In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, WrestleMania 35 is fast upon us, which means it is our eminent duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each individual match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. It is, to be pointed, The Ringer’s WrestleMania Match Book.
As of this writing, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night includes upward of a dozen confirmed bouts, several of which we’ve already covered in depth. And our latest pit stop lands us at the doorstep of a WWE Championship showdown between title holder and vegan tyrant Daniel Bryan and a man whose recent run to no. 1-contender status mirrors Bryan’s road to Mania XXX. As has become customary in this series, the following is our finest effort at distilling the participants’ dovetailing fates, deducing why we care and who, in this instance, will walk out of MetLife Stadium with Bryan’s hideous hemp-woven strap.
WrestleMania Match Book, Chapter 7: Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kofi Kingston for the WWE Championship
One year ago, not a single person on the planet would have projected a match between heel WWE Champion “The New” Daniel Bryan and world-beating challenger Kofi Kingston at WrestleMania 35. Let’s take that apart: A year ago, nobody would have predicted that Daniel Bryan would be a heel champion or Kofi Kingston would be a main event challenger, and nobody in their right mind would have put money on the parlay. Along with Roman Reigns’ inspiring return from fighting leukemia to take on Drew McIntyre, Bryan-Kingston is a match that proves the most magical aspects of pro wrestling are the parts that don’t go according to script. And if that parlay pays off, it could bode well for the future of all up-and-coming 5-foot-somethings.
Up until late March 2018, we all assumed Bryan—a self-made phenomenon who’d hung it up three years earlier rather than worsen chronic neck injuries—would never compete again. That changed with one shocking announcement of medical clearance, and after easing in with a low-key feud against now-exiled giant Big Cass, Bryan issued a statement of intent last November with an epic heel turn against then–WWE Champion AJ Styles.
He has since set about proselytizing the virtues of veganism and environmentalism, ostensible moral goods that skew villainous in their ardency (and delivery). And man, do people hate him. As if begrudging audiences the simple pleasures of arena concession food and lecturing fans about lethargy weren’t heretical enough, he trashed the traditional title belt in favor of something Ron Swanson and Woody Harrelson might have co-fashioned. Then the self-appointed granola guru got himself a disciple in the form of ex-Wyatt Family flock member turned ex-Bludgeon Brother Erick Rowan, whose current aura is best described as black-metal lumberjack.
Contrast that with New Day principal and—as we’ve been told roughly twice per hour of SmackDown for the past two months—11-year WWE veteran (and numerous-time U.S./Intercontinental/Tag Team Champion) Kofi Kingston. As 2018 expired, Kingston and his New Day mates Big E and Xavier Woods were still spreading joy and pancakes to the world. Kingston was happily wowing crowds from coast to coast with his athleticism and entertaining them with his once-dormant antic wit. New Day even mixed in a fifth stretch as SmackDown tag champs for good measure (defeating, as it happens, Rowan and his partner Luke Harper in their last stand as Bludgeon Bros.). But despite their success and broad appeal, it was happenstance that gave Kofi an angle on the belt. When NXT call-up Mustafa Ali got hurt against Randy Orton in February, Kingston got the call to take his place in the Elimination Chamber match for Bryan’s title. First, he had to help kick off a SmackDown gauntlet match to determine the lucky final entrant in said Chamber match. His first of what would ultimately be four successive opponents that evening? None other than Daniel Bryan. But for Kofi, it was nothing short of a new day in his career, yes it was.
In hindsight, Kingston’s push might have been the plan as soon as Ali was felled. Kofi commenced said SmackDown gauntlet with a clean 1-2-3 over Bryan, before rampaging through Jeff Hardy, Samoa Joe, and AJ Styles. He’d come up short against final foe Randy Orton, assuring that Kingston had simultaneously earned the fans’ adulation—and the backing of his babyface peers—and walked into Elimination Chamber as a compelling underdog who fell just short of a Tuesday-night miracle. By the time Kingston got even with Orton, leaving him alone with Bryan in the ring, #KofiMania was officially running wild throughout Houston’s Toyota Center. This time, the champ notched his own fair-and-square knockout blow, and very stealthily, a genuine rivalry was born.
The subsequent SmackDown featured a serviceable six-man tag pitting the Chamber participants—Kingston, Styles, and Hardy—opposite evildoers Bryan, Orton, and Samoa Joe. Notably, the former trio won when Kingston pinned Bryan clean on national TV for the second time in seven days. Woods and Big E propped their partner up on their shoulders to end-credits-of–Teen Wolf–worthy dramatic effect, and Shane McMahon made it official for March 10’s Fastlane PPV: Bryan vs. Kingston for the WWE Championship.
Alas, Shane’s dad and company chairman Vince McMahon had other ideas, for reasons that remain murky at best. The 73-year-old tycoon came out in full “Mr. McMahon” flourish on the following week’s SmackDown, spoiled Kingston and Co.’s celebration and decreed that returning former Universal Champion Kevin Owens would replace Kingston in order to provide fans with “the highest-caliber competition.” And so it was that, between earnest vignettes highlighting Black History Month, WWE’s top executive took away an African American performer’s rightful spot and handed it to a Caucasian man from Canada who hadn’t wrestled in months. The innuendo lingered as New Day were dispatched to India IRL for a goodwill promotional appearance, and hence were absent from competition on the go-home SmackDown before Fastlane. (As added insult, Ali was inserted into Owens vs. Bryan, though Bryan came out on top.) No worries, though, because McMahon and New Day would be back on March 19, at which point Vince belittled Big E and Woods (“You shut your mouth”) and further vexed Kofi—not to mention sent his amassing faithful into a tizzy—by offering a devil’s bargain: Plow through Orton, Joe, Sheamus, Cesaro, and Rowan in what was becoming this story’s signature—a gauntlet match—and Bryan is all yours at Mania. Adding a personal dimension, McMahon also condescended to Kingston, clueing him in that Bryan viewed him as nothing more than a “B-plus player.” For all but those with worrisome memory-retention issues, the bitter irony was hard to swallow.
Fast-forward to the March 19 gauntlet, and hoorah! Kingston wins and is going to WrestleMania! Sort of. After a climactic roll-up of Orton—who stands to be a likely adversary in the wings should Kofi come out of Mania as champ—party pooper and possible racist oppressor Mr. McMahon (the alter ego, to be clear) struts his stuff and kills the buzz. He banishes Big E and Woods backstage and brings out a ring-fresh Bryan as the final boss of Kofi’s game. Bryan lands the running knee, picks up the victory at Kingston’s expense, and the man who’d essentially been made over as the new “old” Daniel Bryan was again skipped over—with prejudice.
Fortunately, Kofi’s New Day compadres had his back, commiserating later that night about whether to pack up their brotherly love rather than contend with the fact that WWE’s “glass ceiling is still there.” (It’s a bone of contention that trades far more on past perceptions of McMahon and WWE’s racial exclusion than a scan of current and recent title holders would suggest, giving the company creative cover to go there now.) As you can surmise by this column’s very existence, New Day didn’t quit. But Big E and Woods were forced to fight for Kofi’s honor by completing a tag gauntlet on the March 26 episode of SmackDown, a scant 12 days prior to Mania itself. (Such scenarios are, after all, far more expeditious than litigation.) An ever-expanding entourage of well-wishers crowded Kofi as he watched from a backstage flat screen, and to the surprise of no one but the delight of millions, New Day persevered by defeating—you guessed it—Bryan and Rowan, via countout no less. A motley crew of lurkers including tenuous babyfaces Miz and Kevin Owens clapped and crowed approval. All the dastardly, deck-stacking Mr. McMahon could do was make Bryan vs. Kingston at Mania official and mundanely wonder aloud, “Can a B-plus player beat Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania for the WWE Championship?” That would, literally, be the last remaining unanswered question.
When Mr. McMahon taunted Kofi that he’d only make the Hall of Fame as a member of New Day, that was all but foreshadowing his assured solo spot down the road. But a true Mania moment, hoisting that eco-abomination of a belt high in triumph, would make the issue a formality. And Bryan, who despite his solid work rate and commitment to character since coming back, is still ultimately playing with house money. If he’d never stepped down from his post as SmackDown GM, his enshrinement in WWE’s ceremonial annals and wrestling lore still would have been a lock. Having said that, Bryan’s current tenure with the belt has been a great one, maybe the best yet for a man who saw so many prior reigns cut short by aches and pains.
If Kofi hadn’t taken the world by storm these past several weeks, it’d be hard to figure anyone dethroning Daniel any time soon. But Kofi did, and ever since WWE acquiesced to critical mass by inserting Bryan into the Mania XXX main event five years ago, there’s been a bit more give-and-take between the peoples’ will and creative plans. New Day has been such a steadying and satisfying fixture on SmackDown (and, at other junctures, Raw), so it’s hard to fathom the trio reaching its logical end. But maybe it doesn’t have to. That’s for the creatives to figure out. All Bryan and Kofi have to do is go out and prove once and for all what they’ve each explicitly reiterated in character over the years and made plain by their very longevity: heart, talent, and total dedication loom larger than the most awesome 7-footer.