Keith Lee and WWE took the next big step in the process they hope will make him the next big thing in pro wrestling last night (Aug. 24) when the former North American & NXT champion debuted on Raw.
You don’t want to read too much into any one show - it’s a marathon, not a sprint, as the booker of Lee’s last territory likes to say. But what happens during an announced-on-PPV-first-night-on-the-roster-of-the-biggest-show-in-the-business does merit more analysis than an appearance on an average episode of television.
There were some mixed signals from WWE in how the Limitless One was presented, and definitely mixed reactions from fans online. I was pretty mixed up about it myself, so I figured let's dust off the old Johnny Fencesitter gimmick and try to figure out just how much Basking we should be doing today.
On the one hand:
1) Where the big boys play
There have been exceptions, but in general 21st century WWE doesn’t build up stars with squashes. Instead, the often try to convey importance by putting new talents in proximity to established ones. Lee was scripted to work with the two of the biggest names currently working on Raw in Drew McIntyre and Randy Orton, the WWE champion and a 20 year veteran nearly everyone agrees is doing the best work of his career right now.
Being friends with McIntyre instantly conveys babyface cred. The Viper demonstrated why folks are singing his praises, selling both Lee’s bombastic promo and his powerful & deceptively dextrous wrestling. The ‘reality’ era reputation of both men was a real asset here, too. If the champ likes you, you must work hard and do things the right way. If the third generation Superstar is willing to put you over, you’ve clearly impressed someone who isn’t easily impressed.
Short of a win, they did a good job communicating that Keith Lee is a big deal.
2) He got to show off, and didn’t lose
That’s the advantage of introducing guys with squashes, of course. They get to win. But the other plus is that squashers get to show off at least some of why you’re supposed to think they’re a bad ass. WWE wasn’t going to have Randy pick up his second clean loss in a row in the midst of a title feud, but they did have The Moment Maker dominate the 13 time World champ for at least as long as a match against a squashee would have lasted. Sure, he was lined up for an RKO when the deus ex McIntyre appeared, but we didn’t see him lose. That helps send the message: Keith Lee’s fun to watch, and a threat to anyone.
3) It’s not like this is the first time we’ve seen him
Even if you don’t watch NXT (and they were careful not to focus on the fact his brief run atop the black-and-gold brand just ended on Saturday night), you’ve seen Keith Lee before. And just like he did in his Raw debut, he’s always tangled with the biggest, meanest dudes on the block. Roman Reigns at Survivor Series. In the Royal Rumble? Brock Freaking Lesnar.
So there were issues - we’re about to get into those. But as we do, ask yourself if there’s anyone else you can remember who stood toe-to-toe with names like those in their first handful of main roster appearances. Closest I could come up with is The Shield. Things worked out okay for those fellas.
On the other hand:
1) That music. And that gear!
Your entrance theme isn’t enough to make you a star. Bobby Roode’s was legendary, and it only took him so far. But it can push you over the top, especially when it’s well-suited to a performer and their character. Lee emceeing himself to the ring over some gospel-inspired beats was PERFECT. What we got last night was - one iteration of the chorus singing “Bask In His Glory,” Keith saying “For He Is Limitless,” and generic rawk - was not. I doubt it would hurt his efforts to connect with the audience, but it won’t help them.
Similarly, transitioning him from bike shorts to baggy trunks & a fitted sleeveless top isn’t a dealbreaker... although they do need to figure how to make sure the bottom half doesn’t look like a skirt. What concerns me is what the wardrobe change says about what Vince McMahon’s team thinks of Lee’s look.
Kevin Owens and Otis prove, memes about VKM and bodybuilders aside, WWE will feature someone who’s not a prototypical “body guy.” But if you’re hoping the big Texan can reach the highest levels of wrestling stardom and become not just a top guy but The Guy, seeing him covered up (presumably at WWE’s direction, since he’s never chosen to outfit himself this way anywhere else) doesn’t fill you with confidence.
Plus, part of Keith’s appeal has always been wowing folks who see his size and don’t expect him to be able to move the way he does. Hiding his girth diminishes that effect.
Bring back the old theme, and the old gear. It wasn’t broke. It didn’t need fixing.
2) Cena/Owens this was not
When Lee interrupted Orton, I had visions of one of my favorite segments in recent history - NXT champ KO responding to John Cena’s U.S. title open challenge to tell him what he could do with his veteran advice. This was never going to be that. As hot as Randy is right now, he’s not Cena. But as soon as the thought crossed my mind, it was gone. WWE could have made this moment that one’s equal, but they missed the mark in several ways.
For starters, they announced Keith’s arrival in advance, depriving this scene of the same “OMG” surprise. Lee didn’t end that segment or his match with The Viper standing tall. But both of those issues would be minor if it seemed this was the start of an Orton/Lee program the way Owens showing up in 2015 kicked off months of Cena vs. KO. Sure, they already booked the rematch. But everything about this screams "placeholder." Which brings me to the last thing giving me the fear about Lee’s Raw debut...
3) Never go full sidekick
Not only did his match with the Legend Killer end without a winner, Lee quietly disappeared from the scene after McIntyre (fractured skull and all) attacked Orton. He got a fallout interview and a spot at the Raw Talk desk to make it clear he wouldn’t suffer the same fate at Payback this Sunday. But those won’t be seen by nearly as many people who watched WWE tell you the important thing about everything that happened last night is that Drew & Randy aren’t done.
It’s a downside to how they’re presenting Lee as McIntyre’s “old friend.” He needs to make it crystal clear, either at the PPV or on next Monday’s Raw, that he isn’t here to back-up the champ, or make way for him. The Limitless One needs to be the hero of a story, not support someone else. They did a lot of good work making him feel like a main eventer. But that can be undone quick if they give the impression he’s Drew’s bud instead of a potential challenger.
Final Analysis: It’s not being a “hater” to point out that Vince’s recent track record of creating new stars, or transitioning successful NXT acts into Raw & SmackDown ones, isn’t great. There are warning signs with how Keith Lee debuted on Raw. But even with those concerns, this was a far cry from how Andrade or Aleister Black were introduced. Until we see what the next few weeks and months hold, we have to believe that his booking at two of the last four “Big 4” PPVs means something. And that belief leaves me:
80% Excited and 20% Afraid for Keith Lee’s main roster prospects
Let us know how you’re split on this issue, Cagesiders.