Dual Champ and 2020 MVP Keith Lee Conquers WWE NXT with Main Roster in His Sight
On Night 2 of WWE NXT The Great American Bash, Keith Lee cemented his place in history when he beat Adam Cole to clinch the NXT Championship in an epic Winner Take All main event. In doing so, he becomes the first man to reign as both the NXT North American and NXT champion.
It's been a long road to the top for the 35-year-old, who signed with WWE in 2018 and has been a featured player on NXT ever since. However, it wasn't until his breakout performances at TakeOver: WarGames III and Survivor Series last November that the fans finally started to take notice of his unlimited potential.
That unforgettable weekend jump-started what has been an exhilarating eight months for Lee. He went on to procure the NXT North American Championship from Roderick Strong on January 22 before competing in the men's Royal Rumble match and going toe-to-toe with Brock Lesnar just four days later.
Lee has been a recurring highlight on the black-and-gold brand over the course of 2020, but on Wednesday night, he took one step closer to achieving all-time greatness with his win over Cole. As incredible of an accomplishment as it was, he's already looking at what's next, both as a dual champ and in regards to an eventual move to the main roster.
Few others can say they've had a hotter streak in 2020 than Lee, and with the year only half over, there's no telling what more he'll accomplish on NXT and beyond going forward.
In this exclusive interview conducted over the phone on Thursday morning, the new NXT champion dishes out on his historic night at The Great American Bash, how meaningful of a moment it was to him, if a run on Raw or SmackDown is in his sights, and more.
The Immediate Aftermath
No match in NXT's history has had higher stakes than the main event of Night 2 of The Great American Bash on Wednesday night.
It saw two of the brand's top talents in Adam Cole and Lee collide with the NXT North American title as well as the NXT Championship up for grabs and had been in the works for some time.
It was virtually impossible for the bout to underwhelm, and sure enough, the two men did not disappoint.
Both pulled everything out of their arsenals in an effort to put the other away, and with one Big Bang Catastrophe on Cole, Lee secured the three-count as well as the NXT Championship.
Fans could clearly tell that the new titleholder was overcome with emotion upon winning, but the screen faded to black before any of the aftermath could be shown.
That included a conversation—albeit a brief one—that Lee had with Cole following his hard-fought victory.
"It wasn't on air, obviously, but there was just a moment after all the celebration, the pyro I wasn't expecting, the confetti and all this crazy stuff and I'm all covered," Lee said. "I look down and I see him still in the corner. That guy is awesome. In that moment, I had to tell him that he gained a new level of respect from me. I shook his hand and that was the first conversation I had."
Photos later emerged of Lee being congratulated by his longtime adversary Dominik Dijakovic as well as Triple H, but it was his quick exchange with Cole that signaled the passing of the NXT torch.
Going Full Circle with Triple H
Triple H has played as pivotal a role as anyone in Lee's rise to superstardom in recent years. From bringing him in from the independent scene two years ago to crowning him the new face of NXT this past week, it's evident The Game is a big believer in the dual titleholder.
As has been custom for some time now, the NXT founder snapped a photo with the new champ after his huge accomplishment on Wednesday night. What made it more meaningful, though, was Lee's history with The Game from long before he joined the black-and-gold brand.
In a blink-and-you-missed-it moment, Lee served as an extra on the March 30, 2009 edition of Raw during the final segment of the show. He acted as a bodyguard and actually brawled with Triple H on the ramp before being quickly disposed of.
"It always tickles me so much to look back and be like, 'Man, that guy was beating me up a little bit over a decade ago!' Now I'm sitting here getting the finger-point photo and getting a double serving of it," Lee said. "It's something real special. It's one of those things you have to cherish."
The significance of that picture was not lost on Lee. He understands full well that moments like those are few and far between and when they do happen, you have to enjoy them.
"You have to take those moments, stop what you're doing, take a deep breath, and embrace it and say, 'Wow, what a journey this has been,'" he added. "So yeah, when I see that, some people call it coming full circle, and I guess I have to concur and accept that's what it is. That's really awesome."
Making the Most of the Current Circumstances
It's been four months since Superstars last competed in front of a capacity crowd. Although WWE has attempted to make the most of an unfortunate situation by having NXT trainees serve as the audience, the atmosphere hasn't been the same as when Full Sail University is packed with passionate fans.
That was once again the case for Lee's milestone moment at The Great American Bash, where there were no fans—outside of the usual Performance Center recruits—in attendance. While it wasn't akin to the reaction he'd receive from a rowdy TakeOver crowd, it didn't make it any less special, though.
"I can say I miss the crowd, but that's because of the connection that we have. We being me and the WWE Universe," Lee said. "But I don't think it's something that really registered for me in that match because there's such a certain level of intensity and competition when the focus is so heavily on the fact, 'Hey, this is a championship match. No, wait, this is not only a championship match, this is also a championship vs. championship match. And now, this is a Winner Take All match.' And you're talking about the top two guys in this brand."
When you're in such a situation, he added, the last thing you're thinking about is the people watching in the arena or around the world at home. Rather, he was solely focused on the task at hand, which worked out well considering the amount of championship gold he wound up walking out with.
"Dude, I was locked in. It didn't matter who was there and who wasn't there," Lee said. "Adam Cole is someone you give respect to when you're in the ring and he commands it. You can feel it in his aura when he steps in the ring, and if you're not there to do battle, you're probably going to get stomped on."
However, Lee could find humor in his battle scars from Wednesday night and added: "Well, I got kicked in the face a lot, but you're going to get taken out. We'll put it that way."
Will He Continue to Hold Both Belts?
One of the biggest questions following the historic conclusion to The Great American Bash was whether Lee would hold onto both the NXT Championship and NXT North American Championship or if he'll choose to vacate one to fully focus on the other.
We've seen both scenarios occur in WWE over the years. Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch defended both of their belts after winning them in Winner Take All matches in 2015 and 2019, respectively, whereas The Ultimate Warrior relinquished the Intercontinental Championship upon capturing the WWE title at WrestleMania 6.
Days removed from becoming a dual champ, Lee doesn't know yet what his plans are for the two titles. For now, he's hoping to enjoy the fruits of his labor while also planning for what might be next.
"In this moment, typically when it comes to accomplishments, I knock out the accomplishment and it's on to the next thing," he said. "But in this circumstance, I kind of promised myself that I would celebrate this experience and cherish the moments and revel in it for as long as I can before I figure out the next step."
Lee has worked tirelessly for both belts, so to vacate either one of them would arguably be a great disservice to him. There's no reason he can't continue to defend the two titles for the time being before dropping one of them to someone who could use it.
Regardless of what's coming down the pike for Lee, anything he's involved in is sure to be must-see, much like his fantastic first half of 2020.
"Whatever it is that I do, I want it to be just as meaningful, just as monumental as it was for me in winning both of these championships and becoming the first NXT North American and NXT world champion," he said. "I need to search myself and see what's best for me."
Basking in the Glory
Contrary to what his catchphrase suggests, it isn't often Lee basks in his own glory. That's largely because, with the busy schedule he's had in the last eight months alone, he hasn't had the time to.
The past two years for Lee in NXT have been a whirlwind, but he's been living life in the fast lane ever since his strong showing at Survivor Series 2019. Being injury-free and remaining on the road has afforded him multiple opportunities, all of which he's taken advantage of and knocked out of the park.
"There's no offseason. There's none of that," he said. "You need to find a way to stay healthy enough to compete while also being a high-end competitor, especially as a champion."
While many may argue Lee's stock started to skyrocket when he took Roman Reigns to the limit at Survivor Series in November, he believes he began to build real momentum as soon as NXT hit the USA Network two months earlier. That was when the world was introduced to his rivalry with Dominik Dijakovic and the amazing in-ring chemistry they share.
"I personally think that all of this began the moment we went live on the USA Network for two hours and it has been that whirlwind ever since then. I've actually cherished it," Lee said.
"I love that busy-ness. I love having to find a way to keep it together each week and that's pure joy for me. Yeah, it's been a whirlwind, but I've loved it like the Tasmanian devil."
Fulfilling His Destiny by Becoming NXT Champion
Shortly after NXT debuted on USA Network, Lee vowed he would take all of Undisputed Era's titles one by one.
Although he hasn't won the NXT Tag Team Championship, he did stay true to his promise by capturing the NXT North American Championship from Roderick Strong and the NXT Championship from Adam Cole.
That almost didn't happen after his breakout performance at Survivor Series last year, when he surely left a lasting impression on officials backstage.
The issue was that he had too strong of a showing that night, meaning he could have been called up right then and there if Vince McMahon saw fit. It's happened before with countless others, regardless of whether they were in the middle of a prominent storyline in NXT or not.
Lee nearly joined that list, but for whatever reason, WWE chose to let him stay in NXT for a while longer and continue on the path he was destined to follow. It was the right call considering where he is now, but whenever opportunity knocks, he will answer.
"It's hard to tell what's going to happen because you can't just predict the future," he said. "My thought process, my belief, is to try to be as ready as I can for whatever circumstance occurs. In this instance, I just so happened to keep myself ready for a 25-minute brawl, knockdown, drag-out main event battle with Adam Cole and come out victorious."
Lee is as hot now as he's ever been, but from a storyline standpoint, it would be criminal for WWE to move him to Raw or SmackDown any time soon and sacrifice the success he's experiencing at the moment.
Expressing Gratitude for Those Who Paved the Way
None of what Lee has accomplished this year would have been possible without the right people behind him, to whom he feels forever indebted.
That includes his trainer "Killer" Tim Brooks, who recently passed away at the age of 72. Knowing he was in poor health at the time, Lee met with him in person days before his death to tell him that, no matter the outcome, he was dedicating his Winner Take All match to him.
"The actuality is that my coach's funeral was the day before the match," Lee said. "I was fortunate enough to attend that, and seeing his family, they heard some things regarding me dedicating my match, regardless of the result, to him. After everything was done, I spent a lot of time in my mind and [with] the family on my mind because their son Clayton is someone, when I was training, who was around often and sometimes he would train with me."
WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry is another individual who has been instrumental through Lee's career and helped him realize what he's capable of.
"It's also special for Mark because he is someone who first uplifted me since my first TakeOver I wasn't wrestling on, and he was like, 'I can't believe you're not on this.' A lot of things after that transformed for me within me and it's just helped me along," Lee said.
Terry Taylor, Triple H, Matt Bloom, Road Dogg, Norman Smiley and Scotty 2 Hotty have all been positive influences during his time in NXT, but one person he feels he doesn't give enough credit to for the amount of advice he's bestowed upon him since his early days is The Undertaker.
"Even before I made it to WWE, and he doesn't remember it, but he gave me a bit of knowledge only a few years into this sport and then he gave me more recently," Lee said. "I cherish these things and try to show them. Not only do I listen, I apply what they say. I want these guys to know, in case we never get to hang out again or whatever it may be, that I will do my best to uphold and uplift them with everything that I do in this spot."
A Main Roster Call-Up Is Inevitable but Not Imminent
Lee's string of stellar performances over the past year have made it clear he is main event material. He's technically in that role now as the NXT champion, but his untapped potential extends well beyond NXT.
His run-in with Roman Reigns at Survivor Series was proof that he could more than hold his own against the top talent on Raw and SmackDown. He's already beaten virtually everyone there is to beat in NXT, so once his two title reigns have run their course, a move to the main roster seems inevitable.
The NXT Championship's long lineage doesn't lie. The likes of Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura are all former titleholders and all went on to do great things on both brands.
Lee has never been one to take a moment to smell the roses, but he's hoping to do a bit more of that now he's a dual champ. But he's also looking ahead to what's next and what goals he can conquer, including chasing more gold on Raw or SmackDown.
"I very much believe in making the most of my present, but I'm also a very strategic human being," he said. "For me, it isn't just about my present. I'm also looking into the future and try to think of the ways I can facilitate more competition and try to capitalize on my own wins and my own accolades and make everything mean as much as it possibly can, because when you make what you do mean something, those moments mean so much more."
The "Moment Maker" nickname that was recently bestowed upon Lee could not be any more perfect with everything he's already achieved in his WWE journey. He added another moment to his collection at The Great American Bash, but it will be far from the final one.
"I didn't create it, but somebody else started calling me a moment-maker and I just ran with it," he said. "I think my duty is to continue making those moments in whatever capacity that's going to be and I'm hopeful that continues to be in high-caliber matches because that's what I love."
Whether it be Raw, SmackDown or NXT, Lee's limitless ceiling for success will surely take him far in WWE—and all fans can do is prepare to bask in his glory.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.