Q&A: WWE’s Keith Lee on Adjusting to Life on the Main Roster, Lessons From the Undertaker and More

After a brief run at the top of NXT, Keith Lee arrived on “Raw” with a bang and hopes to vault himself into the main event.
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Keith Lee is part of a triple-threat match Monday night on Raw that will determine the next contender for WWE champion Drew McIntyre’s title. Lee will be wrestling A.J. Styles and Riddle, seeking to prove that his in-ring presence is so captivating and compelling that there is no choice but to place him in the main event.

A 15-year wrestling veteran, Lee is currently enjoying his highest level of notoriety in the business. He benefited immensely from his time in NXT, where he built an incredibly strong following. After winning the North American championship in January, Lee’s popularity continued to surge to the point that the only logical next move was to make him NXT champion, which he became in July.

Less than two months later, Lee dropped the belt to Karrion Kross, then immediately appeared on Raw the night after SummerSlam. He has enjoyed some notable highlights thus far on the main roster, particularly a dominant pay-per-view win against Randy Orton at Payback a week after his debut, but there have also been growing pains, particularly with a change in ring gear and new entrance music.

Lee spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss his transition to the main roster, whether he should have had a longer reign as NXT champion and his plans to redefine Raw, beginning with his triple-threat match.

This Monday’s Raw features a triple-threat match among yourself, AJ Styles and Riddle, with the winner getting a title shot against WWE champion Drew McIntyre. On the subject of champions, you wrestled U.S. champion Bobby Lashley last Monday. What stood out about working with Lashley?

I think Bobby Lashley and I are similar. He’s super strong, but he can also break out the athleticism, and his explosion is excellent. He’s the kind of guy that could potentially push me into different realms of combat, because of his power and resilience in the ring. What we could have seen, had MVP not interfered, could have been something monumental.

In terms of the way he conducts himself professionally and presents himself in the ring, does Lashley set an example for the roster, including yourself?

He’s someone I’ve always wanted to fight. Looking up to someone is a very rare thing for me. I have 15 and a half years’ experience, so I’m fairly seasoned in terms of what I can do in the ring and understanding it. I am very self-motivated. There is admiration, and that’s when I want to test myself against that person. I’ve seen a lot of Bobby’s work, and he’s someone that I’ve always wanted to mix it up with. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the kind of result that I would have liked [with last week’s DQ finish], but I think people liked what they saw, and it was a lot of fun for me.

You have been part of the main roster since August. I know you are a perfectionist, but you are also well-aware that success in wrestling is a process that takes time. How do you rate your main roster run so far, or is it too early to do that?

I think it’s too early. I’m not even half a year into the main roster. There are things I have done that a lot of people have not, in terms of showing up and stepping right up to one of the best that’s ever done this. Those are things that make it stand out, but in terms of trying to rate, it’s too early. I don’t believe in the ratings systems and all the rest of that nonsense, people trying to be some sort of critic, especially for the people that don’t even do this. The way things have been going, it’s been a grind. At the end of the day, that’s all I need.

I’m going to grind and make the best of anything I do. I don’t rate it, I just do it. That’s truly who I am. Take one thing and make it better than it was before. That’s all I can do, and I have to work within the confines of what is given to me. As long as I do those things, I’m OK with it.

You were on top of NXT when you left for the main roster, but it took time to get there, too. A key moment of your rise on the main roster took place with a dominant win over Randy Orton at the Payback pay-per-view in August. It looked like Orton took pride in making you look as spectacular as possible. What does that moment mean to you?

It is an honor to find myself in a position where I can show up and the first thing I do is do battle with a legend. There are a lot of things that go into the main roster as a whole. It’s a lot different with the amount of people involved. When you have a lot of people involved, you also have a lot of ideas and thought processes and theologies on how this thing works. I received an opportunity, and it went very well for me. At the same time, Randy was able to turn it around and put himself back into a number-one contender position. I benefited, and then he turned around and took it back. At the end of the day, nothing takes that moment away from me, but at the same time, you have to acknowledge who Randy Orton is, and, like you said, what he means to this business. He’s different—the company looks to him in a high, bright light because that’s what he is worthy of. Everything he has done, to me, is brilliant. I like watching Randy Orton a lot. In some ways, I feel like I relate to him, as well. All I can say is that was an honor, and it was something very tremendous for a Keith Lee introduction. I am grateful for that opportunity.

I think one of the biggest knocks on Orton is that he makes everything look so simple, when really he is just so talented and advanced at plying his craft, and pro wrestling is something that connects to his childhood. Some of the more exciting parts of wrestling are learning about people’s stories before they entered WWE. Your journey has been so fascinating, and the WWE Network is airing an episode of the WWE 24 docuseries on your career on Dec. 6. What can we expect to see?

It started out as a look at my first day on Raw and kind of morphed into this background covering where I came from and how I got here. It’s going to be very informative on who I am as a human and why Keith Lee is not a character. I’m really looking forward to people getting the chance to see this. It’s very personal and it hits close to home, so it’s exciting for me.

Taking a look at your work in NXT, there is potential for you to have a monumental rise as a top tier star on the main roster, taking your place at the table as the genuine face of Monday Night Raw. That is also the way it was headed in NXT. Taking a look back, your run in NXT ended so suddenly. Especially after gaining so much momentum, would you have preferred a longer stretch as NXT champion?

Most definitely. As monumental as it’s been to go to the main roster, I’m not sure it was so important to end that [NXT championship reign] as abruptly as it happened.

I watch NXT, and obviously I have some friends there, and one that I’m fairly close to is Mr. Damian Priest, and I watch often to see how he’s doing. Kross went down in our match, then to have Finn [Bálor] as the new champion and he hurts his jaw, it’s hard. I like those guys, and I feel like I abandoned them. It’s difficult to think about. I’m proud of everything I’ve done, and I’ve hung with the top guys from Raw and some of them from SmackDown, but it’s been difficult to see the injuries.

I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed a little bit longer. At the end of the day, we’re not always in control of our journey, and that’s just how it goes. The main roster wanted me, and that’s where I ended up. All I can do right now is root those guys on and be there for them in whatever capacity I can be, while still focusing on what I’m doing.

I think that’s a great way to be honest without being critical, which is part of the Keith Lee charm. Also, where do we stand on gear and entrance music? Are you happy with both? Or is it still a work in progress?

I am very happy with my music. There is one little tweak I intend to make over time, but that’s got to be a timing thing and it’s got to be well done for me to make it work the way I want it to. I have some evolutionary ideas for my current music that just hit. In terms of the song itself, I wrote that myself and a lot of it is very personal. I’m very happy with being able to express myself in that manner. Even the track, the guys that did it are brilliant. I’m extremely happy with the way the track sounds. I’m happy with the music overall, and I look forward to the little tweaks I intend to make down the road.

As far as gear goes, my gear is the same as NXT except I have to wear a top right now. Is that my choice? No. But I do what I need to do in order to also keep the people I work for happy. At some point, I will get so big that it won’t matter what other people want because Keith Lee knows what’s best. Someone will figure that out at some point, and then I won’t be wearing a top anymore. Until then, I have no problem with this.

For those who don’t know, you have built a friendship with the Undertaker. How did that friendship develop? And what have you learned from him?

He’s a staple that has meant a ton to the business as a whole. It doesn’t matter what company you work for: That guy made an impact in some way, form or fashion. He’s someone that I respect, and I’ve definitely absorbed a lot of knowledge from him. I have spent a good amount of time with him, and the knowledge he imparted to me goes all the way back to 2008, way back when I was an extra [in WWE].

That was when I came across and introduced myself. All the way back then, from the point where he told me to make the things I do mean something, he’s had a huge impact on my career. He’s been a huge inspiration in terms of thought process and how my mind works for this business, but also a motivation to be different. This is someone I’ve looked up to, someone I’ve studied time and time again. Hearing him express his appreciation for how I present myself and how I wrestle, it means a lot.

It reminds me of when I sat down with Mark Henry and Booker T. When I hear the things they have to say about me, it’s surreal. It’s hard to digest sometimes, but it makes me more thankful for guys like William Regal and Dusty Rhodes. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t still be doing this. Thanks to them, their guidance and lighting a fire under my butt, I kept going. Now I’ve found myself in a position where the guys I look up to are honoring me. That’s like magic to me, and I’m super grateful.

I know you’ve been in pro wrestling for 15 years, but there is still so much to prove. Moving forward, what is one element of your personality that you intend to embed into your wrestling persona?

It’s the whole idea of “Limitless.” That’s what I believe in my personal goals and in my life. When I say that, people think it’s relative to what I can do in the ring, and I understand that connection. But there is more to it. Limitless is all about finding failure or missing an opportunity, or even being beaten, and then finding the willpower to continue to reach for your goal.

That is who I am inside and out, and that comes with everything I’ve ever done, whether it’s football, powerlifting, basketball, drawing, writing a computer program or building a computer. If I break something, I’m going to fix it and overcome it. It can be big or small, but that’s what I believe in life, and it’s one of the healthiest ways for personal growth.

You can add writing your own entrance song to that list, too. I have one final question. Why should people find the time to watch your upcoming triple-threat match on Monday?

You have A.J. Styles involved in this match. He’s someone that has very clearly made his presence felt ever since he arrived in WWE. He’s one of the greatest wrestlers this business has ever seen. He himself is plenty of reason to watch, and you have a machine like that Matt Riddle. He basically has a switch that flips—he goes from this laid-back guy and turns into some sort of machine. I even sometimes call him a monster because he doesn’t back down from anyone or anything, and I like that about him.

When you mix these levels of talent, there is going to be something very different and very special between the three of us. I would urge people not to miss it. Not only will you see some fantastic action and insane athletes, you’ll also find out who gets the next opportunity against Drew McIntyre. I think that those reasons alone make this something worthy of sitting down, enjoying and digesting for yourself—or at least trying to digest. We’ll see if people can keep up.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.