It’s funny, but whenever I think about Keith Lee, my next thought is always about my dad.
A few years ago I was sitting in my bedroom alone watching Lee for the first time, the big man taking on Brian Cage in a bout for Beyond Wrestling that I could only describe as literally the BIGGEST cruiserweight match I’d ever seen. As many fans do when they first set their eyes on the “Limitless” one, I was absolutely losing my mind. I’d never seen someone that size do the things that Lee was doing in the ring, and not only was he flipping around and moving with the speed of a man 200lbs lighter, he was doing it with more personality and charisma than I’d seen in a wrestling ring in god knows how long. As someone who sometimes treats wrestling as something as essential as food or sleep, seeing a unicorn like Lee for the first time practically broke me, and I couldn’t hold back my excitement.
Apparently my screams of shock and occasional expletives were enough to get the attention of my dad, who decided to come and see what all of the fuss was about. His reaction was one that has stuck with me since that moment, because it’s the exact reaction I’ve heard from every single person when they catch a glimpse of what Lee can do for the first time. He took three steps into the room, watched Lee hit a moonsault that looked like it may have ended Cage’s life, turned to me and said “Who in the $%& is that guy!” before sitting down and watching the rest of the match.
My dad isn’t a massive wrestling fan, but after growing up at the height of Hulkamania and then raising five boys who have been obsessed with the sport for almost 30 years, he’s watched more wrestling than damn near anyone I know. We’ve spent thousands of matches and moments together, everything from Stone Cold beer bashes and Hardy Boyz ladder matches to John Cena rap battles and CM Punk pipe bombs. In the 20+ years we’ve spent watching wrestling together, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father as instantly on board with a performer as he was with Keith Lee that day. When the match ended, he sat up out of his chair and turned to me and said “that dude should be WWE champion,” and walked out before I had a chance to answer.
You constantly hear the term “it factor” thrown around in pro wrestling, but that label rarely actually fits. That day was one of the first times I can vividly remember seeing that phenomenon in action. It took less than 10 seconds for Lee to grab my dad’s attention and less than 5 minutes to declare him the future of the wrestling business. After seeing that same reaction come from every single person I showed off Lee matches to over the next few months, it became extremely obvious that the Texas native was something special, and that his potential was indeed “Limitless”.
It wasn’t long after I saw Lee for the first time that he became one of the most popular and sought after talents in independent wrestling. His rivalry with Dominik Dijakovic (then Donovan Dijak) in 2016 became the matchup that every major independent company in the world wanted to book, and after showing off his skills against his greatest foe, Lee became an instant fan favorite in different companies all over the world. In the wrestling world, great popularity often (and should) leads to great success and for Lee the next few years were no different. From taking home the WWN championship, to going overseas and having incredible matches in promotions like RevPro and OTT to showing up to PWG and winning arguably the biggest title in US indie wrestling, Lee was unstoppable.
Everyone knew it was a matter of time before he left the independent scene to show what he could do on a bigger stage, and when he made the move to NXT in the summer of 2018 many indie fans (myself included) fully expected Lee to come in and instantly become the superstar it was so obvious he could be. It took less than 6 months for Lee and Dijakovic to get put opposite one another inside an NXT ring, and barely 6 minutes for them to set the internet on fire with their strength and athleticism. From there, Lee was off to the races. The friendly rivalry lasted for almost an entire year, with Lee coming out on top with a 3-2 record during a 5 match series that ended with Lee’s first NXT North American title defense in a match that blew fans away at NXT Takeover Portland.
In the midst of his beef with Dijakovic, Lee found himself introduced to the masses when he appeared on the WWE main roster shows for the first time. They say first impressions mean everything, and the former NXT champion made sure that the WWE Universe knew exactly who he was and how damn incredible he could be from the moment he hit their TV screens. Representing NXT prior to a massive 15 man elimination match at Survivor Series 2019, Lee appeared on the November 1st episode of Smackdown and stunned a nationwide audience with a massive tope to the floor, all while oozing the swagger and charisma that would make him stand out even if he wasn’t a 300lb monster who moved like Rey Mysterio.
Lee was the last man eliminated during the Survivor Series matchup, outlasting former champions such as Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens and almost a dozen other top caliber superstars before finally being put away by a Roman Reigns spear. Two months later, Lee entered the Royal Rumble match and took the fight to Brock Lesnar in a way that we’ve rarely seen before, taking down the most dominant force in WWE with relative ease at times and leaving Lesnar looking shocked and bewildered by his “Limitless” blend of power and speed. Lee hasn’t just proven he belongs with the top guys on the roster, he’s pushed the absolute best of the best to their limit at every opportunity he’s been given.
Case in point, Lee has now solidified his spot as one of the top performers in the entire WWE with his massive win over Adam Cole at The Great American Bash this past Wednesday. For over 400 days, Cole and his Undisputed Era had left every single competitor that desired the NXT championship with nothing but bumps, bruises and broken dreams. No one had ever dominated NXT in the way that Cole was able to during his lengthy run at the top and despite looking far from unbeatable in appearance, the aura around Cole and the champion’s overwhelming confidence made it clear it was going to take someone special to wrestle the strap away from him. There’s no one on the roster more special than Lee, and the moment he took down Cole will go down in his history as he not only became NXT champion, but became a duel champion as the title joined the North American strap that still rests over his shoulder.
The past year and a half has been incredible for Lee, and for many professional wrestlers even just the accomplishments he’s achieved so far would feel like a career’s worth. For someone as talented as Lee, it feels like he’s just scratching the surface. While I’m content watching him perform as the king of NXT for the moment, it feels like a matter of time before we’re all basking in his glory on Monday or Friday nights, and someone with as much talent and charisma as Lee has should be far more than a bit player when that time comes. I’ve believed it since the moment I failed to answer my dad as he left the room after that first match. Keith Lee should be WWE champion someday, and his star potential truly could be “limitless”.