“Plans change, pal.”
I’ve seen that line used many times over the years. My good friend and editor of TJRWrestling John Canton has used it in a sarcastic way to note how WWE doesn’t seem to stick to long-term plans and how they love to swerve people. Most of the time, changing plans on a whim is the sign of weak leadership or a lack of faith in an original direction. But sometimes, a change of plans can end up being way better than expected. Such was the case in 2019 when Kofi Kingston challenged for the WWE Championship.
It was a match-up that was never meant to happen. But the combination of unfortunate circumstances for a different wrestler and an organic up-swell in fan support forced WWE’s hand (not the first time that happened). That led to a big moment that led to genuine happiness and catharsis for people both within WWE and among its fans. But was the match that led to that happy moment as great as many fans have said? Let’s look back and find out.
Today we revisit the match between Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston from WrestleMania 35.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Like Daniel Bryan before him, Kofi Kingston was never meant to be a World Champion. He was meant to be part of the New Day and stay in that role. His role was to be that of the smiling, over-the-top silly character that happened to be part of a very gimmicky tag team. He was meant to be a solid and reliable employee that went out there to put smiles on faces. Nothing more and nothing less. And for over a decade, Kingston soldiered on and did his duty, never wavering and never questioning those above him about his position. It seemed like he was doomed to stay in his lane forever, never disrupting the status quo.
But fate had other plans.
On the February 12th, 2019 edition of SmackDown, there was to be a gauntlet match for a spot in an Elimination Chamber match to determine the #1 Contender for Bryan’s WWE Championship. Mustafa Ali was originally slated to be part of said gauntlet match but he was pulled because of a concussion and was replaced by Kofi Kingston. Kingston drew spot #1 and thus had to beat five other opponents to earn the spot in the EC match. Kofi did way better than anyone expected and beat Bryan, then Jeff Hardy, and then Samoa Joe, before losing to AJ Styles. But despite losing, Kofi’s performance was so impressive that he still earned a spot in the EC match. In that match, Kofi lasted until the final two and lost to Bryan. But his performance was – once again – so enthralling that, like Bryan five years before him, he forced WWE’s to change their creative plans. Fans were so enamored with Kofi’s perseverance that they wanted to see him face Bryan one-on-one.
Kingston and his New Day allies had to endure challenge after challenge, adversity after adversity. Even Vince McMahon himself got involved and tried to put Kofi in his place but Kofi wouldn’t have it. Kofi fought in another gauntlet match and beat Sheamus, Cesaro, Eric Rowan, Joe, and Randy Orton, all in a 53-minute war. Vince, still unconvinced of Kofi’s capabilities, forced Kofi to wrestle Bryan right after and Kofi, as expected, lost. A week later, Kofi’s friends Big E and Xavier Woods took part in a tag-team gauntlet match. They defeated Gallows & Anderson, Nakamura & Rusev, Sheamus & Cesaro, The Usos*, and the Daniel Bryan two-on-one. In doing so, they earned Kofi a one-on-one WWE title shot at WrestleMania 35.
*The Usos willingly forfeited the match so that Kofi could advance. They had so much respect for Kofi and the New Day that they willingly took a loss so that Kofi could realize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Personally, I loved that decision because it was both surprising and it put over how intense and dedicated a competitor Kofi was.
But despite all of that, Kofi still had an enormous mountain to climb in the form of Daniel Bryan.
At the time, Bryan was in the midst of a new heel run. After being retired for two years, Bryan returned to active competition and beat AJ Styles for the WWE Championship, ending Styles’ record-breaking run. And even though Bryan was playing the role of an over-the-top eco-warrior, he was still as dangerous as ever. Despite his small stature, Bryan was considered arguably the best wrestler in WWE. He was a grappling master and a brutally-hard striker. He was deceptive, unpredictable, merciless, and remorseless. He didn’t care about Kofi’s organic rise to the top at all; to him, Kofi was a stepping stone, a minor inconvenience in his goal of becoming a proper, eco-friendly role model for WWE and its fans.
And thus, the stage was set for Kofi to have the biggest opportunity of his life. He managed to overcome so many other odds and now earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He had been in WWE for over a decade working hard but never managed to reach the top. And now that he had already proven himself a tenacious fighter, could he do the one thing many people considered impossible? Could Kofi reach the top of the mountain by beating arguably the most feared wrestler in the entire company?
This match originally took place on April 7th, 2019 at WrestleMania 35. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and the full five stars by TJRWrestling’s John Canton. Let’s see how well it holds up.
After soaking in the atmosphere for a bit, Bryan headlocks Kofi and takes him to the mat. Kofi headscissors out, which leads to a ‘Kofi-Mania’ chant. Bryan takes Kofi’s arm but Kofi grapples out and takes Bryan to the mat. Kofi escapes a headscissor and floats over into a pin for a two-count but Bryan bridges out into a backslide attempt. Kofi flips over and Bryan goes for a monkey flip but Kofi lands on his feet and lands a dropkick. Bryan escapes to the floor but Kofi hits a backwards dive onto him.
Kofi throws Bryan into the ring but Bryan rolls back out to get a breather. They lock-up in a corner and Bryan starts hitting body shots and uppercuts. Kofi shoots Bryan into the ropes off a headlock but Bryan tackles him to the mat. Bryan blocks a leapfrog and locks in a Romero stretch. Kofi escapes and kicks Bryan’s leg and sends him into a corner. Bryan flips out and over him and charges but Kofi lands some kind of botched press/stomp on him for a two-count. Bryan single legs Kofi and mounts him with forearms to the back of the head. He goes for a back suplex but Kofi lands on his feet and hits a flying forearm followed by his Boom Drop double leg drop. Bryan rolls to the apron so Kofi dropkicks him to the floor. Then Kofi springboards to the outside but Bryan sidesteps, causing Kofi to hit the edge of the announce table sternum-first. Nasty landing for Kofi.
Bryan tosses Kofi into the ring and starts raining knees on Kofi’s back. He drapes Kofi on the top rope, kicks Kofi’s sternum, goes to the top rope, and hits a diving knee to Kofi’s back, all for a two-count. Bryan applies a grounded waistlock/reverse bearhug to make it even harder for Kofi to breathe. Bryan rolls Kofi into a pin for a one-count and continues tightening his hold on Kofi’s ribs. this goes on for some time until Kofi elbows out in a corner but Bryan drop toeholds him face-first into a turnbuckle. Bryan follows with two running corner dropkicks, but on his third attempt Kofi charges out. Wait, no, Bryan counters with a Boston crab. With a knee pushed into the small of Kofi’s back. Kofi struggles but eventually gets to the ropes.
Bryan lands some chest kicks and goes for a super back suplex but Kofi elbows out. Bryan tries two more times but Kofi blocks him and then lands a diving splash to Bryan’s back, hurting himself in the process. Kofi covers but Bryan kicks out. Both guys fight to their feet and do the yay/boo punch exchange. Bryan regains control and winds up for a clothesline. Kofi ducks and goes for Trouble in Paradise. Bryan blocks and goes for another Boston crab. Kofi counters with a cradle for two. Bryan switches to his own cradle and gets two. Bryan blocks an SOS/Ranhei but Kofi hits a back elbow followed by a double-jump crossbody press for another two-count. Bryan floats over into a pin of his own but only manages two again. Kofi rolls out of a LeBell Lock and hits a kick to Bryan’s head. Kofi charges for a corner kick but Bryan hits first with a double stomp. Bryan teases the ruining knee. Kofi ducks and folds Bryan up for a cover but only gets a two-count. Kofi connects with the SOS forward leg sweep but Bryan kicks out and locks in the LeBell Lock. Bryan elbows Kofi’s ribcage and tightens the hold. Kofi reaches out with his feet and gets a ropebreak.
Bryan hits more chest kicks but Kofi starts firing up. He dares Bryan to keep hitting him and the crowd roars as they give Kofi a standing ovation. They briefly trade kicks until Bryan lands a spinkick to the gut. Bryan winds up again but Kofi blocks and lands an inverted suplex. One, two, Bryan kicks out and rolls to the floor. Kofi goes after him but Eric Rowan gets in his way to protect Bryan. Woods and Big E try to even the odds but Rowan overpowers both of them. But then he turns around and eats Trouble in Paradise from Kofi. Big E and Xavier capitalize with their Midnight Hour double team finisher on Rowan. Bryan tries to take advantage with a suicide dive but Kofi hits him on the ropes. Back in the ring, Kofi charges for TIP but Bryan ducks and lands his running knee finisher. The referee counts one, two, and – Kofi kicks out. Bryan traps both of Kofi’s arms and stomps on his chest and face. Bryan methodically applies another LeBell Lock but this time Kofi fires up again. Bryan hits forearms across the face to shut him down. Kofi powers out and tries to attack Bryan but Bryan traps him again. Kofi fights on and rains punches on Bryan to escape. Bryan refuses to release Kofi’s arm so Kofi gets revenge with arm-trap stomps of his own. Trouble in Paradise connects. One, two, and three! Kofi beats Bryan to become WWE Champion! The crowd explodes in wild cheers for him!
Winner and NEW WWE Champion after 23:45: Kofi Kingston
Post-match, Big E throws away Bryan’s old eco-friendly title and presents Kofi with the real WWE Championship. A huge celebration ensues as Woods and Big E hoist Kofi onto their shoulders. Woods is crying for his friend as fireworks go off. Kofi then brings his two young sons into the ring to share in his big celebration.
There’s a reason I wrote so much in the ‘story’ section above. I wanted to build this match up as much as possible. I wanted you to understand the gravity and importance of this match, hoping that the payoff would be worth the build. And now that I’ve seen this match a second time after watching it live…I’m just as disappointed now as I was when I saw it the first time.
This match just wasn’t that great. The story was there, the players were all cast correctly, and they had all the tools they needed to put on a match deserving of such a great story. But they didn’t. The match was below average and was particularly underwhelming for a Daniel Bryan match. His chemistry with Kofi was largely off, as seen with some botches and blown spots early on in the match. There was nothing new or special about this match in terms of the wrestling. As the match was unfolding, I started calling the action move-for-move right before said moves were done. I had seen this exact same match before years ago, likely in the form of some Triple H/Shawn Michaels encounter. The match did pick up after Kofi nearly broke his own sternum and got better towards the end. But it just never reached that higher level. It never got to the point when it looked like Kofi would actually tap out. Even after all of Bryan’s attacking Kofi’s chest and ribs, there was never a serious moment when Kofi would conceivably tap out. Because of that, it felt as though both guys left a lot on the table when it came to what they could’ve done to make this match more compelling than it already was.
Aside from that, the match also suffered in another major way: Kofi didn’t really earn this win. Sure, the fans loved him and his long odyssey to reach this point in time was relatable and inspiring. And for most of the match, he endured tons of punishment and challenges while he was on defense. But when it came to Kofi being on offense, he really didn’t do anything to show he was on Bryan’s level. He didn’t do anything exceptional or go the extra mile to find different ways to beat Bryan. In other words, Bryan wrestled circles around Kofi and still lost, but not because of anything Kofi did. Kofi won because of the popularity of his story and because of his tenacity, not because of his talents as a wrestler or lack thereof. Those are two different things. It’s one thing to keep pushing forward and not giving up when taking blow after blow. But if that same person doesn’t dish out punishment in equal measure to weaken their opponent, then the win comes across as hollow and cheap. That’s what happened here. Kofi spent 80-85% of the match getting manhandled but only had a few short bursts of control. He hit very few moves yet viewers were expected to believe that such middling offense was enough to put Bryan away. It was unconvincing and disappointing. The match would’ve been much better if, after enduring so much of Bryan’s brutality and arrogance, Kofi threw bomb after bomb on Bryan to even the playing field and then win the match.
This was the biggest match of Kofi’s career by far and he did nothing special outside of one random suplex. Everything else Kofi did here was the same as before, which added to the disappointment because he didn’t leave his comfort zone despite the seriousness of the match. the match would’ve been much better if Kofi really surprised Bryan (and everyone else) with some new moves or strategies or hyped up a special surprise just for Bryan to further underscore how important this match was to him.
And speaking of Bryan, I had much higher expectations of him, especially since he was wrestling as a heel. As many wrestlers have revealed, the heel usually calls/structures the match because it’s their job to stop the babyface’s push forward. They’re supposed to use a variety of tools and tricks to build heat, to create challenges for the babyface to create a compelling ‘overcoming the odds’ visual. Bryan had that role here but he missed an obvious mechanism that would’ve both made his job easier and would’ve improved the match significantly. He was supposed to be the smartest and most dangerous wrestler in WWE. He was supposed to be the master of ring psychology and exploiting weaknesses. And he knew that Kofi was, by and large, a one-trick pony with a spinning kick as a finisher. So why didn’t he attack Kofi’s leg? Why didn’t he take out Kofi’s biggest weapon to build more heat and actually create a compelling challenge for Kofi to overcome within the context of the match itself? Sure, attacking Kpfi’s ribs made sense to capitalize on Kofi’s self-inflicted pain, but Bryan still missed a golden opportunity to make this match even better.
Imagine if, on top of struggling to breathe, Kofi could barely stand, much less spin, jump, or kick. Imagine if Kofi became a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest and was forced to do something completely out of left field in order to win. That would’ve made the final stretch of the match WAY better. Kofi would actually have to show off more than what he had already done countless times before. And the story within the match would reflect the match’s backstory much more closely. Sadly, this didn’t happen. For whatever reason, they didn’t make Kofi into a compelling competitor. They made him look like a survivor and a guy that perseveres, which is fine. But that kind of booking only makes sense when the guy taking the beating hits back in the end as hard as he himself was beat. And I just didn’t see that in Kofi. He didn’t do enough to Bryan to make it believable that he was beating the top guy on SmackDown and a guy that was believed to be such a better wrestler. As such, Kofi’s win came across as a bit cheap and failed to hit those highest notes it would’ve had he had a more sustained comeback.
Final Rating: ***3/4
I know WWE’s management like to emphasize moments over matches but for God’s sake, it’d be nice if such a great moment gets preceded by an equally-great match. Kofi’s win was cathartic and the post-match celebration was great, but the journey there left a lot to be desired. Kofi’s sudden and unexpected rise to the top of the mountain was a great story that had a solid first two acts. All that was needed was for the resolution to reach that same level. But it didn’t. The match that led to Kofi’s big win didn’t match the quality of everything that led up to it.
This match is more disappointing than anything else. It was solid and sound in most respects but not as praiseworthy as some fans have claimed. Both Bryan and Kofi had all the tools and capabilities needed to put on a true wrestling classic. Yet for whatever reason, they missed the mark. Then again, I sincerely doubt that most people cared about the match itself to begin with. They were more concerned about the ending, even though in this case the journey to that ending should’ve been as good as the ending itself.