Three and a half years ago, Keith Lee was at a crossroads in his career. He elected to step away from a solid position on the Ring of Honor roster in pursuit of something more, fully believing in himself and what he was capable of as a professional wrestler.
In the year that followed, Lee proved he made the right decision. His series of matches against Donovan Dijak (now Dominik Dijakovic in NXT) all over the United States broke new ground by proving athleticism doesn't have to be limited by size, and then Lee proved his versatility by wrestling around the world and having dynamic matches against many of the industry's best in major showcases.
While WWE tryouts had previously yielded no contract, interactions with Dusty Rhodes and William Regal on those key nights pushed Lee to continue to grow outside the WWE's walls. And by the time the WWE contract offer was put in front of Lee and signed in May 2018, the buzz around his potential was overwhelming.
It took some time for Lee to get his feet underneath him in NXT, but everything clicked when Lee got back into the ring with Dijakovic. Their dynamic feats of strength and acrobatics over the course of several key matches opened the eyes of those who weren't yet familiar with Lee's talent. An even broader audience saw what Lee was about when he became one of the standouts during Survivor Series weekend in November, going toe-to-toe with Roman Reigns, and then again in January when he shined in a brief Royal Rumble moment with Brock Lesnar.
Lee won the NXT North American championship in January as well, and he rarely slowed down along the way. And in the midst of what's surely the strangest and most surreal moment in WWE history, Lee made history on the second night of the Great American Bash when he defeated Adam Cole to become the first person to hold the NXT championship and North American title at the same time.
It was one of the moments that a full audience of fans was missed the most over the past four months, as Lee ending Cole's 400-plus day run as champion would've garnered an almost overwhelming reaction. But Lee has chosen to lean into the positives in this moment and appreciate just how far he's come.
"I will say this morning I woke up and everything seemed a little bit brighter," Lee said the Thursday morning following the Great American Bash broadcast. "A little more colorful, a little more vibrant, and I don't hurt as bad as I normally do after a match."
"I'm excited. I felt like that was a tremendous competition, and that's what I live for," Lee said of the match with Cole. "And on top of that, now I'm something that no one else has been. It's placing your name on a platform as the first ever North American and NXT world champion. That's difficult to process given everything going on, and the pathway to get here was so different."
Lee's ambitions aren't hard to see. He wears his heart on his sleeve and rarely hesitates to say exactly what's on his mind. And while he's been a champion before, both in NXT and organizations outside WWE's walls before joining WWE, being the center of focus during this moment in time puts Lee in an unprecedented position. NXT, like everything else in the WWE, never slows down, and the perpetual motion machine must push everyone's story forward. Now at the top of the mountain, Lee is ready to take a deep breath and figure out what kind of champion he's going to be.
"Frankly, I want to celebrate this as long as I can. I'm very much known for being the guy that knocks out a goal, does something, and then it's like, 'All right, onto the next thing. What can I do to continue this grind?' But I think in this moment, it's such an enormous moment. It's the magnitude. It's momentous. It's everything.
"I want to, goodness, for lack of better terminology, bask in the glory of this victory for as long as I can before I have to figure out the next step forward," Lee continued. "[But it's hard not to think about it]. What can I do that's different? What can I do that is unprecedented? How can I make this [title] even more special? That's my goal going forward."
With Cole as a rare exception, Lee can look around the NXT locker room and see many of the faces who helped him build himself up pre-WWE. Those that aren't in NXT have found success on Raw, SmackDown and NXT U.K., and those outside the WWE walls have done the same with All Elite Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling, IMPACT and a variety of other companies.
Lee was part of a generational shift and move forward in the industry, and finding his success while wrestling the same people who helped get him to the top as they elevate themselves has been particularly gratifying.
"I consider that to be nothing more than magical. Even outside of wrestling, in life, there's nothing I love more than seeing people grow personally for themselves, for whatever it is that they're reaching for and whatever goals they've set," said Lee. "If you take that love and then you multiply it exponentially, then you get how much I love watching people grow in professional wrestling, because not only is it for them, but it's for this industry.
"I love what I do. And so, because of how much I love what I do, it makes me love watching other people succeed as well. If people are succeeding, it doesn't matter where they are in the world -- doesn't matter if they're in this company or another -- I love watching people succeed, because that is best for this industry," Lee continued. "A lot of these people, they're friends of mine. ... There's a sense of pride in that. I want them to continue to grow because I want what we do to be the greatest thing this planet's ever seen."
We beat the crap out of each other. Our bond strengthens through combat every time. Because of that, this is forever my dude.— Historic Lee (@RealKeithLee) July 12, 2020
One day we will main event #Wrestlemania. And we'll beat the crap out of each other again. Big shoutout to @dijakovicwwe. I love that guy. #FeastYourEyes pic.twitter.com/ZJOCRrqOnc
For all of the joy Lee experienced in the moment he won the NXT championship, there was a bittersweet element as well. Days after Lee had returned to Texas to see his original trainer "Killer" Tim Brooks, who was battling cancer, Brooks succumbed to the disease at the age of 72 on June 30. It was one day before the world watched Lee make history.
"He's not just the man who trained me. He's not just the man who educated me so well," Lee said in an interview last week. "When I had nothing, and no one, he was all I had. He foresaw this moment [on] my first day of training."
Lee dedicated the match and the victory to Brooks, and was all too happy to share his moment and its meaning.
"I think that, for me, and for the people that I represent and for the people that I kind of represented this match for, it just doesn't get sweeter, with the magnitude of the match itself," said Lee. "It's for the person that got you into wrestling, it's for the person that trained you, it's for these minds that have educated you It makes this mean so much more than just being NXT champion."
"It's so much more personal," Lee continued. "I'm so much more special when I get to do it for other people. That's what matters to me. It's not just about me. I love doing this for someone else as well."
Lee, like Drew McIntyre and all of the major champions in WWE, now bears the weight of having to carry the heaviest burden during the most challenging era of WWE TV. As much as professional wrestling depends on an ensemble cast of characters, world champions are the centerpiece of each show and the most publicly visible representation for the company.
Over the last few months, Lee feels as though he's picked up a lot of knowledge that will help him as he steps into the role of NXT champion.
"It's been very educational," Lee said. "Things hurt a lot worse when I don't have the crowd giving me that buffer of adrenaline and feeling. Their energy is something that has always given me something very special. There are a lot of things I feel like I'm able to do with a crowd that I still do [without them], but it doesn't feel just the same. It's not the same 'oomph.' I am one that very much misses crowds, but I also believe in safety and I want [their return] to occur when the time is right.
"But I've learned that I can be self-reliant and I've learned that sometimes I can get buried in a moment and grind and get gritty and just push," Lee continued. "And in some ways it makes the competition a little more personal. I feel like I've learned a lot about myself in the process, but I also feel like if there's anybody that listens to these words, know that I miss you very much."
As important as the fans are to Lee, he doesn't lack for inspiration. It comes from Brooks and the foundation for Lee's career that they built together. It comes from Lee falling in love with wrestling while sitting next to his grandmother, who fanned the flames that still burn today.
"I don't think that it takes much for me in terms of motivation, because I love this. This passion, this love, this want to do what I do is something that just exists," said Lee. "I can credit that to my grandmother, because her love is something that I believe nurtured the passion that I have for this sport. And it's something that makes it so that even if I have a bad day, even if I'm down for some reason, when it's time to take myself to the ring and it's time to fight, in that moment, a switch flips, a trigger turns and I'm there. I'm in that moment, every single time."
Lee also feels the weight of the responsibility he has as a Black man in a position of high visibility. He's just the second Black wrestler, after Big E (Langston), to carry the NXT championship. He feels he has a deep enough connection with his passionate fan base that he can help inspire change and discussion by sharing the message Black Lives Matter on his gear.
"I like to always say, pro wrestling is for everyone, and I want to keep it that way," said Lee.
And as Lee looks toward the future and hopes to find even brighter days ahead, for himself, NXT and the wrestling world itself, he understands what it means to be entrusted as "the guy" carrying the NXT championship.
"It means the world. You're talking about being in the company of what this industry would consider to be elite level professional wrestlers, sports entertainers -- world-class athletes," said Lee. "And now my name is in the record books, right next to theirs. As a guy that believes in grinding and working hard and never giving up, pushing through and always reaching, I've reached. And I've succeeded."