When the NXT TakeOver: Chicago 2 camera cut to Keith Lee, the titan of Wichita Falls, TX smiled and pointed at his wrist, and mouthed the words “it’s time to bask in my glory,” a declaration he’s about to turn NXT into N-X-LEE. So, it’s time to get familiar with the former PWG and WWN champion.
After following his career closely for the last year and a half, traveling across the country to see his epic BOLA debut, and watch as he bid the indie scene goodbye, I got a rare interview opportunity with the man who looks to change the landscape of NXT, and, soon enough, WWE.
Keith Lee’s first WWE matches have already happened
New Orleans, LA, April 2018 — At WrestleMania Axxess, Keith Lee entered an NXT ring to loud chants of, “OH BASK IN HIS GLORY! OH BASK IN HIS GLORY!” These words, sung to the the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army,’ have followed Lee wherever he’s appeared, and he told me this time wasn’t just special, but “completely unexpected and I was touched for sure. It meant so much to me.”
Surprisingly, he was pessimistic about the moment, “I completely expected to come out to crickets,” but as the exact opposite happened, creating a moment that told me that his future was stronger than ever.
I was a member of the chorus in the audience that day, but unlike most shows, I didn’t come close to leading the pack. The fans were prepared for this one, and came ready to show Keith the love he’s earned over the last 2 years, as he quickly evolved from being the man who slipped through Ring of Honor’s fingers to a king of the indies whose WWE arrival was inevitable.
Keith Lee’s ‘Gigantic’ indie arrival in Beyond
The first major match of Keith Lee’s singles career came on May 29, 2016 at Beyond Wrestling’s Gigantic event, in Providence, Rhode Island. Funny enough, it took place nearly two years to the day before his final indie dates, which saw him return to Beyond in Rhode Island.
But one note: yes, the records show he worked in Ring of Honor, teaming with Shane Taylor, but those matches feel like they existed in an alternate reality. The Keith Lee of ROH didn’t shine as brightly, talk as much, or destroy as many.
Lee refers to Beyond as having given him “an opportunity that changed his career,” and I can’t help but think he’s speaking to this match against Donovan Dijak. Even though he entered this match against the face of the promotion, the fans would soon be cheering him on to smash Dijak’s chest in “one more time.”
While the match would be brutal, it starts on an upbeat note, the ring announcer calling Lee “the self professed king of all Saiyans” with a “power level over 9000.” It’s a moment wherein audience members got to see Keith Lee let his geek flag fly, which made the giant more relatable.
The mood quickly changes, as Dijak — the local favorite with an undefeated streak — is unable to move Keith Lee, the proverbial immovable object, after two collar-and-elbow lockups. Lee’s smirks, a telltale sign of his pride in his strength, show that he’s not just a mountain of a man, but one who loves to laugh.
Incensed at Lee’s strength, Dijak demands Lee exit the ring with him, so each man can get a longer running start. Neither giant is knocked over in their next collision. Lee’s befuddlement and skepticism, when Dijak clears the crowd so he can pick up more speed by running from further away, humanizes the big man further. And this time, Lee knocks Dijak into the merch table, wrecking the sacred cow of the industry, knocking over stacks of DVDs.
And that’s when it got crazy.
The announcers seem to have no idea who Lee is, but as he sets up for a massive tope con hilo, announcer Denver Colorado welps at the thought that the 332.4 pound man might be a high flier. It’s delayed to the 16-minute mark in the mark, though, as Dijak clutches him by the throat. The two transition to a series of irish whips and evasions — including Keith making a split-legged leap over Dijak and a reverse-rolling tumble — that climaxes in an epic dropkick, at an unheard of height for a man of Lee’s size.
The match itself is a fantastic highlight reel for Lee, who could have gotten booked anywhere he wanted once a promoter saw it. Thankfully, Beyond put it on YouTube over a year later, for all to see. Lee’s charisma drives my favorite moment in the match, though, as he hits a mischievous “who me?” pose, with shades of Toru Yano, between casually dropping Dijak with a military-press and landing on him with a mind-boggling standing moonsault.
It’s the kind of performance that has you shout out loud “WHERE DID THIS GUY COME FROM?”
Texas, that’s where.
While Keith Lee tends to keep an air of mystery about his past, some details are known, and others he shared with me. If you’ve paid attention to his theme song, you’ll know Keith traded the Texas A&M gridiron for the squared circle, and he said the switch was owed to “A mixture of a love for [pro wrestling] embedded in me from my Grandmother, and unhappiness with the quality of [his football] head coach [Dennis Franchione] at that time.”
In Texas, Keith trained with Killer Tim Brooks, who competed in the NWA, Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW) and World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). According to Keith, Brooks taught him the “old school style of wrestling” which likely fit well in the scene where Lee said “often times, a slower paced, more old school style of wrestling is appreciated.”
Yes, for all of his heart-stopping moves and combinations, Keith Lee’s match pacing is another element that makes him stand out. For the most part, his matches tend to have a signature build in tempo — similar to Japanese wrestling at times — starting slowly, then simmering before growing to a loud cacophonous boil.
During the Dijak match at Beyond, one announcer said Keith Lee works out of Inspire Pro Wrestling. It’s one of two (VIP Wrestling is the other) promotions that Keith says gave him “bigger opportunities before any explosion,” which is why he recommends those outfits if you ask him where to check out in Texas.
Texas holds a proportionally large spot in the heart and mind of Lee. Instead of bringing traditional merch to sell at the 2017 PWG Battle of Los Angeles, he only brought some of the Filsinger tabletop trading cards from his ROH days, which he gave out in exchange for funds for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. That’s foregoing good money, which many wrestlers will likely dine and board on.
A massive run through Evolve, PWG and more
Speaking of PWG, once Keith Lee had his Beyond match, the world took notice and his bookings skyrocketed. Just look at his Cage Match profile, and see how his bookings more-than-doubled in a year (8 promotions in 2015 vs 19 in 2016) and then skyrocketed to 46 in 2017.
When asked who’s to thank for this success, he credited not just Beyond, but “Dusty Rhodes, William Regal, Samoa Joe and Brian Cage.” I didn’t press further on that question, as I’m pretty sure we’ll learn about some of those on our TVs soon. Lee’s run-in with Dusty and Regal, though, may have happened during a 2013 trip to the WWE Performance Center, which was having its first tryouts.
I was a latecomer to his work, though, and only truly began to bask once Keith signed to Evolve in January of 2017, when he debuted against an outgoing Chris Hero, a major step up in the card from Ring of Honor’s tag division, the last time I’d seen him work. The match with Hero (one of many they’ve had) was an excellent showcase for the titan, though it nearly killed the both of them. The ring ropes kept breaking in unplanned spots, showing off a ring that wasn’t properly put together, and repeatedly almost led to neck injuries.
The first time I saw Lee work live came against Kyle O’Reilly, in one of Lee’s first performances at La Boom, the latin nightclub that Evolve calls its home in New York. The latter half of a double-header (he faced Chris Dickinson earlier that day in the same venue for Tier 1), the match was not only wrestled fantastically, but booked in a way to show off both wrestlers skills.
Kyle got to be the mischievous little turd we know and love (to boo) in NXT, by cleverly kicking Keith’s legs in a way that nailed the giant in the junk, but didn’t look obviously intentional. Keith, in turn, got to show off his vocal chops, ad-libbing a memorable line, saying the match shouldn’t be thrown out just because he was hit in “the people’s anaconda.”
Allow me to speak for everyone in attendance that night: none of us will ever forget the phrase “the people’s anaconda.” When I asked Keith about that moment, via email, he replied “Yikes....yea it SHOULDN’T have come out lmao. But it came, quite literally, out of nowhere (no RKO).” I asked if he’d thought about turning the memorable line into a shirt, and indeed, others had. “Some people,” he told me “tried to get me to merchandise it. But I like Joey Ryan and didn’t want to step on his toes.” Also, as if he had his eye on a future run at a PG promotion, he says “I like keeping my brand open and available to all ages.”
Through the microphone during the last years, Lee’s proven his wit and charisma are as powerful as any of his moves. So it was no surprise when he said Macho Man was his first favorite pro wrestler, though Keith’s promos don’t imitate anyone who came before.
When asked about his “promo style” he deftly deflected the question, saying there “is no style, honestly. It was not developed.” His talking style in the ring, Lee says, “is just the way I tend to speak. I am not much of a person that yells and screams. I am generally a calm, collected person.”
As time progressed, Lee’s always kept his love of anime in his persona, moving from having ring announcers reference DBZ to placing the Pokemon Mewtwo on his trunks. Lee, who’s been known to wear Pikachu hat on his head when he’s working the merch tables, said he’s leaning towards the Eevee edition (the same answer you get from the more-experienced Pokemon fans).
Keith Lee’s BOLA debut
After having debuted in PWG in May 2017, beating Trevor Lee (no relation), and then working fun matches with Lio Rush and others, Lee was destined for an appearance in BOLA, the late-summer 3-day tournament.
And while that appearance was obvious to fans, Lee’s reverence for the event — “It was something that meant a lot for me to participate in.” — helped drive him to a series of memorable performances.
In fact, Lee saw BOLA as a challenge, as “something I’ve watched from the outside in” as he “wondered if [he] could compete at that level,” as the tournament is a top-tier indie showcase in an obscenely hot American Legion Hall, where he’d wind up wrestling five times in three days.
An epic series of performances started with a tag match on night one, where he’d team with old foe Donovan Dijak as The Monstars (against Matt Riddle and Jeff Cobb) complete with Space Jam jerseys, another delightful well-placed pop culture reference in Lee’s career.
On night two, Keith had the unique pleasure of working opposite the equally-heavy-hitting Walter, for the Austrian’s first PWG match. And then, on the final day, Lee worked three matches, getting him to the BOLA final against Cobb and Ricochet.
Not only is performing three times in a day an amazing feat, the first of those matches — Lee vs Dijak — is the most impressive of them all (at when looked at on its own). Dave Meltzer said this bout reminded him of Undertaker vs HBK at WrestleMania, but only with better moves. Lee says there was “pride in that match,” and that “we left everything out there.”
When asked about the newly-christened Chris Dijak’s recent debut on NXT TV, Keith says he “was proud of him!” and noted how he “liked [Dijak’s] new gear.” Lee followed up, noting it “was interesting to see how things played out,” as Dijak lost to Ricochet, but teased fans of their work by saying “I’m looking forward to seeing what his future holds.”
The fact that Lee made it all the way to the BOLA finals in his first year was a major sign that PWG saw something in him. He even scored the first pinfall of the match, eliminating Jeff Cobb. I popped out of my seat at that moment, having thought he’d won and not realizing that the match was elimination-style. A mere moment later, Ricochet pinned Lee with a roll-up, and I deflated into my seat.
After the match, I approached Lee and congratulated him on an epic show. Dejected, he said “but I lost.” Admiring his ability to keep kayfabe, I responded “but that was one hell of a day, you were fantastic.” William Regal, among other WWE officials, were seen around the venue that day, and I’m sure they too saw the greatness in Lee.
Massive success across the pond
Lee’s also beloved in the United Kingdom, where he first wrestled in 2016 (he credits Beyond for getting him into in big weekend of shows co-promoted by PCW, wXw, CZW and Beyond).
Keith’s mammoth 2017, though, saw him spread his brand across the United Kingdom, requesting that the crowds of Fight Club Pro, Progress, IPW and RevPro bask in his glory. Thinking about the growth of opportunities nearly left Lee unable to pick a word, saying “it was just....bananas. Honored would be the word. Humbled perhaps? Appreciative.”
One peculiar new chant, though, would soon follow him, and it rang out “Keith Lee, he’s just a town in West Yorkshire.” Confused? It turns out there’s a civil parish named Keighley within the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire, England that the songbirds of the Britwres community rained the chant down on Lee. Lee himself was “absolutely confused when that song first happened.” Fortunately he was “quickly educated by some of the wrestlers,” and found it funny, “seeing something spelled like that, pronounced like my name.”
During his time in the UK, Keith wrestled some brilliant, near iconic, matches against Omari, “Flash” Morgan Webster and Tomohiro Ishii. Each was so good, a sequel came about during Lee’s subsequent European visit.
The matches against Webster (available via Demand-Progress.com) feature one of my favorite parts of Lee’s arsenal, a double-overhand chest chop. Lee calls it Grizzly Magnum, and says “it’s named after a big strike that Luffy uses in One Piece,” a manga-turned-anime show.
Keith’s favorite people to nail with Grizzly Magnum are Dijak, Matt Riddle and Angelico (the latter because “it may have been the loudest one I’ve produced”), his impacts on Webster have to be seen to be believed. It literally looks like Keith’s knocking the soul out of the smaller Welshman.
If Keith Lee never makes it to NJPW, his pair of matches with Ishii will serve as a sign of the G1 tournament matches that we never got to see. They’re hoss fights of the highest order, and can be found on both RPWOnDemand and NJPW World.
Keith Lee the Champion, a sign of things to come
After Keith Lee’s massive BOLA appearance, he began reap the fruits of his labor in the fall of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. In his matches with Matt Riddle, including the bout where he won the WWN Championship, Lee’s pounce attack knocked his opponent across the ring, making it look like they got hit by a truck.
In two of the biggest promotions — PWG and Evolve — Keith Lee owned the top of the card, carrying the PWG and WWN championships simultaneously. While the former was short-lived (Lee lost it to Walter in his first defense, in a move closely timed with his leaving the indies) these highly prestigious championships were signs that he’s a guy you want leading a promotion.
This all points to Keith Lee achieving success on a grand scale in the future, not only thriving wherever he goes, but pouncing through glass ceilings. It’s no secret that pro wrestling has been a predominantly white sport, and that the biggest wrestling promotions in the world haven’t had a black world champion at the top of their cards.
When I asked Keith how it feels to be a black pro wrestler who’s now held the PWG and WWN championships, and one who has seemingly unanimous support wherever he goes, he provided a very thoughtful response:
”I understand that there is a … situation … in many places. It is honestly something I try not to dwell on. For one, it wouldn’t do me or my fans any good. Two, it can be discouraging when certain facts are brought to attention. And I try my best keep things as positive as possible. Three, I thoroughly believe I am the man to bring about change in that respect. I mention being proud to carry championships and be the sort of person who can also raise the prestige level of a championship because I absolutely mean it. I believe, in my soul, I have all the tools necessary to make that change. And more importantly, be a beacon of light and inspiration to those that look like me....WHILE bringing togetherness into the conversation.”
Saying farewell to the indie scene
At Evolve 105 in Livonia, Michigan this past May, I got to witness Lee’s final match against Matt Riddle, an all out banger of a performance. Not only was it brutal, but Keith uttered an “OH SHIT!” uttered as Riddle delivered a ripcord knee, that signaled to the crowd how much pain was in the strikes of the former MMA fighter.
After the match was over, Riddle delivered a short speech that mentioned Lee’s departure. The crowd then showered Keith in “N-X-LEE” chants, showing their love for Keith the performer and demonstrating their confidence in his future.
What will Keith miss about the indies? For starters, he won’t get the chance to be pleasantly surprised by “running into friends in random locker rooms.” He’s also saying goodbye to “having [his] weekends questionably full. The level of fan interaction. Absurdly late nights. Absurdly early flights.”
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be saying goodbye to his music, but his Axxess entrance music wasn’t the track he’s entered to at Evolve and Progress and everywhere else. When I asked if it’s true that he’s sang on his own songs and each of the vocal tracks, he replied “Yes, and on all of the tracks. And my producer was also in on the hooks.” Showing a bit of modesty, he added “People say I sing well. HE is phenomenal. I genuinely believe my vocals are considerably weaker since I stopped singing with him.”
At his last independent dates, Keith wrestled two amazing matches: one against Jerome Daniels, a long time friend. Keith said “I think Jerome proved himself in his weekend with Beyond. He needs more of that in his world, facing the best is what builds the best.”
His second farewell match in Beyond was against Mia Yim, which is likely his last intergender match for the time being. When I asked if he had any other “wrestlers who just happened to be women” on his bucket list, Keith replied “I only had one dream intergender match. And [Mia Yim] was it.”
Yim was out with a leg injury in the end of 2017 and start of 2018, and Keith said having this match “meant a lot to [him] personally,” as “being the first person to really push her since her return was an honor.”
Keith Lee made similar requests as he exited both Beyond and Evolve, that fans continue to support these promotions, and for them to continue to support him in his next steps. Not only am I sure this will come true, as the chorus of fans singing along, basking in his glory will grow larger and larger as Lee ascends to the largest stages of the industry.