So I’ve been stewing on this report about Keith Lee being a part of a group of larger professional wrestlers sent to refine their skills at the Performance Center. As you may know, Keith Lee means as much to me as any pro wrestler, and probably more than any pro wrestler should mean to a fan. I’ve travelled across the country to see the guy wrestle, and interviewing him for this very site was a personal highlight of my own. He’s also a bit more advanced in his in-ring skills than the crew of larger lads who were included in the report, such as Omos, Otis and Dio Maddin (Retribution’s Mace).
And now that we’re here at the edge of a new year, I think it’s time to look at this story, because of its implications on 2021. And since nothing happens in a bubble (even the NBA left Orlando), it’s time to think about this as the latest chapter of an ongoing story.
At the same time, I want to try and avoid all of the standard comments about Vincent Kennedy McMahon. The WWE CEO’s abilities and opinions have been mocked (often rightly so) so much online that I feel like I’d be chopping a tree that’s already been broken into kindling and burned in the fire.
The in-WWE journey of Keith Lee
All you have to do, to realize that WWE hasn’t always done the best or most with Keith Lee is to look back at how his NXT origins have stops, starts and a thankfully expired feud with the limited one: Lars Sullivan. Fortunately, Lee’s got a lot of distance from the worst forums poster in WWE, but at first it seemed like the folks at NXT wanted them to fight forever. They first clashed at Axxess, and would later fight in NXT, including a feud spot taped before TakeOver: WarGames 2018. I bring all of this up because Lars Sullivan has always seemed like someone that was meant to learn from Keith Lee. That by this point, after multiple rejections from WWE, Lee had reached a point where he would be working with folks who were rougher around the edges.
And then it would take practically another year for Keith Lee to get the spot and shine that the NXT invasion for Survivor Series 2019 allowed. During that time, the flames of my fears were fanned, Keith had moments here and there with longtime running buddy Dominik Dijak, then-Dijakovic, who I now believe has been kidnapped by Retribution.
And while Lee and Dijakovic shined here and there, what was going on with Dijak made me wonder. Could they screw my favorite up? Stick him with a mouthful of a name and have him as fodder for someone else? (Little did I know that I’d later think Dijakovic was a lot more easy to understand than the TV version of T-Bar, who is actually great on Twitter). And all along the way, I’d talk to friends whose favorites were going underutilized. And the emotions that we put ourselves though because of this company’s failure to see what it has — Drew Gulak is one of the more versatile people in the company, and currently living in the 24/7 division’s Looper continuity — can be infuriating.
Eventually, though, Lee had his big moments, including pinning Seth Freakin Rollins and then Roman Reigns gave him the fist bump heard ‘round the world. His fans’ fears were assuaged as the following months saw him enter the NXT North American championship picture, and then hit Champ Champ status.
Keith Lee’s humble behavior is limitless
On the media call after NXT Takeover: In Your House, Triple H referred to Lee as “such a great guy. Hard working, humble, just wants to deliver. Great human being, locker room leader. Everything that you could want – an ultimate pro.”
I’ve always thought that Lee was a consummate professional, which is arguably a rarity in this industry (if we learned anything from 2020, that’s it). And then we all saw (and heard) his humility continue, as he debuted on Monday Night Raw with the least bask-worthy entrance music this side of the weird buttrock that AEW gave Orange Cassidy.
Once we stopped screaming aloud and heard what was going on — Lee acquiesced to management’s request that talent stop using songs made by CFO$ — we learned that Lee’s willingness to work with the company’s worst ideas was almost to a fault. Other talent, the Undisputed Era comes to mind, has not changed out their music.
This made it clear, though, how much Keith Lee is willing to work with the company. He’s smart enough to know that even terrible new music wouldn’t limit his performance. And even though fans didn’t like his new gear, his matches showed how he was still as capable as ever. Especially when he beat Randy Orton clean.
Ever since? Well, momentum didn’t quite stall (maybe it has, it could be argued) but it took the combined forces of a former WWE champ and Intercontinental champ to pin Lee for the first time on the main roster. And while that booking decision annoyed some, I don’t think it hurts Lee to lose to both of those guys at the same time.
Looking to Lee’s near future for signs of WWE’s sanity
And it gives Lee a need for revenge against them at the Rumble, where he should eliminate both of them — and many more too. I don’t know if he wins the Rumble, that seems like Bryan’s story for now, but right now, after all we’ve seen Keith Lee do, in ring, the reports of Lee being asked to brush up his skills just seem weird. Of course, he’s likely being very agreeable to this request, and trying doing his best, but the news of it all is just brain melting.
The big concern of it all, based on Dave Meltzer’s reporting that WWE wanted to change Lee more, and the fear is that he’s going to be more of a generic WWE big man.
Triple H told Sports Illustrated, “there were little gaps in his game, and the goal was for us to help him to be even more huge,” last summer, and it seems that Lee’s found more people with notes for him now that he’s up on Raw.
But from the moment with Roman at Survivor Series to the moment at the end of his WWE 24 special, where it appears that Vince is giving him a huge pep talk, we’ve been given enough reasons to think that WWE won’t squander the Limitless One’s potential.
And let’s go back to Vince for a second. As I noted at the start, I won’t damn him with the same lines you’ve heard before. That’s not interesting. I just think back to the stories about how Vince put arguably too much stock in crowd reactions. Without real crowds — the ThunderDome does not count — he’s relying more on his own thoughts than ever. And that’s worrisome to say the least.
So while we may never know what Keith Lee did to get the assignment of being one of the larger lads getting reps in at the Performance Center, WWE has ample opportunity to make us forget about those stories. Larger dudes often get lazily written Royal Rumble eliminations, where their momentum is used to remove them from the ring. If Keith Lee isn’t winning the Royal Rumble? Give him an interesting out that sets up a big WrestleMania match.
And, no, not one with Lars Sullivan.