Winchester star reborn

Kofi Kingston was a wrestling champion at Winchester High, but he has hit the big time on the WWE’s stage. Kofi Kingston was a wrestling champion at Winchester High, but he has hit the big time on the WWE’s stage. (Globe Photo Courtesy Rich Freeda/Wwe)
By Mike Carraggi
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2009

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Ask Larry Tremblay about Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah, and the longtime Winchester High wrestling coach will talk your ear off about a former Sachem wrestler who exemplifies humility, athleticism, and drive.

But in the world of professional wrestling, Sarkodie-Mensah is World Wrestling Entertainment’s Kofi Kingston - a high-flying, energizing, and electrifying performer from Jamaica whose star status and international fame is on a meteoric rise, extending far beyond the trophy-laden walls of Winchester’s gym.

Sarkodie-Mensah, 28, spent the majority of his childhood in “the pits’’ of Winchester, a place he insists “wasn’t your typical, affluent Winchester.’’ Like many kids growing up in the late ’80s, Sarkodie-Mensah was a dedicated pro wrestling fan, but when it came time for high school athletics, he couldn’t keep himself off the basketball court.

“The problem was, I just had such small hands,’’ said Sarkodie-Mensah, who idolized Larry Bird. “I could blow by anyone on the court, but I had no handle. No jump shot.’’

With basketball out of the equation, Sarkodie-Mensah tried wrestling. As a freshman, he wrestled at 103 pounds, though he claims he was closer to 95.

“He came out for the team and he was a natural,’’ said Tremblay, who remains close friends with Sarkodie-Mensah. “He was very good on his feet and very good on top. His quickness was a real big asset. He could hit moves so quick and had outstanding explosiveness.’’

Indeed, Sarkodie-Mensah was so explosive he broke an opponent’s leg in the 1998 state semifinals.

“I was undefeated that year,’’ recalled former Somerset wrestler Tom Mello, Sarkodie-Mensah’s childhood friend. “We were wrestling at 125. I was winning, 6-2 or something, and he hit an arm drag, took his lanky legs, and cracked my fibula.’’

More than a decade later, Mello holds no ill will.

“Kofi is one of the most kindhearted people I’ve ever met, constantly smiling,’’ he said. “Of course, I trained for the whole year just thinking about him, and when I faced him the finals the next year, he hit that same move on me within the first 10 seconds. But I killed him that match. It was murder.’’

Still, Sarkodie-Mensah’s high school success was resounding. He was the school’s first four-time Iron Man, never missing a practice or match in his career.

“I was pretty good naturally, but I had to work very hard,’’ said Sarkodie-Mensah. “I felt that if I missed a practice, the next guy would be up on my coattails. I always imagined my competition training, and if I wasn’t, then I was getting worse.’’

He was a three-time Middlesex League finalist, two-time league champion, sectional champion, state runner-up, and in his senior year he finished fourth in the state meet.

“He was a great competitor,’’ said Tremblay, owner of 512 wins over his 29-year career. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever had.’’

As common as it was to see Sarkodie-Mensah come out on top, it was just as common to see a familiar face at almost all his meets.

“I followed him closely,’’ said his mother, Elizabeth. “Kofi’s success on the wrestling mat never went to his head. Watching him grow up was a real pleasure. Every mother’s dream, as they say.’’

Sarkodie-Mensah would go on to Boston College, where his father is the Head of Reference at O’Neill Library. Sarkodie-Mensah shied away from the soon-to-be defunct wrestling team.

“The wrestling team would have been cut in my senior year,’’ said Sarkodie-Mensah. “It would have been the pinnacle of my career and I didn’t see the point.’’

When he finished college, Sarkodie-Mensah worked for a Staples advertising team in Framingham. The closed walls of a cubicle could not contain his ambition.

“We always tell our children that you can be whatever you want to be,’’ he said. “But for whatever reason, a lot of people don’t follow their childhood dreams. I got sucked into a career path that wasn’t for me. Graduate high school, go to college, graduate college, climb the corporate ladder, work to retirement. I knew it wasn’t for me.’’

Unable to satisfy the wrestling itch, he started training at Chaotic Wrestling in North Andover, adapting his amateur skills to the professional level. He recalled attending local wrestling shows as a kid with Tremblay at the Shriners Auditorium in Wilmington.

“[The skills] relate to each other,’’ said Sarkodie-Mensah. “I was quick to learn the moves, but I think to be a pro wrestler you have to be a different breed of human. We have no days off, no offseason. If we aren’t performing, we are traveling or doing philanthropic events.’’

He was trained at Chaotic by Mike Hollow, whom Kofi credits for his quick rise to pro wrestling’s flagship company. Hollow’s style was “very similar to the WWE’s philosophy.’’ Sarkodie-Mensah wrestled all over New England for multiple companies, finally catching the eye of a WWE developmental federation in 2006.

In January 2008, Kofi Kingston made a successful television debut for the WWE. Just six months later, he won the Intercontinental Championship, and in October he won a tag-team title.

Currently the WWE’s United States Champion, a sign he said “shows that the company is looking at you as an asset and a valuable piece to the puzzle,’’ Sarkodie-Mensah may return to Boston when WWE celebrates its “Decade of Smackdown’’ Tuesday night at TD Garden.

If Kofi Kingston appears, he will return home with more than just his trademark smile and newly acquired championship belt. He will also be armed with a legion of fans from his two years in the WWE, which he said is what keeps him going.

“We all have problems. But when you come to our shows, you can forget about those things,’’ he said.

“Just being able to make people smile, that’s what it’s really all about for me.’’