For the first time since June 2019, NXT has a new men’s champion.
Keith Lee defeated Adam Cole in the main event of Wednesday’s Great American Bash special, adding the NXT Championship to a collection that already includes his North American title. And as Lee hoisted Cole atop his broad shoulders before hitting the Big Bang Catastrophe for the finish, one thought was racing through his mind.
“In that moment, I was on another level,” said Lee. “Everything in my body hurt, but that was when I was hit with the realization that it was set in stone, that I did it.”
Standing in the center of the ring for the celebration, Lee basked in all his glory. Making the moment even sweeter was knowing that an NXT Championship celebration was never a foregone conclusion.
Cole captured the title from Johnny Gargano at TakeOver XXV in June 2019, a night when Lee wrestled Kona Reeves. That match wasn’t on the show, but rather for a future taping of NXT’s weekly broadcast. At the time, Lee was just another guy in a sea of talent that comprises NXT, struggling to find himself despite possessing a spectacular combination of intelligence and athleticism.
“The beginning was tough,” admitted Lee. “I thought the company wanted something else from me. The entire time, they wanted me to be myself. The one person who really helped me work through all of that was [WWE trainer] Terry Taylor.
“I thought I was doing something wrong, but Terry Taylor was the one that kept reminding me who I was. When I was filled with doubt, he kept me together. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what would have happened for me in this company.“
Pro wrestling has long struggled with diverse representation, and Lee is grateful for the chance to lead NXT as its top performer. He is extremely passionate about issues outside of wrestling, even raising awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement with his ring gear at the most recent TakeOver. This new opportunity, placed among the signature faces of WWE, is one he plans to embrace with a balance of hard work, humility, and a charisma that few others wrestlers around the world can match.
“I want to be the representation for African American people, to have someone that looks like them and represents them on the top stage and has top caliber matches,” said Lee. “But I also want the world to understand that if you work hard, you can fight your way to this position. This is a position no one saw me in a year ago.
“I also want to be the representation that bridges the gap. I don’t want people to think I’m special because I’m African American. I want to be a guy, globally, that people can look at and say, ‘That’s our limitless champion.’”
Lee was introduced to pro wrestling by his grandmother, memories he still treasures two decades after her passing.
“I actually dreamed about her before the Cole match,” said Lee. “In my dream, she was in the crowd smiling and clapping for me, saying she was proud of me. She’s in my soul every single time I step in that ring.”
Lee can still vividly recall the way he felt watching wrestling while sitting next to her, filled with a feeling of safety, excitement, and love.
“It wasn’t the wrestling, it was watching it with her,” said Lee. “She loved this so much, so much that it was contagious. That’s what I fell in love with, the way pro wrestling made her feel. That’s what I want to give people. That is what I strive to do every time I‘m in the ring.”
The story of the Lee-Cole match saw Cole exhaust every option in his attempt to defeat Lee, but the hungry challenger was too much for the champion. Lee is notoriously critical of his own matches, but he felt what he created with Cole served as a fitting tribute to the memory of “Killer” Tim Brooks, the man who trained Lee and passed away at the end of last month.
“That match was a battle worthy of him,” said Lee, who noted that when seemingly no one else thought he had a future in wrestling, Brooks had a confidence in him that never wavered. “I am so proud to make him right. He told me I would be something special. I grinded for 15-and-half years to prove him right.”
The spotlight was glaring at the Great American Bash, but Lee refused to accept the credit alone. He singled out Roman Reigns for helping push his career forward, creating an incredibly powerful moment in November at Survivor Series when they faced off together in the ring.
“Roman doesn’t get enough credit for what he means to this sport,” said Lee. “And he went above-and-beyond to make that moment. The simple gesture of our fist bump, he turned that into magic. That was the start of something very special for me. He is such a superstar that he made that moment overshadow everything else that happened in that match, and I won’t forget it.”
Following the airing of Wednesday night’s match, Lee spent the remainder of the evening on video chats and phone calls with family and friends. He now eagerly awaits the chance to create a new legacy as champion in NXT, making his appearances every Wednesday must-see television.
“I need to take a breath and take everything in, then I’ll start to formulate my next move,” said Lee. “We’ll see what happens. If they want me to start by defending both championships, hell, you know I’m up for that.”