On what should have been one of the biggest weeks of his career, Keith Lee passed his days watching Japanese anime videos and building a computer.
“That’s almost done, though, so I’m going to test that baby out pretty soon,” said Lee, who, like millions of Americans, found himself largely confined to his home in March, as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation.
Lee expected to be spending this time gearing up for a high-profile defense of his NXT North American championship in front of a jam-packed Amalie Arena in Tampa as part of WrestleMania 36 weekend. Instead, the planned TakeOver event was replaced with a TV taping in a small venue … with no fans in attendance.”
But while the COVID-19 outbreak may have derailed his plans—and those of much of the world’s population—Lee refused to let it derail his momentum.
“It is unfortunate,” Lee said. “At the end of the day, I'm not concerned about it, because I feel like, regardless of that scenario, given the opportunity, I'm still going to go out and do battle. I'm going to do my best to provide some form of entertainment for the people. And I want to go and give my best. That's all I can do.”
The “Limitless” superstar’s signature brand of confidence and optimism has carried him through difficult times before. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native grinded it out on the independent scene for more than a decade, with only modest success—until a video of a May 2016 match for Beyond Wrestling in Providence, Rhode Island, went viral.
Lee’s opponent that night was someone with whom his career would be inextricably linked right through the present day: Donovan Dijak. For the next several years, the two would take their magic show on the road, along the way earning a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer for one clash at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s 2017 Battle of Los Angeles tournament.
But despite the buzz Lee was creating throughout the independents, including as EVOLVE’s WWN champion, he still struggled to get WWE shot-callers to “bask in his glory.” After passing on Lee in two previous tryouts, WWE finally signed him in April 2018. Lee said the timing couldn’t have been better, even though he was already entering his mid-30s.”
“I do think that being passed over allowed me to mature in a business sense and view things with a different perspective,” Lee said. “The growth I had while being passed over and moving on to different things, trying new things, experiencing new things, allowed me to essentially start from the very bottom … and grow into something completely different before going there.”
Even once he arrived in the big leagues, Lee still struggled to get noticed. While he watched other former indie stars quickly climb through the ranks in NXT—wrestling in championship matches and at TakeOver events—Lee admits he spent most of his first year-plus “on the bench.””
When an opportunity finally presented itself, Lee made the most of it, like he had done so many times before. That opportunity came in the Fall of 2019, when NXT invaded WWE’s main roster leading up to Survivor Series. The tentpole WWE pay-per-view event would feature competitors from all three brands competing for supremacy. And Lee was chosen to be part of NXT’s five-man team in one of the card’s main-event matches.
Lee was widely viewed as the MVP of the 15-man, tri-branded elimination bout. He pinned multiple-time World champion Seth Rollins and made it to the very end of the 30-minute bout, before being eliminated by sole survivor Roman Reigns. It was the breakout performance Lee had been working toward his whole career.
“It’s such a weird thing to look back on. To go from [not being used on TV] to now I’m the last guy in the ring at Survivor Series,” Lee said. “That’s the magic.”
Lee’s newfound momentum continued through January, when he defeated Roderick Strong for the NXT North American championship. Four days later, he entered the 2020 Royal Rumble match and held his own against Brock Lesnar—even knocking the WWE World heavyweight champion off his feet —before being tossed out of the ring while grappling with Braun Strowman near the ropes.
“If you are an individual who is sharing the ring with, arguably, the most dangerous man in WWE, and you go toe-to-toe and put him on his ass, you're doing pretty well for yourself,” said Lee, who hopes to someday reunite with Lesnar in the ring under different circumstances. “I don’t care what anyone says. That, to me, is big-time energy. That sowed the seeds for something that could be extremely special down the line. Because, I guarantee you, Brock Lesnar has never faced anything like a Keith Lee in his career.”
Indeed, at 6’2”, weighing 320 pounds, and possessing the agility of a cruiserweight, Lee combines the power of Strowman with the agility of AJ Styles into a unique hybrid of skills that has rarely been seen in WWE. That’s evident from his Big Bang Catastrophe finisher—a fireman’s carry-jackhammer combination.
“Keith Lee, as an individual, stands outside of the box of usual judgment,” said Lee, who acknowledged that his physique is unlike what many fans are used to seeing in their top WWE stars. “In every form of the word, I’m different. In terms of athleticism, I’m different. In terms of power, I’m different. I’m different in terms of explosiveness. I am a different human being. And that makes me unique.”
Lee said he looks forward to showing off what makes him unique to the entire world, once it gets back to normal. And, in a year, Lee expects his WrestleMania week will be a lot more eventful than this one—perhaps with a match on the big event itself.
“If you ask me, I could have been on this one,” Lee said. “All I can do is continue to grind … and continue working hard. And perhaps an opportunity will come. And, perhaps, I'll get a chance to knock that one out of the park. Only time can tell. Because, you know, as they say in wrestling, ‘Card is subject to change,’ my man.”