Pro wrestling offers only a few can’t-miss talents, and one of them happens to be NXT Champion Keith Lee. The 6-2, 320-pound monster of a man moves with the grace and athleticism of an individual half his size. Pair that freakish athleticism with an enormous amount of charisma and it makes sense why the 35-year-old is the first man to hold both the NXT and North American titles simultaneously.
As Lee prepares to face newcomer Karrion Kross at NXT TakeOver XXX, he took some time to speak with Sporting News about how he failed at three different WWE tryouts before finally getting the call; how Dusty Rhodes played a role in his “Bask in my Glory” catchphrase; the emotional roller coaster of losing his trainer and father figure, right before winning the NXT Championship; and his Aug. 22 showdown with Kross.
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Sporting News: What kept you going despite failing to make the WWE in three previous tryouts?
Keith Lee: The first time, I can admit that I wasn’t ready. Dusty Rhodes straight up told me that I was terrible on the microphone so I knew I had something to work on. The second time was honestly an unexpected ordeal. I was physically not ready but I was not ready mentally. I was a freak athlete but that obviously wasn’t enough. The WWE was different. The last time I failed in 2013 was different entirely because I had transformed in terms of personality and confidence. I knew who I was and what I was about. I didn’t know what was going to happen but talks with Dusty and William Regal put me in a mindset that was prepared to be rejected. Even though I was at a point where I kind of wanted to hang up my boots, they wouldn’t let me. They lit a fire under my rear end that brought what you see before you today. I’m the guy who does what he wants because he knows what works for him. It was a very long and arduous learning process.
SN: What did Dusty Rhodes mean to you throughout the process? He could have told you to not come back after three failed tryouts but he obviously saw something in you.
KL: Dusty was very straightforward and honest. He kept it real and that’s all that I really asked for. If he thought something, he’d let you know. He told me I was terrible the first time and noticed improvements at my second tryout. The third time he straight up told me that I got this. Then he said that I had a presence that he could literally bask in. That was a sign of my personal growth. I wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t ignoring his guidance.
I’m trying to be better, not just for the sake of him, not just for his approval to represent him at some point. And when those lines came out of his mouth, I wanted to represent them even more because I felt like he has somebody is an integral part of who Keith Lee is.
SN: After the third failed tryout you began to tear the indie scene up and worked with the likes of Matt Riddle, Dominik Dijakovic, Walter and plenty of others. In 2018 you sign with WWE and it felt like everyone you worked with signed right along with you.
KL: It was very weird. Especially considering the kinds of places that we worked prior to now and the locations and the different ways we were treated in different places and just all of the things that we had to endure. Matt Riddle, specifically, because he and I pretty much traveled together. It’s surreal to see but a beautiful thing as well. Our run in the indies was proof that we were worthy.
SN: You and Dijakovic have put on some incredible performances before joining NXT. How do you reinvent what you’ve done 100 times before for a new audience?
KL: We’re so different that no match of ours ever has to be the same. Every match has a different flavor. The biggest difference-maker for us that you have one freak athlete versus another freak athlete. Both guys want to make a statement not just for big men, but for their own cases, for their own value to this industry, and for the future, and we want to be the representatives of like big men are and can be. That creates a certain competitive level that pushes the limits of what people expect.
SN: You started really making a name for yourself at Survivor Series last year and brought that momentum to Royal Rumble. But then COVID-19 hits and puts the brakes on what felt like was about to be a huge push for you. Was that deflating?
KL: The name of the game in this industry is learning how to roll with the punches. I just had to make adjustments as it went on. In my personal opinion, I don’t feel like I have cooled off. I feel like fans appreciate me just as much. They may not be there to audibly voice their recognition but I can feel some sort of connection. I’m not any less hot as I was before. When the fans come back, they’re gonna be that much more excited. And another opportunity will come and then I’ll crush that. And I’ll crush the one after that. And after that, and so on and so forth until I get wherever my destination is going to be.
SN: After becoming NXT’s first person to hold two championships simultaneously, was there ever talk about you defending both at the same time?
KL: I took about a week and a half of deliberation because I had some options on the table. But there were limitations to what I could do in terms of holding both championships. I don’t want to be a person that holds a championship just out of greed. They told me I wouldn’t be able to defend both all of the time. I had to figure out a way to make it nice for everyone. In my personal opinion, the most logical decision was to give up the North American title for the growth and health of the brand. Some people aren’t happy about it because they wanted to see me defend both. But it would have been lame if I defended both titles whenever I defended a championship. I felt that after I defended both against Dijakovic. It wasn’t like I’d get to have two matches on TV all the time. It just made better sense for the brand to have opportunities for other people. The prestige that I have put on that title, I want it to remain intact. That was the best route to take.
SN: You entered that championship match with Adam Cole having a heavy heart after the passing of your longtime mentor and friend, Tim Brooks. Can you talk about the emotional roller coaster of Brooks passing the day before you had your match with Cole?
KL: I can’t necessarily put it into words what he meant to me. If I tried to verbalize what he meant to me, we’d be here for hours. This was a guy that took me from zero knowledge and prepared me mentally for what this industry is. He taught me the political and business parts and how to protect myself. Not only did he do that, but he was also basically another father for me. He believed in me before anybody else did back when people said it was stupid to leave football behind for pro wrestling.
He was there when I took a shot at something I had never done before. He was there when I was homeless and living out of my car. He did everything for me in every type of way. He gave me guidance when I had none. The influence he has had on my career is everything. There are people that add flavors to what I bring to this business but he was the main dish. He was my everything.
SN: How proud of you would he have been to see your moment with both championships? Do you think he would have been satisfied …
KL: Oh, no. We don’t do satisfaction. The grind is forever. He would have been happy and took the time to celebrate. But after that was over, it’s about what is next. He would have asked what would have been my next goal? What galaxy would I take over next? A lot of people in this industry talk about being the greatest WWE champion of all time and the best wrestler on the planet. Dude, I’m trying to be the best professional wrestler in the entire universe. I want to be the guy who changes the game in every which way.
SN: The person who is standing in your way is Karrion Kross. He came in hot and shot right to the top. What can we expect from you two at TakeOver?
KL: I don’t know much about this Kross fellow. We can say that he is standing in my way but every time I go to step to him he gets out of my way. He hasn’t earned anything. Even against Dijakovic, he was getting the crap beat out of him until he kicked some steel stairs into his head. He’s a guy who can’t have a straight match. He has to have a fire mage with him now. I don’t know what’s going on here. He seems to be tough and can fight. He has all the tools needed to be a great competitor. But the moment he met another great competitor, he had to take shortcuts. But when he gets in the ring with me, it’s going to be a different experience.
SN: Who would be one person from the past or present that you’d love to wrestle?
KL: Kurt Angle. He’s one of my favorite all-time wrestlers. An absolute monster who is just a freak athlete. You see him do things other people can’t do. That’s somebody who has influenced me from an in-ring perspective. I would have loved to have a match with him but Baron Corbin had to ruin it for me.
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