same image I’ll be showing my son for years to come.