WWE star Big E on The New Day's platform: 'We had to do something'

Anthony Sulla-Heffinger
·10-min read
The New Day's Kofi Kingston and Big E take a knee during the opening of Smackdown on June 12, 2020. (Photo courtesy of WWE)
The New Day's Kofi Kingston and Big E take a knee during the opening of Smackdown on June 12, 2020. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

It’s a safe bet that every Friday night on WWE “SmackDown” you’ll see at least one segment involving The New Day. Made up of Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods and Big E, the three professional wrestling stars have become one of the most successful groups in the industry’s history thanks to their unique style and over-the-top charisma.

Featuring vibrant rainbows, fantastical unicorns, dancing, and even pancakes, each and every New Day entrance serves as an infectious reminder of what exactly the E in WWE stands for — entertainment.

On the surface, the June 12 episode of “SmackDown” appeared to be no different.

Kicking off with the New Day, who were tag team champions at the time, there was no significant difference in how Kingston and Big E [Woods has been away from WWE while recovering from injury] walked down the entrance ramp. Once the two veteran stars stepped into the ring, however, both dropped to one knee and raised their fists in the air, a symbolic gesture nearly three weeks after the death of George Floyd.

“When Kofi and I got to the Performance Center that day, we felt like we had to do something,” Big E [real name Ettore Ewen] told Yahoo Sports. “We went and had a conversation with our boss, Vince McMahon, and he was completely on board. We felt like that even if it was just a five-second gesture, it was important to let people know that the things that affected them, we were feeling too. We’re not above this because we’re on TV or because we make money, we’re still people. I was born Black, I will die Black, I have lived my life as Black American much longer than I will ever be a WWE wrestler.”

‘I can’t think of anything that hit me so much in my lifetime’

Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked a movement that has since reverberated across all walks of life, professional wrestling included. In the days and weeks that followed Floyd’s death, as America continued to wrestle with pandemic and protest, we heard prominent Black celebrities, activists and athletes speak about the profound impact the killing of the 46-year-old had on them.

Due to the pandemic and coronavirus safety measures, WWE had taken to filming episodes of “SmackDown” in advance, meaning that June 12 would be the first chance Ewen and Kingston would have to visually represent their emotions.

On June 8, however, four days before Ewen and Kingston’s demonstration, fans were able to hear from the New Day exactly what they were going through, not as WWE stars, but as Black men.

“Right after George Floyd passed, we had lengthy conversations, the three of us in our text group,” Ewen said. “I can’t think of anything that hit me so much in my lifetime. I think a lot of it had to do with the pandemic and the fact that we had all of this time to think. There were very few distractions. It was something I kept thinking about day and night. It really weighed on me. I felt that even though I didn’t know how to change the structure or end systemic racism, I wanted to do something with my anger and frustration, I wanted to do something positive and we were all on the same page with that.”

In what, again, can only be described as uncharacteristically somber and serious for the New Day, Ewen, Kingston, and Woods used their WWE platform to articulate what they were experiencing alongside millions of Black Americans nationwide. Enlisting the help of combat sports journalist and activist Andreas Hale, the New Day tackled the issue of race head-on in an hour-long, emotional conversation.

“Initially, I felt powerless, I felt like I could do very little, maybe nothing, but that whatever I did, it was better than nothing,” Ewen said. “It was essential to our audience for us to be honest about how we felt, to come from a place of empathy and love. I never wanted anything that I said publicly or that we said publicly to be about trying to shame people, I didn’t want it to be argumentative or about pointing fingers.”

Floyd’s tragic end served as another reminder of the challenges Black people face, especially when interacting with police. In the immediate aftermath, Ewen found himself imagining himself in Floyd’s position, recounting the tales he had heard from family members, friends, teammates from his time as a football player at the University of Iowa.

“I wanted people to understand the experiences that we had, the pain and trauma that so many of us have carried. The fears that we have, with Woods and Kofi who have Black sons, the conversations that so many Black parents are having to have with their children about interactions with police, about staying safe, about all of these things that they worry about. We felt in many ways that we owed it to our audience to have this honest conversation.”

Ewen and Kingston have also taken to wearing black armbands featuring the names of victims of police brutality and racial injustice while performing in the ring. Most recently, during the “Extreme Rules” pay-per-view event, the pair honored late civil rights activists John Lewis and C.T. Vivian. In addition, Ewen auctioned off a painting and is selling shirts featuring original artwork depicting the June 12 moment, with all proceeds going to the NAACP’s legal defense and education fund.

“This is not something that will be resolved by next week,” Ewen said. “This is something that is going to take work over months and years and honestly over a lifetime in many ways. I just want us to be a part of continuing conversations, having uncomfortable conversations. I think too often we have shied away from talking about race, talking about police brutality and systemic racism because it can be so uncomfortable and awkward.”

Among those conversations are ones Ewen has been having with his WWE colleagues since Floyd’s killing and the protests and incidents that followed. As the country faced a reckoning with regard to equity and reevaluated some of the ways racial injustice is inherently ingrained in our society, a learning opportunity presented itself for many inside WWE, Ewen included.

“I think one of the really beautiful things in all of this ugliness is that I had a lot of people reach out to me, a lot of my white coworkers and friends who wanted to learn more,” Ewen said. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know, so it was about educating myself more and more. I found this great book list from Victoria Alexander, who is a Ph.D. candidate, and it was a lot of stuff about being anti-racist. Her book list was so helpful. Daniel Bryan didn’t speak to me directly, but someone tagged me in a post where he mentioned my retweet and finding her book list and learning from that. That was one of the encouraging things for me. I was really proud of so many people who I work with for trying to open their understanding.”

‘I am worthy of this opportunity and this spot’

Amid all of this, Ewen is now faced with one of the biggest opportunities of his career. After spending the past six years involved exclusively with Woods and Kingston, Ewen is beginning a run as a singles wrestler.

On one hand, the timing, amid a global health pandemic that has forced fans — one the most important aspects of a professional wrestling show — to watch from afar, will initially make it somewhat difficult for Ewen and WWE to gauge just how well it is going.

“This is all kind of coming out of nowhere,” Ewen said. “I feel confident that I am ready for this. The interesting thing and weird thing is we don’t have that organic response. I hope people enjoy this run, I hope it’s good and entertaining, I hope all of the people who have clamored for this for years are not disappointed.”

On the other hand, however, there seems to be no time more perfect for a push for one of the biggest Black stars in WWE.

“I will say, all of us, truly talented, hard-working Black entertainers, none of us want to get opportunities because we are Black,” Ewen said. “I’m certainly not saying this is the case now, but I want to show people that I am worthy of this opportunity and this spot.

“I [also] think representation matters. It matters to see people like you, who look like you, doing well. I never wanted to be put in the box where they say ‘this is how a muscular Black wrestler should perform.’ As much as I love Ron Simmons, I never wanted to be a copy of Ron Simmons or of so many of the Black wrestlers I watched as a kid. I wanted to be a one of one. I wanted to be someone who cannot be easily replaced because what I do is different than what anyone else does.

Ewen’s run, regardless of how far it goes, will not spell the end for the New Day, especially considering the group’s history and unique standing within WWE.

Kofi Kingston and Big E have been working together alongside Xavier Woods for the past six years. Now, Big E will get a chance to prove himself as a solo act. (Photo courtesy of WWE)
Kofi Kingston and Big E have been working together alongside Xavier Woods for the past six years. Now, Big E will get a chance to prove himself as a solo act. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

After initially debuting as a Black gospel trio, Ewen, Kingston, and Woods failed to gain traction with WWE fans. While the group kept the name and entrance music, they eventually managed to bring their vision of the New Day to life, putting their own creative spin on the gimmick and becoming arguably one of the company’s most popular acts.

“We knew it was a rocky start, but I believed the three of us are talented, we’re similarly minded, we had the same idea of how we wanted the faction to launch,” Ewen said. “We were able to take things into our own hands and when that happened, we were able to take off. It’s just a lot more difficult to execute someone else’s vision of you than it is to execute your own vision of you. We had a great understanding of where we were as people, who we wanted to be as characters. I’m extremely grateful we were given the opportunity to do it on our own merits.”

In an industry that thrives on surprising fans with twists and turns in its storylines for a bump in ratings, it’s actually shocking from a narrative standpoint that WWE hasn’t broken up or even hinted at splitting the group, even as Kingston went on his own singles run, culminating in a WWE Championship win at “WrestleMania” in 2019.

“I always see it as I am a representative of the New Day,” Ewen said. “The same way that Kofi credited Woods and me and said that when he won it was for all of us, that’s the same feeling I have. This adds to all of our legacies because I don’t get this far, I don’t have this much without those two. I don’t even know if I am around in this company without those two.”

And above all other things, Ewen and New Day hope to remain an example for their own community.

“I love that we are able to go out there as three Black men and display brotherhood. It’s always been a group that has been supportive on and off screen,” Ewen said.

“It’s three Black men who come together and want the best for each other. Their successes are not my failure. We need that mentality more and more.”

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