Kofi Kingston was drawn to professional wrestling as a child, but the first time he walked into the wrestling room at Winchester High School for an open session before his freshman season, the former Winchester resident saw the sport was the opposite of the flashing lights, loud music, roars from the crowd, and Hollywood-style production he had seen on TV.
“It’s a hot room, no windows, hardly any ventilation,” Kingston said.
But Kingston’s wrestling career at Winchester from 1995-99 gave him the dedication and skills necessary to accomplish his dream of becoming a professional wrestling champion. That dream came to fruition Sunday night when he defeated Daniel Bryan to become the WWE champion at WrestleMania 35 in front of more than 82,000 fans at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Kingston, born Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah, also became the first African-born WWE champion.
He immigrated to the United States with his parents from Ghana when he was a 2-year-old. They settled in Pennsylvania, and when he was in preschool, he moved to New Orleans, where his younger brother and sister were born. The family moved to Winchester and his father, Kwasi, took a job as a librarian at Boston College, from where Kingston graduated in 2003.
Kingston accomplished his version of the American Dream, shaped by his journey to the US, his values of leading by example, and the skills and dedication he developed in high school wrestling.
“Leading by example is important,” Kingston said. “Representation is important to give African kids the inspiration to do whatever it is they wanted to do. I don’t think there’s a better story of the American dream than me.”
Kingston, 37, wrestled at Winchester under coach Larry Tremblay, the state’s all-time win record holder. Tremblay coached the Sachems from 1980-2018 and just finished his first season at Melrose. Under Tremblay, Kingston was a sectional champion at 130 pounds in 1999, was a state finalist, and placed fourth at All-States. Tremblay marveled at Kingston’s athleticism.
“He was very gifted,” Tremblay said. “The cool thing about him is he was so athletic he could run the walls [of the practice room]. “He’s always been known as really gifted in the WWE.”
Kingston was gifted in high school, as well. Tremblay recalled a match Kingston wrestled against Somerset’s Tom Mello in the 1998 Division 2 state tournament at 119 pounds. Kingston hit the team’s patented move — a ‘Winchester,’ which is an arm drag into a double leg takedown — with such speed and power that it broke Mello’s leg.
Kingston started lifting in college and grew into the 6-foot, 212-pound frame he now carries. After graduating from BC, he took a corporate job, but felt unfulfilled, still wishing to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional wrestler.
Kingston signed a WWE developmental contract in 2006 and made his debut in 2008. Kingston attributed his success as a champion WWE wrestler to the discipline instilled upon him by his mentor, Tremblay, as a high school wrestler.
“It’s one of those things where I’m fortunate that that happened because meeting him, he kind of shaped my adolescence,” Kingston said of Tremblay. “He taught me not only how to wrestle, he taught me how to win.”
And to never quit.
“It took 11 years and if I had quit I wouldn’t have been in this situation,” Kingston said of Tremblay, with whom he’s remained close friends for more than two decades.
When he was at BC, Kingston regularly attended Winchester practices to train and mentor younger wrestlers. When Kingston got married in 2010, he invited Tremblay to his wedding.
In 2017, a portrait of Kingston in his WWE gear was hung in the Winchester wrestling room next to a portrait of Glen Doherty, a 1988 Winchester graduate and wrestler who was a Navy Seal killed in the Benghazi terror attack in 2012. The painting is just as large an honor for Kingston as the WWE championship.
It’s another way he hopes to inspire people to never give up on their dreams.
“It’s really humbling to be up on the wall with him because he paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Kingston said. “It’s way more inspiring than what I do. It’s just amazing because of how much of a high regard that coach holds me.”
Kingston said he got about an hour and a half of sleep after capturing the championship Sunday night before being rushed through a whirlwind of media availabilities and signings all day Monday.
“The kid doesn’t get it that he’s big time,” Tremblay said. “It’s probably one of the biggest sporting and entertainment events of the year. People yelling ‘Kofi, Kofi.’ It was unreal.”
But it is real for Kingston now. The boy from Ghana and wrestler from Winchester, motivated by his story and his sport, accomplished a championship dream more than three decades in the making.