As the WWE trio prepares to host WrestleMania, GQ sat down with Big E, Xavier Woods, and Kofi Kingston to talk team chemistry, overcoming wrestling stereotypes, and black excellence.
Ettore Ewen, a.k.a. Big E, a.k.a. the hip-swiveling muscle behind WWE’s New Day, has a lot to say about the ascendancy he has achieved with running mates Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston. On becoming the longest-reigning tag team in WWE history (483 days). On how Rolling Stone improbably named the trio “WWE Wrestler of the Year,” singular. On being less than a week away from hosting the biggest event in professional wrestling, WrestleMania. You see, there’s a key to unlocking the success the New Day has found, and Big E is gracious enough to break it all down. Except, the thing is, Big E has gotten a little too comfortable, splayed out across the purple and green carpet that adorns the nondescript room we’ve found ourselves in somewhere deep inside the Westchester County Center, and has decided to kick off his shoes, which nearly sends Xavier Woods headed for the hills, derailing our interview less than 10 minutes in.
“I worked out in these,” says Big E, explaining the mortified look that has not so subtly crept across Xavier’s face. “You know how I am. I’m going to be me either way.”
These past few months, it’s feeling more and more acceptable—dare I say kind of even cool?—to be a pro wrestling fan. Kendall Jenner and Aziz Ansari have both rocked nWo merch. Kanye’s sending Yeezys to Ric Flair by the truckload. The Cavs 3-1 comeback was, at the very least, loosely inspired by The Undertaker. And while all of that has been percolating to the masses, pop culture has weaved its way into WWE’s weekly programming, spearheaded in large part by the New Day and a myriad of references spanning from The Legend of Zelda to A$AP Mob to “Cash me outside, howbow dah?”
In three short years, the New Day has become the bridge between two formerly isolated worlds. They are the purveyors of positivity in a year that sorely needs it. They are perhaps the most enlightened entertainers to ever step foot in a wrestling ring. And we’ll get to all that, just as soon as Big E puts his shoes back on.
GQ: Is it just me, or does it feel like pro wrestling is starting to creep back into pop culture more and more these days?
Big E: It does seem like attitudes towards our business are starting to change a bit. I think even small things like LeBron wearing an Undertaker shirt, or when Aziz Ansari did SNL and wore the nWo Wolfpac shirt—it’s little bits like that getting pro wrestling and WWE in mainstream culture. A lot of people I talk to though have this attitude that wrestling is still like the ‘80s, and that we all just grunt. People are shocked that we’re college educated and are erudite.
Xavier Woods: “What? You went to school!?” Yeah. Why would we not go to school?
I’ll be honest, when I first started at GQ, I always wanted to do stories with wrestlers because I’ve been a fan forever. And people would pretty much just laugh at me.
Xavier: That’s interesting because you do stuff with athletes. You do stuff with actors. We’re a mix of the two. So for people who shun it, that’s what’s so strange to me. In sports, you may have one chance to catch a ball at like, sixty yards. Well, we have one chance to fall through the Hell in a Cell and not die. In the acting realm, you get 30 takes to do a scene. We get one.
Kofi Kingston: You might not even do it! You might have a stunt double to do it for you!
Xavier: It’s so weird. It’s like a backroom thing. But, dude, it’s a variety show with 60 different characters than you can attach to. What is weird about that? You can literally say, what’s entertaining to you?
But like Big E was saying, I have definitely sensed a shift in pro wrestling and WWE specifically becoming not just more acceptable, but more prominent within mainstream culture. And the three of you feel like a bridge to that happening, because with what you guys do on TV, you also bring in this whole element of culture that I don’t think people have ever seen on WWE programming before. I mean in terms of music culture, nerd culture, Internet culture, black culture. Is that something you’ve actively thought about before?
Big E: Oh, a lot. Like, weekly.
Xavier: That has been the basis of this group, essentially. So with what WWE is, we kind of have this thought that—so how old are you?
Xavier: Okay, so you grew up watching the same stuff that E and myself watched.
Not what old man Kofi over there grew up on?
Big E: You picked up the reference.
Xavier: So we grew up watching Stone Cold, The Rock, Undertaker. So, for lack of a better term, we grew up in a generation where we were watching these amazing guys who are on the top of a mountain and they’re all bad asses. Well, we want to be wrestlers, so we looked at them. We want to be like these guys, right? But everybody from our generation wants to be a badass like them. And if everybody on the show is like that, there’s no variety and it’s not interesting. When we came together, we were like, “What’s missing on the show that used to be here all the time?” Comedy. Levity. But paired with good matches. We wanted to try to figure out a way to bring that aspect back because no one was doing it.
Big E: The other thing is, too, a lot of times in wrestling the references were very dated. I used to roll my eyes. I’d hear a reference from an ‘80s sitcom that Vince was probably a big fan of or one of the writers thought was cool. We want to bring stuff that we currently find funny on to TV. And we have a long leash, so we’re really fortunate where we can play with promos a lot of times. We’re handed a script and we’ll say, “Alright, let’s sit down and then hash out what we want to do.” Sometimes it’s just tweaking a line here or there, sometimes it’s a complete overhaul where we say we don’t like any of this and we want to completely redirect. But we’re the ones on long drives where we’re opening up Twitter and Instagram and finding stuff that we find interesting and just running with it. So if there is a meme, or as the Big Show put it…
Big E: Big Show called it a “meh-meh” and I couldn’t! He kept talking and I’m rolling over laughing.
Big E: It is not called a “meh-meh.” I have to clown him. But there’s just a lot of stuff, to us it’s funny and it’s relevant. Woods will always make sure if there’s a video game reference, something new. Or if Kofi or I like a song, if it’s a hip-hop thing that comes out and we think it’s jamming, then we’ll say something. You know, it’s just kind of like an ode to hip-hop and things that we love. So we’re fortunate.
And it took a while, too! It wasn’t like we were just handed the keys to say what we want. It was months and months of finally earning Vince’s trust. But that’s one of the things that we always wanted to do, was be culturally relevant. I was just thinking back to when Kofi wore the Steph Curry’s, and seeing that hit the Internet. I think ESPN might have tweeted about it.
Kofi: It’s cool because we all have different interests and we all kind of pool that together and pull from that when we talk about what we want to bring to the mainstream. We just cover so much ground. And sometimes we only do it for that one person on Twitter. A lot of the stuff goes over a lot of people’s head, and that’s fine.
“As African-Americans, we don’t start with a blank slate while other people may. In our position there’s always some sort of stereotype that is being scrutinized or that is being assumed when we come through the curtain.”
Xavier: Nine times out of ten, the stuff we’re saying in our promos is just stuff that we say in the car to each other. Whatever is popping us in the car that weekend, we reference that on Raw on Monday. So it’s not necessarily searching for material, like, “What should we talk about, what should we do?” We just do what’s funny to us. And to Kofi’s point about the one guy on Twitter getting it, there was a section of time for maybe a year where rather than trying to hit the masses with what we were saying, we were hitting a little pocket every week because we’re very into the grassroots type of thing. At one point we talked about wrestling fan-fiction. There’s a ton of people who don’t know what that is, but there’s an underground group who is very intense about their fan-fiction and to have a shout-out on TV about it, it’s like, “Oh, my God!”
You won over their complete loyalty just by acknowledging them and giving a wink and nod to them.
Big E: It was “Ambreigns” that we mentioned, and using the couple name, we got a lot of feedback on Twitter. I think it was one of the things where a lot of talent know about it and have talked about it, but I don’t think it has ever actually been addressed on TV.
Xavier: Yeah, the light is never shined on this area of wrestling or this area of video games or this area of black culture, whatever it is. But those smaller pockets getting a shout out every week or whenever we can do it, they go, “Okay, those are my guys.”
How much stuff do you think is just going over Vince McMahon’s head when you guys are on TV doing your thing?
Big E: Oh, all of it, pretty much. That’s our assumption.
Kofi: Especially, like we were talking about earlier, if we get a promo we don’t necessarily like and we want to add in our own flavor to it. He’ll look at it because he usually has to review all the promos and be like, “Oh, I don’t think this is very entertaining at all. Go back to the old one.” And we’re like, “No, you don’t understand.” We can’t even explain why we’re saying what we’re saying, but we’ve earned his trust to the point where we can go out and say these things and get a reaction from the crowd. At the end of the day, that’s really all he cares about.
The fact that you guys can go out there and touch on something like the Russian hacking stuff, it’s like…
Xavier: That’s one thing that we really try to do a lot. You’ve seen Shrek, right? It’s a children’s movie, but there are adult jokes in there if you’re paying attention and you’re old enough to get it. That’s what we try to do with the New Day.
Kofi: I take a lot of pride in that, too. Just the clever and witty double entendres. You know, if you don’t get it then you don’t get it.
Big E: We don’t always hit either. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t land. But I read one thing where Hannibal Buress said that he actually really enjoys bombing. Even though we’re not comedians, we are asked to make people laugh oftentimes, and there is an element of that which I’ve definitely thought about.
I think what most people first notice about the New Day is what great chemistry the three of you have. Is there a key to unlocking that?
Xavier: One of the first things we realized was what our chemistry was to us when we tried to portray our chemistry onto other people. It’s the thing of us feeling like, “Oh, this is what we do, you guys can do it too!” But, no. What we have is very advanced. We’ve gone through this mind-melding process. We spend so much time together. So our comedic timing—I know where they’re going if they kind of go off script.
I think the main thing as far as the chemistry goes is that there’s a lot of groups that say they want to be tag teams but they’re always wanting to elevate themselves instead of the group. The thing that bonds us together the most is that there’s never, ever been a situation where one of us has wanted to elevate ourselves over elevating the group. This is like, until death, you know?
Big E: I think I tweeted once about getting collective burial plots together because we’re never breaking up. I expect to see these guys when we’re in our seventies, flying out to Atlanta or wherever and just hanging out, saying hello, meeting the kids.
Was it always like that? Did the three of you just have this undeniable connection from the first time you met?
Xavier: Well, I kind of forced myself on the set. First I forced myself on E and then I told him we need to pull Kofi into this. Then I forced myself on Kofi.
Just because you needed friends and you were lonely?
Xavier: So I first saw Kofi when I was trying to get a job and he was wrestling at Deep South Wrestling. I walked in, he was practicing with everybody else and it’s like a record stopped ‘cause who is this kid? I gave them my resume or whatever. Fast forward to…
Big E: Woah, woah. Sorry. Was that a decade ago, by the way?
Kofi: That was 2006, right? You can’t fast forward through this because you have to understand, Deep South was the developmental territory. We had one ring. It was like a fraternity where if you didn’t know that the building was there, you wouldn’t know what it was. So when anybody walked in, everyone would turn. So Woods walks in and then has a resume. Like, completely unheard of.
What was on the resume, by the way?
Xavier: Head shots, my height, weight, all that stuff. Where I went to school. Jobs.
Sort of like an actor’s resume?
Xavier: No, like I was going into a Fortune 500 company. That’s what my dad explained to me. He was like, “What do you have?” I said, “A DVD.” He’s like, “Where’s your resume?” He didn’t get, like, oh, it’s wrestling. But when he explained that to me I was like, why would we not have this in wrestling? It’s professional.
Kofi: Then that was the thing, too. People were like, “Pssh, he’s got a resume!” But really, why wouldn’t you have a resume? We all should have resumes!
Xavier: So fast forward now and I go to Florida Championship Wrestling. I’m on vacation in Florida, find FCW, do the same thing, and Kofi’s there practicing again. So I just always remember seeing Kofi’s face. Anyways, I wrestle around, wrestle around, finally get to FCW and I meet E. We hung out a few times, we were cool, and we were actually in a group together in FCW. It was me, him, Abraham Washington, and Byron Saxton. I won’t explain the group because it was kind of intense.
Big E: No, I think we can explain it. So the acronym was originally the C.L.A.N.
Xavier: Citizen’s Liberation of American Nationals.
Big E: Then Dusty Rhodes thought, just the term “clan” at all, even if you spell it with a C… So we changed it to the P.L.A.N.
Xavier: People’s Liberation.
Big E: So we were kind of a militant group. We wore white and red, and it was a faction that we pitched and did for what, maybe a month or so? But we never even did it on an FCW house show. It got killed rather quickly. But I think we had great promos at promo practice.
Xavier: That was my first instance of actually working closely with E and trying to build promos and create characters and storylines and stuff. So when I finally got to the main roster, Rusev had been running through us.
Big E: And who do you mean, “us”?
Xavier: There was one pay-per-view and it was me and R-Truth in a handicap match against Rusev, and Rusev just annihilated me before the match even started and just wrestled Truth. So at that point I was like, I’ve worked my tail off trying to get to the main roster, finally got there and nothing was going on. I was like, what am I doing? So it got to the point where I was like, long shot, let’s try something. Hey, everybody that Rusev has ran through, we should make the new Nation of Domination.* So I went and told the writers and they were like, “Yeah, sure, go tell Vince.” I was like, “Thanks for the help.” But it caused me to realize, okay, I can’t just go on a random, crazy hair of a plan. I need something that is real.
* The Nation of Domination was a militant faction of black professional wrestlers in the mid- to late-90s, based off the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam. Their most notable member? A young, up-and-coming Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
You needed to flesh it out.
Xavier: So I started thinking about things, trying to get something going for myself, realizing that Nation of Domination is not the way I needed to go or wanted to go.
Big E: Well, I mean, when we first appeared on TV that was kind of the direction.
I was going to say, at least from the fan’s perspective, everyone sort of labeled the New Day as Nation of Domination 2.0 when the vignettes first began and you first debuted on TV.
Xavier: It was a little inspired. That was definitely the original inspiration.
To be fair, that comparison was somewhat lazy on the fan’s part, though.
Xavier: Yeah, like, the Wyatts aren’t the Godwinns, right? So no one ever says that.
Big E: But I mean, when you break down the promo, I get why people drew that conclusion.
Xavier: I think that’s because of certain social stereotypes, but anyways. So that is when I talked to E. You know, the easiest way to get over and do something impactful when you’re already on the roster is to band together and make a raft so you can float. E just lost the Intercontinental title, he was kind of floating around, as well. So we started cutting promos together, trying to figure stuff out, and we realized it felt weird as a tag team. We needed something else. So I said, “We need Kofi,” and went and talked to him. And Kofi was so down because he was always having awesome matches with people, but never really put into a major storyline or anything. He’s a great wrestler that people loved but there was nothing ever really given to him.
Kofi: We all get to a point where things start to just get stale, you know? And I know if it’s getting stale for me, it was probably getting stale for other people. So when Woods came to me with this idea with E, it was a no-brainer for me because this was all I was wanting to do at that time.
Xavier: So the three of us would have like, a 15 minute window to find a room and practice and figure out this new idea. We went and bought new clothes. We made videos. Doing all this stuff so we could have these characters set so Vince would just see them. After showing him that stuff he was like, “Well, we don’t know what we want to do, but you guys can start wrestling on the weekend shows together.” That’s when we started traveling together. And once we started traveling together, things clicked huge because we went from seeing each other Monday at Raw to five days a week.
“One of the things that’s interesting about black culture is we don’t know about our heritage and about our genealogy because it was taken from us. So all that we have is we’re black.”
Big E: Even the days we weren’t at house shows or at TV, we were texting and e-mailing. I remember a lot of the Wednesdays and Thursdays when we’re home off the road, I was spending the whole day typing promos back and forth, writing stuff. It was almost like a seven-day-a-week project with us trying to get this thing off the ground.
Xavier: And it was like, six or seven months traveling together before we were even back on TV.
It’s actually really amazing to see where you guys have taken things with the New Day since you debuted the gimmick, which originally had more of a gospel, southern baptist-vibe. It certainly wasn’t the smoothest start once people finally got to see it on TV. I mean, there were articles written about how the entire thing was actually racist.
Xavier: Regardless of what “gimmick” that we do, there’s going to be a section of people that say it’s racist. As African-Americans, we don’t start with a blank slate while other people may. In our position there’s always some sort of stereotype that is being scrutinized or that is being assumed when we come through the curtain. So whether we are doing the preacher thing or we’re doing what we’re currently doing, someone will say, “Oh, this is racist, you’re selling out.” No. If you aren’t really paying attention and understanding, what we are trying to do is empower young, black kids. Young kids across the globe. For the black kids, to say you can be anything you want to be. You don’t have to be foreign if you’re a wrestler. You don’t have to be the big strong black guy if you’re a wrestler. You don’t have to be the dancing guy if you’re a wrestler. You can be whatever. Then for all the other kids that are around that kid, letting them know that they don’t have to assume that this black kid is going to be in a box. They can be just like you, and they can like comic books or they can be obsessed with The Golden Girls or they can watch Charmed. They can do whatever. That’s the only thing that we’re really actively trying to push with our actions and with our look. Because it’s something that’s totally different that you haven’t necessarily seen from the black athletes that have come through wrestling before.
And that’s a really important message to spread, too. To all young kids, not just the ones who dream of becoming pro wrestlers.
Xavier: Very. We’re trying to do everything that we can to empower people.
Along that same line, it kind of leads into something I wanted to talk to you guys about: the “Black Excellence” photo with the three of you, Sasha Banks, and Rich Swann holding your championship belts. The negative reaction online to that photo and caption blew my mind. Like, I come from a small town of predominantly Italian-American families, but everyone my age is fourth- or fifth-generation. Yet still, everyone has this sense of Italian pride, which is great. You know, had that photo been Sheamus, Finn Balor, and Becky Lynch, and the caption said, “Irish Excellence,” I don’t think anyone would have batted an eyelash.
Big E: Not batted an eye.
It just made me sad more than anything. Especially the fact that it got to a point where Kofi had to put out a statement on it.
Kofi: I think it’s sad in a way, but we kind of all know the world in which we live in today. I don’t think anyone thinks that we are where we need to be, you know what I’m saying? When I started getting a lot of the responses of people like, “If this was ‘White Excellence’ it would be a problem,” this and that, instead of getting mad about it I was like, maybe you just don’t know, so now let me explain to you why we did what we did and how proud we are to be the African-Americans in this position right now.
Especially in an industry that doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to African-American talent.
Kofi: Sure. And society in general. Like I said, we have a lot of work to do, but it’s cool that we have come this far. Lets acknowledge it. Because we’re not at the point where we can just be like, “Oh, I don’t see color.” I want you to see my color. I’m black, so see it and accept it.
Xavier: If you bring it back to Becky and Sheamus and Finn, so they can say “Irish pride.” One of the things that’s interesting about black culture is we don’t know about our heritage and about our genealogy because it was taken from us. So all that we have is we’re black. That’s where we start. Where people can go back so many thousands of years or whatever and pinpoint where they’re from, what area, what village, what vineyard, whatever. We don’t have that so we can’t say, like…
Kofi: Can’t say anything.
Right. That’s why I think that you guys spreading the message, especially to young black kids, that you can be into video games or you can be into sports or you can be into anything you want to be into is really, really important.
Big E: And we get a lot of feedback too from people like us. I know my buddy who plays for the Packers, Mike Daniels, he’s a big nerd but he’s also a star in the NFL. We get stuff from black kids and young adults, too, oftentimes thanking us for representing them, for representing black nerds. A lot of kids like us that are erudite, or they like comics or they like video games, often don’t fit in because they’re not “black enough.” I can’t tell you how many times—I’m sure all of us were told, “Oh, I’m blacker than you,” by someone who wasn’t black. Or, “You’re really white on the inside.” Or, “You’re an Oreo,” or whatever comment.
Xavier: “You’re the whitest black guy I know.”
Big E: Right. But I think the more representation we get of people like us—that black isn’t just an athlete, it’s not just someone who is ultra-aggressive. That black comes in many different forms, and we’re just people who express our interests and desires and passions in many different ways. I think it’s just about representation, like you said. You know, I love hip-hop, we all love things that are often stereotypically black, but the more we get people like us out on camera and in front of people, I think it’s a positive thing and hopefully it starts to change attitudes. The more we continue to disseminate and proliferate those images and say, “Hey, black is so many different kinds of personalities,” and let people know that it’s cool to be you, because oftentimes we don’t get those images out there.
I have to ask, where did the unicorns come from?
Kofi: The magic ravine of rainbows.
Xavier: I know a lot about unicorns from my childhood watching movies and shit. Unicorns are equivalent to magic. We felt we brought magic to the company. So, unicorns.
We’re a week away exactly from WrestleMania, which you three are hosting this year. Are you excited for that, or would you rather have a match?
This is pretty rarified space, to be the hosts.
Kofi: Think about the people who have hosted. The Rock, Hogan, and us.
Big E: A lot of people are like, “Aren’t you guys disappointed you’re not competing?” But how many people are actually going to have matches? What, 40, maybe? There’s a lot of people in matches.
Big E: So many matches. And there are a few people who are in positions to have these big matches with big moments that are given a lot of time and storytelling. But we were in a position where two months ago we realized that if anything, we’re going to be shotgunned into a story, it’s going to be kind of rushed, it’s not going to be that important, and we’ll probably get 10 minutes. Even last year, that was supposed to be our year, and we were in a match that wasn’t given a lot of time. We had a great entrance and the finish was cool, but…
Xavier: That’s the thing people remember: the entrance and the legends. I feel like if you ask most people, they don’t remember who we even wrestled. So if we had a match at this WrestleMania, very few people would be like, “The New Day and Team X match was pretty cool.” But if it’s like, 10 years from now, people will be like, “Oh, remember when New Day hosted ‘Mania?”
Kofi: From our perspective, first of all, we’re going to be all over the show. So that’s way more time than we would have in just a match. But then also, it’s a very unique opportunity for Vince to trust us with.
It does say a lot about what you guys have achieved over the last few years.
Kofi: It’s really cool and it’s one of those things where you never set out as a kid with the goal of hosting WrestleMania. Because why would you?
It’s one of those things no one would even think is in the realm of possibility.
Kofi: You would just hope to get to WrestleMania and have a match, which we’ve already done. So yeah, it’s going to be awesome and just a really, really cool opportunity. We have no idea what’s going to happen, but all we know is it’s going to be really amazing and fun.
Kofi: Us too, trust me when I tell you.
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