(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — What a difference a year can make. At this time last year, leading up to WrestleMania 35, WWE Superstar Kofi Kingston was about to experience the crown jewel of his career. He was about to shock the world by defeating Daniel Bryan to capture the first WWE Championship of his 11-year journey and embark on an improbable six-month run as the face of the SmackDown brand. The moment that night at MetLife Stadium in the shadows of New York City was the thing dreams are made of.
Heading into this year’s WrestleMania, Kingston is ready to fight once again. Only this time he’s fighting alongside the rest of the world that is battling the worst pandemic in more than a century. The coronavirus outbreak forced WWE to abandon plans to run at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and instead pre-record the biggest show of the year from their considerably smaller training facility in nearby Orlando without any fans in attendance.
WWE remains one of the few sports and entertainment platforms to still be churning out new content, as the vast majority of major sporting leagues and production companies worldwide have come to a grinding halt.
The intro package for WWE programming used to say the world is watching. Indeed, the world is watching hundreds of thousands of our loved ones fall victim to an invisible enemy that is indiscriminately taking lives. Fear, panic and confusion are the predominant emotions being felt morning, noon and night.
Kingston views this weekend’s historic WrestleMania as much more than just a show. The event, that is being spread over two nights for the first time, with Rob Gronkowski hosting, is providing a much needed outlet of escape for fans. The problems will still be there after the final bell rings. But for those hours when WWE Superstars are performing, fans can lose themselves in the action and forget about all that is raging outside their door. It’s a way to transport themselves to a happier time.
That makes this year’s WrestleMania perhaps the most important of all-time.
I had a chance to catch up with Kingston as he prepares for WrestleMania 36 to air this weekend, and to watch himself (as part of the New Day) vie for the SmackDown Tag Team Championship in a Triple Threat Ladder Match. This is the first year he’ll be able to catch the show with his family. For a man who is usually on the road hundreds of days a year, if there is anything to be grateful about these trying times, it’s that he can spend a lot of time with his wife and young sons.
The circumstances leading up to this year’s WrestleMania are far different than what was happening a year ago in New York. I’m curious about your feelings feelings as you wrestled your match the day of this year’s WrestleMania versus what you were feeling last year back at MetLife Stadium.
I think, for me, regardless of any WrestleMania going forward, I don’t know if there’s going to be anything that will ever match that for me last year, because that was the culmination of not just an 11-year journey, but a lifetime journey. That was my dream as a kid. I wanted to wrestle for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania. Now that was on the cusp of happening.
This year, it’s a lot different. The WrestleMania that we had was nobody in the crowd, in a much smaller building. But at the same time, it’s still WrestleMania, and I think that we, as performers, can’t help but get up for it. Especially for us as WWE Superstars, we take a lot of pride in being able to lift people up throughout these dire times.
That’s the way we’ve always been. Even if it’s, for example, like the armed forces. When we go to a tribute to the troops and we go overseas and we’re able to put a smile on an officer’s face or a soldier’s face. We don’t know what happened the day before or what’s going to happen the day after. But we do know that for the moments that we are there, we’re able to put smiles on people’s faces, and they’re able to forget about all of that. And now it’s just on a grander scale, because we’re doing it with the nation in this state of uncertainty and not knowing what’s going to happen with schooling or just people’s lives in general.
There was a lot of uncertainty leading up to the cancellation of the originally scheduled event at Raymond James Stadium. WrestleMania was one of the final dominoes to fall after all the other leagues that pushed pause or cancelled their season altogether. What was it like for you as a performer? Were you still holding out hope as that drew closer and closer?
I think there’s always a sense of hope. And I think that we all wanted everything to cleared up by WrestleMania, because there’s so many people, not just us as Superstars. We work all year round to get to this day that’s larger than life. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been on WrestleMania, and this will be their first WrestleMania. You want to be able to do that in front of a crowd, and you always hold out this hope for that to happen the way that you want it to happen.
But as time went on and we saw the safety concerns and everything started to unfold, we decided to do it the way that we did it. And the safety of people is of utmost importance. So that’s really the route that everybody decided to go, and we just had to find a way to try to make it work, again, to be able to put a smile on people’s faces throughout the dire time. But I think, like everybody else, we started to realize how serious the situation was globally. This has never happened before on this large a scale. So we’re all kind of learning together, and everyone’s trying to make everything work.
I was talking to Keith Lee earlier this week, and he said that without the fans in the stands, there’s just not as much adrenaline, or at least it’s very different. And because of that, he said that he felt things more in the ring. He said specifically when he got hit in the ear last week, it really rocked him. Are you having a similar experience?
The crowd definitely provides that sense of adrenaline, and I’d be lying to you if I said that it was the same. But, for me, I’ve been to a lot of different WrestleManias, and especially with as grand a scale as it was for me last year, there’s not a whole lot that would, I don’t want to say rattle me… But at this point in my career, I’m still able to get people, just get them up without necessarily letting the crowd affect me as much as it did when I was younger.
So I’ve been able to find a way to provide a sense of just motivation for myself. And I’ve been able to lean on that side a little bit more since WrestleMania, obviously more so than I’ve had to in different WrestleManias. I think that, as performers it’s important that we also … I don’t know, it’s just the way that we approach the situation. I just think it’s important to be able to have that element where you can motivate yourself to go out there. But, at the same time, it is a very, very different experience having no fans there. But you just have to find that motivation and that drive from somewhere else.
The silver lining in all of this is you’re probably getting a chance to spend a lot more time with your family. What are some of the things you guys are doing to have fun while all of this is happening? On Instagram you posted photos where you guys were having robot adventures or something like that.
Man, it has been awesome. Like you were saying, the silver lining in all of this, I have never been home this consistently for this long. Over the past decade plus I’ve been consistently on the road. I haven’t been home for four weeks at a time. Now, for the past month, I think I’ve been home for like, I don’t know, maybe 75% of it. And now just being home, it’s awesome.
I’ve gotten to teach my son how to play checkers. We’re actually playing chess right now. I’m teaching him how to play chess. We have gone fishing. There’s a fishing pond right across the street from where we live, so we go there. He’s whispering in my ear that he caught four fish. He and I actually caught our first fish on the same day. I’d never fished before, and they wanted to fish and our neighbors fish too. I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s do it, and we’re all kind of learning together.” It’s been an amazing time.
I have a harmonica that I’ve been talking like a robot into and auto-tuning into and singing bedtime songs to them. So we’re just having the grandest time. Like you said on Instagram, my wife made them some robot outfits, so they got to do that. And I’m here for all of that. And ordinarily, I wouldn’t be here for that. So I’m really enjoying just getting to live life. As awkward and abnormal as the situation is, I feel like I’m having a normal parenting life right now. Most people get to experience so much time with their kid, and I’m getting to experience that. And I’m loving every single moment of it. So you take your home time any way that you can get it. Unfortunately, it has been at the expense of this scary coronavirus, but in our household and our quarantine right now, it’s great. I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying it to the best of my ability.
You will actually be able to watch WrestleMania at home with your family this year. What matches are most looking forward to watching with everyone?
Well, definitely watching our Ladder Match, myself, The Usos, Miz Morrison. You know, the New Day, Miz Morrison and the Usos going at it. It’s going to be a great match. We all have such great chemistry, and the story there, all of us vying for the Tag Team Championship Titles. It’s very real. You know, everybody wants to be the best. So that’s the match that I’m looking forward to the most.
But if I had to pick a second one, then I have to say Drew McIntyre versus Brock Lesnar. This is a guy, again, who has been grinding for so, so long, and he’s finally getting his shot to achieve his dream. And a lot of people are behind him. And it’s great to see, because Drew and I, we’ve had some battles back in the day and we’ve trained together. We’ve kind of come up through the system together. He ended up leaving the company, coming back, and now he’s climbing to the top of the ranks. And you love to see something like that happen to somebody who’s so deserving, who’s been working so hard for so long. And I’d like to see Brock Lesnar lose, so I get to root for Drew McIntyre in that aspect too.
There are a lot of great matches on the card, and I think people are going to be more than entertained, pleasantly surprised with the quality of the matches, as they are with every WrestleMania. This one will be no different, it just won’t have fans in the crowd. But everybody watching at home is going to be thoroughly impressed.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.