During Kofi Kingston’s beloved run to the WWE Championship in 2019, a turning point of the story was a textbook Mr. McMahon appearance on SmackDown. In that segment, the Chairman acknowledged that Kofi was a landmark performer as part of The New Day, but questioned his bona fides as a separate force – an army of one when on his own against a formidable opponent. He questioned Kofi’s fortitude and willingness to do what was necessary and not just what was fun. I loved those segments and the setup they provided for Kofi to prove any doubters wrong by winning the big one (even if his doing so feels like a lifetime ago), but they were a bit odd in one respect: the question was only posed in regards to Kofi. There was nary a word about who else in The New Day (also including Xavier Woods and Big E) may have the potential to go further, run deeper, and give us more.
While Kofimania began running wild, Woods and E loudly supported him, even winning him the right to have that WresteMania title match in a Tag Team Gauntlet. More quietly, they showed that as a duo they were still perhaps the best tag team on the roster, showing fantastic chemistry and increased boldness in how they attacked their matches. Then a weird (and crappy) thing happened: Xavier Woods suffered a (very real) torn achilles, putting an end to the storyline of Kofi’s frustration at being slung right back into The New Day after dropping the title (still wish we could have seen where that was headed) and making Kofi and E a consummate duo again. Then another strange thing happened: Kofi was written off with a (kayfabe) injury as he left the WWE quarantine to instead remain home safely with his family for an extended period. This left Big E to take on singles action alone (with his partners’ blessing, of course). But what exactly would that look like?
Big E (then-Langston) had been a singles competitor before, challenging Alberto Del Rio in a best-of-five series and even holding the Intercontinental title for about 6 months. During that reign though, we saw very little of the explosive personality and in-ring excellence displayed with The New Day. If anything, the issue was precisely the opposite. Big E was cast as the big, scary, muscle man who didn’t say much and whose belt wasn’t given the featured spot it merited (to the point I took to saying he got “Ahmed Johnson’d”). The bigger implications of why WWE handled him this way is for another post, but once Kofi and Woods were down the questions remained: Could Big E meld his clear star power and charimsa to high-quality, eye-grabbing matches on his own? Could he come across as a fleshed out character without his partners (and with fewer pancakes)?
We got an immediate glimpse in his response to being jumped by Sheamus, soon after becoming a solo act. E showed up a couple weeks later with taped fists, a lust for revenge, and exactly ZERO Fs in delivering a devastating belly to belly through a windshield to Sheamus’ accomplice, then doing all that he had to in putting Sheamus through a table to win their brutal falls-count-anywhere showdown. Big E showed he could still dance, light up the crowd, and have fun (as shown in his new, bright, solo-based “THINK BIG” gear), but balance that out with engaging displays of intensity. He didn’t go silent, but sharper, barking at his opponents and portraying his anger or desire to win with the same expressiveness he did in skits or comedic exchanges with King Booker. A force of personality that still must be reckoned with. This momentum led him back towards the strap he once held under the radar.
E made clear to then-IC champ Sami Zayn that he was coming for the strap, but made sure we could all (save for Sami) enjoy the delivery. The next step was to deliver the same in the ring. Zayn’s conniving whiny heel made a perfect foil for the “Powerhouse of Positivity,” and the men told fantastic stories while playing off each other’s movesets very naturally. After falling victim to another of Sami’s escape-based countout traps, E got one more shot in a Lumberjack Match on Christmas Day. Set on a level playing field strictly between the ropes, he showed that the classic matches he had put on with New Day against the Usos, Good Brothers, The Bar, and more were not a mirage. He hit harder, moved with purpose, and did not let up for the length of a featured SmackDown main event that culminated in a title win for this new Big E. He had returned to the heights of singles stardom. That begged the question…what’s next?
It’s a champion’s job, particularly with the IC title, to set the stage for new challengers and raise up other talent. Could Big E bring others into his orbit and allow them to come across as more than a joke or roadkill to be squashed? The answer lied, ironically, with the lumberjack who last kept Sayn from escaping during E’s landmark win: Apollo Crews. Long stuck in an overlooked, generically athletic dude role similar to the original Big E singles run, Crews has finally been given a character to play in tapping into his family’s real Nigerian roots. This involved pulling a reverse Kofi Kingston, as Crews brought out an African accent and matching ring apparel after years of us fans already watching him and hearing him. This could easily have become a punchline, a man turning to cartoonish delusions after failing to topple Big E as his old self. Everything depended on the reaction from his opponent, which would set the tone for how we in the crowd would then react.
To E’s credit, he took this challenge and its new styling deadly seriously, replying to Crews’s newfound arrogance and cheap shots with an anger that felt all too real. He made it clear he didn’t appreciate someone who’d been a friend instead trying to take him out just at the exact moment he got back to where he wanted in his career. He vowed to retaliate, but in doing so brushed right by the new presentation of Apollo. Instead of a dismissal, it communicated E taking this package at face value, which meant that we should too. That lent Crews instant credibility and allowed their matchups to be the focus, what was being said and done to each other rather than how. Big E’s serious consideration of himself and his opponent allowed an overlooked roster member to break out. This further proved his mettle as a character with depth, his passion able to come through via indignation while he can still do splits and engage with the fans in the next minute. It also showed he could make memorable moments with his role as a champion this time around.
The Big E/Crews program, which I admit I thought would be played out, has instead been one of the best things going on SmackDown and the match I was most anticipating going into the Fastlane PPV. Again, the in-ring action had to pay off this build of the story and also E’s push with the title. We got to see yet another different side of his talent, as the finish between E and Crews came down to pure wrestling. E got the better of the series of counters and ultimately pinned Crews based on sheer mat game, highlighting a skill we may easily forget that he has. It can only point towards good things that, after months back in the singles spotlight, E is still breaking out new tricks. Meanwhile, he is making others look legit even in defeat, just like all-time IC champs such as Randy Savage, Bret Hart, and Curt Hennig before him.
It would have been so easy to write New Day off into hosting/backstage/comedy bit roles during the injuries & absences. Given that, it’s all the more commendable to see this effort from E himself, and from WWE finally getting behind him, pay off. Seeing someone who’s brought me so much joy, helped me get through times when I was just looking for a chance myself, get that spotlight and run with it has made the payoff so much more worthwhile. E has gotten to show off new and different facets of himself, and has killed it so thoroughly. THAT is how you keep a fan invested long-term. Big E has proven he can do that on top of hooking casuals with crazy energy and antics. So don’t you dare be sour, for as long as he’s splashin’, spearin’, and splittin’ there will be a reason to turn on your TV, smile wide, and think big.