Keith Lee is preparing for the most important match of his WWE career.
On Wednesday night’s edition of NXT, Lee will wrestle in a triple threat match against Roderick Strong and Dominik Dijakovic for the North American Championship. Lee has delivered some highlights and solid matches thus far in his run with NXT, but he is lacking a signature moment—and he hopes to accomplish that feat Wednesday on live television.
A former defensive lineman at Texas A&M (and tennis player), Lee is one of wrestling’s best big men. After deciding to leave Ring of Honor, he began his ascension to stardom with his work in EVOLVE and throughout the indie scene across the United States. He starred for PWG, one of the top indie promotions in the country, and it wasn’t long before he was signed by WWE.
Only 34, Lee adds tremendous value to the wrestling business. His size, versatility, and power make him one of the more unique stars in the industry, and he has every reason to believe a world title run is in his future.
Lee spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the North American title match, his feelings on Kenny Omega’s critique of Dijakovic, and how he has adjusted from the indies to NXT.
Justin Barrasso: Your highlight reel over the past three years in wrestling has been irrevocably linked to Dominik Dijakovic. The two of you added another element to the business with your hard-hitting, athletic, and intensely competitive matches on the indies. What makes Dijakovic the right opponent for you?
Keith Lee: Any time I get to have a match with Mr. Dijakovic, it’s something special. Now there aren’t just a select few who are aware of it—the world is now seeing it. Good or bad, the internet explodes when it occurs. There have been scenarios where some people voiced displeasure in the competitive nature we carry, but I love it. And I love the way fans have embraced it and appreciate it.
JB: Dijakovic threw some shade at AEW’s Kenny Omega on social media following Omega’s jab at the NXT roster as against developmental talent. Omega responded with a more direct critique of Dijakovic, and the exchange also involved you.
The match that was brought up in the discussion featured you against Dijakovic from PWG in 2017. What was your perspective on the Dijakovic-Omega dispute?
KL: I am a person that believes I am above things of that nature.
The moment I saw my name tagged in something that did not make sense for me to be tagged in, I just ignored it. I didn’t pay any real attention to it. That’s the honest truth.
JB: Isn’t that the same mentality you’ve used to succeed in pro wrestling? Even when people didn’t believe in you at Ring of Honor, you blocked out the negative noise and energy to focus on your indie run. How do you shut off that outside noise?
KL: All that noise is distracting from the potential success one could have. It takes away from what could be, as opposed to being able to prove what you’re looking to prove. Otherwise, you’re spending your energy on the Internet. There are things I could be doing to be productive and further my own goals and ambitions. So that’s what I try to do.
JB: The next step in furthering your own goals and ambitions takes place tonight on NXT in your triple threat match for the North American title. Is this match the chance to prove that you belong in title matches and on TakeOver cards?
KL: This is enormous. It’s a chance for me to show I am the main event. It doesn’t matter where you put me on your card, I know I can be the centerpiece of any show. Period.
JB: Different wrestling styles are common throughout different promotions, and NXT is certainly different from the indies. Has there been any adjustment in style to your work since joining NXT?
KL: There hasn’t been a whole lot of adjustment. For me, personally, I didn’t really have to make too much of an adjustment. I think the adjustments I have made are ones I decided upon after watching successful performers in the WWE and trying to make my work better, taking those things and trying to elaborate on them in a way I feel comfortable with. I work with our coaches to take advantage of that knowledge.
JB: Is there one coach at WWE’s Performance Center that has worked closely with you?
KL: I’ve spent the most time with Terry Taylor. That often surprises people when I tell them that. I’ve learned a ton from him. Taking a lot of his knowledge and advice, and mixing it with my own style, has been super beneficial for me. I’ve been very happy with the growth that I’ve had from working with him, and taking those things and transitioning into things that work on a global scale, that’s been very nice.
JB: You are bringing a taste of the indies to WWE. Your work on the indies was filled with so much excitement; is your goal to now bring that same type of emotion and anticipation to NXT?
KL: In every scenario for me, it’s always my goal for people to enjoy themselves. I take pride in the fact that people don’t know what to expect when they first see. Then the match happens, and this explosive thing happens, and you just see jaws drop. I love mixing and matching styles for that purpose. It gets the most out of people, whether they’re seeing me for the first time or the 40th time.
JB: Your athletic background includes football, but I’m not sure if people know that one of your first loves was tennis. What about that sport resonated with you?
KL: I have such an interest and a joy for tennis. No one really knows, but I’ve played since grade school. To be honest, it’s helped with a lot of my lateral quickness. I take joy in the way tennis works, and the way you have to recover when things happen or don’t go the way you see. It’s almost a sports version of chess. I really enjoy it, and it’s helped develop my mental approach in competition.
JB: Ratings has been a nonstop point of discussion since NXT and AEW began to go head-to-head on Wednesday nights earlier this month. But you’re also competing tonight against the World Series, the NBA, the NHL and AEW. Why should people carve out time for your match amidst such a great night in sports?
KL: Roderick Strong is one of the most dangerous strikers in wrestling, and he has an entire crew behind him that is also dangerous. Then you have me and Dijakovic, two of the largest, most different athletes this sport has seen.
I’m in championship mode, so I advise people to not miss it. People are going to see something they’ve never seen before. Even if you’ve watched me prior to now, you’re still going to be surprised. It’s going to be worth seeing.