Exclusive: Keith Lee on WWE Title Opportunity, Adjusting to Raw, Goldberg, More
The first episode of WWE Raw in 2021 is being billed as Legends Night, but even more exciting than seeing the illustrious likes of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, among others, will be the WWE Championship clash between current champ Drew McIntyre and challenger Keith Lee.
The Limitless One earned the opportunity by beating Sheamus in a number one contender's match last week on Raw. He and McIntyre have a storied history from his first few weeks on Raw as well as from their days spent on the independent scene together pre-WWE.
Whether Lee emerges with the prestigious prize in his possession is almost irrelevant, because the fact he is already competing for a top title this early into his main roster run is incredible alone. Although his booking has been questionable at times, the company has largely stayed the course with him and has built him up to be a believable threat to the reigning WWE champion.
He's coming off what was easily the most successful year of his WWE career so far and is riding that wave of momentum into his upcoming encounter with McIntyre for the title. That's despite his unnecessary new theme music and updated entrance attire that has yet to resonate with the audience.
With a strong enough showing, it's entirely possible he walks out of Raw this week the new WWE champion. Even if not, he's primed to have a breakout 2021 no matter what if the momentum he has at the moment is any indication of what the future holds for him.
Ahead of his upcoming title shot on Raw Legends Night, Keith Lee took the time to chat with Bleacher Report about gunning for the gold, his transition to the main roster and the obstacles that came along with it, realistic dream opponents, and more.
Facing Drew McIntyre for the WWE Championship on Raw
Needless to say, Keith Lee and Drew McIntyre are no strangers to one another.
The two occasionally crossed paths on the independent scene before signing with WWE in 2017-2018. They didn't wage war again until Lee arrived on Raw at the end of the summer in 2020 and immediately set his sights on the WWE Championship.
Lee and McIntyre faced off twice on Raw in September, but neither bout had a decisive finish. Their upcoming clash on Raw—this time with the WWE title on the line—should right that wrong with one of them defeating the other in clean fashion.
In addition to what's at stake, what makes the occasion all the more special is that it will mark the first Raw in 2021. In fact, it was 22 years ago to the day that Mankind knocked off The Rock for the WWE Championship, so to be in the same conversation as those legends is not lost on Lee.
"I would say that it's a little nerve-wracking and somewhat surreal considering the names that you mentioned previously and the history behind it," he said. "To an extent, it kind of feels natural because somehow, some way, I tend to find my way into opportunities. It's never easy, but one way or another, I manage to find a way and here we are again with another opportunity to start off the year strong. I'm excited about it."
Of the handful of matches Lee and McIntyre have had so far, this one on Monday night should prove to be their best yet. Unlike their previous encounters, however, McIntyre is coming into this contest completely healthy, something Lee is fully prepared for.
"The biggest difference that in this match where we met, Drew was injured and that was something that was difficult to deal with," he said. "In this match, number one, Drew is not injured, and at this point, I'm a little peeved at the situation with Sheamus. I think there's going to be less hesitation and a little more intention, especially with the goals that I have in mind for myself."
Adjusting to the Main Roster and Reflecting on His Impressive 2020
Making the move from NXT to either Raw or SmackDown isn't always a seamless transition. Although most of the talent are already familiar with each other because of the bond they shared in NXT, the main roster can be a completely different animal.
Keith Lee figured that out quite quickly because of the abrupt nature of his call-up.
It came at a time where his stock had never been higher in WWE. He had just wrapped up his reigns as both North American and NXT champion and was positioned as the top babyface on the black-and-gold brand for the better part of 2020.
Despite not finding out about debuting on the Raw after SummerSlam until shortly beforehand, he capitalized on the moment and has made the most of everything else thrown his way these past few months.
"I think the nature of the beast that is this sport...It's a whirlwind in general," he said. "It's all hectic and a little chaotic. In NXT, I felt more of a controlled chaos and I think when I came up to Raw, it became chaos all out. There were adjustments to be made and also strategic moves to be made on my part to try and make the biggest impact as possible.
"It just kind of threw me into the deep end of the water right away, which is kind of what I like," he continued. "Somehow I've managed to swim, and the idea is to keep swimming until I'm standing on top of the water. At this point, the opportunity is in front of me to make it happen. It's chaotic, it's a whirlwind, but it's kind of what I thrive in. I have no problem with that."
Although there were a handful of bumps in the road along the way, there can be no doubt that Lee's 2020 was pretty great on the whole. He had a strong showing in the men's Royal Rumble match, won two titles in NXT, joined the Raw roster, beat Randy Orton in his singles pay-per-view debut, and picked up the winning fall for Team Raw at Survivor Series.
Through all of that, he's taken the time here and there to reflect on the exceptional 2020 he had, as well as what more he wants to accomplish going forward.
"I take my moments, man," Lee said. "There's times where it's as simple as me hopping on the motorcycle and going for a ride, or even if it's in a workout, or there's always some kind of moment where I'll sit back and breath. There's times where maybe meditation, but I always try and take a moment to look back at things and either see if there's something I could have done better or maybe how I can do things better in the future, or maybe it's a strategic approach. Anything I can do to get myself mentally prepared because it's difficult to keep one's mind intact sometimes when it comes to the recklessness that is this sport."
Recalling the Feedback He Received from His WWE 24 Special and How It Came About
Not everybody gets the WWE 24 treatment, and when they do, it typically means WWE wants to spotlight that specific Superstar for either their interesting back story, the push they find themselves in the midst in or both.
Keith Lee was the subject of an installment of WWE's breathtaking documentary series in late November. He explained that it was only ever supposed to focus on his Raw arrival but became much more than that as the process developed.
"I honestly didn't know much about it at all and really, it wasn't supposed to be anything other than, 'This is his debut on Raw and this is how he got here,'" he said. "As I had conversations with people and as we talked about more things, more opportunities came about to talk to family and they were like, 'Listen, this can turn into something really cool if you're up for it.' That team, I give them all the credit because they were great and fun to work with, my family enjoyed them and I enjoyed them.
"I gave the reins to them and it became so much more than a WWE 24 of Keith Lee debuting on Raw," he continued. "This became a 24 of here's how Keith Lee got here. This is what he went through to get here. This is where he came from, this is how he grew up. You're seeing a man that is a culmination of all of these things. To me, that is such a cool approach to it and being able to include friends and peers and people who have been mentors in the documentary itself was super touching. It was magic.”
The feedback he received from it blew him away and served as a reminder that the fanbase is in full support of his journey to the top.
"That was kind of surreal, man, because I'm really not one who likes to share personal stuff and obviously I didn't share every single thing, but giving people an idea of what Keith Lee's life was like and where he came from and things of that sort was a little nervous of a situation for me because I just don't do that," he said. "But a lot of people really enjoyed it, and I don't know, maybe they felt a little closer to me or felt they understood me a bit better or certainly understood where certain things about me came from. The overall feedback was very positive, so I was very appreciative of people's acceptive nature of the film itself."
How He Reacted to His Entrance Music Getting Changed
Keith Lee's much-anticipated Raw debut in late August wasn't without its hiccups. The decision to have him interrupt Randy Orton mid-promo upon his arrival was smart in establishing him as someone important right out of the gate, but all fans could focus on were the generic-sounding entrance music and the distracting ring attire.
Those two things, along with his shaved facial hair, made him almost unrecognizable compared to the last time fans saw him two nights prior at NXT TakeOver XXX. Despite his decent match against Orton later in the night, his entrance music was the hottest topic of discussion among fans online in the days that followed.
"That was something else," Lee laughed. "Originally, honestly, even I was a little perplexed. You get all the people who came up to Raw who still used their old music. Mind you, none of them did their own music. I'm the only one that did, so it would make more sense for me to be the one to keep using my music. However, that did not happen, so they asked me to use something else, and I did, and I tried to be as accommodating a possible by putting the front of the song on that track, and it just didn't vibe [laughs]. It was rough, man! I did the best I could given the circumstances, and I was like, 'I just have to ride with this until I can figure something out.' Man, the way that blew up on the internet, it was like, 'I thought you guys were my friends! I think I'm starting to understand some things here.' Between the gear and the music, I just got destroyed."
Lee went on to mention that he knew he had to own it while he had because he didn't have much of a say in the matter. He told fans to give him some time to figure something out, and sure enough, he wound up with a new track a few months later at Survivor Series.
"I had nothing ready, nothing at all," he said. "At that point, I didn't know I'd have to change music, so I had nothing ready. Over time, people backstage said, 'Hey, y'all have to let Keith do his thing' and eventually they said, 'Well, you think you can write something and maybe record it again?' I said, 'Yeah, just give me the OK.' It took a little time, but eventually, I wrote something and got with the music guys, and over a little bit of time, we put something together that I was happy with, even though the one I'm using right now is actually a different version than what I wanted to use. For what it is, I'm very happy to have something I at least wrote and performed.”
The Limitless One wasn't doing much of note until the new theme debuted, so it can be argued that was the difference-maker in getting him to the elite level he finds himself at today.
Why He Changed Up His Ring Gear Upon Moving to Raw
Unlike the change in entrance music, the updated attire was completely Keith Lee's choice. He wanted to start anew upon arriving on Raw but didn't know that the gear he chose would be so unflattering until he was already in the ring.
That combined with the admittedly awful entrance theme didn't get him off to the strongest start on the Raw roster. He's managed to evolve his gear into something more along the line of what he wanted initially, but the first few weeks were essentially one big trial period.
"I wanted to do something different, and what I had was supposed to be a trial thing to see how it looked," he said. "I was going to train in it and just kind of see, but personally, the sleeveless shirt look is something I actually like and have worn before. I didn't mind it. The shorts, that was a flop and no one knew it would be because they were rushed."
He asked his go-to gear-maker to come up with an entirely new look for his grand Raw debut in the span of 36 hours, but because the first set was wrong because of poor fabric, he had to settle for something looser. It led to the internet joking he was wearing a dress underneath his sleeveless shirt and to his peers getting a kick out of it in the back.
"From the side, it didn't look that bad. From the front, it looked like this situation that was unfavorable and unsavory," Lee said. "As soon as I wore them, I said, 'This was all I had, I'm sorry. I was not prepared.' Nobody really cared, it was just a chuckle for me and the boys, but the fans, it was like, 'Oh my god!'
"'All right, I got the boys to laugh for the night and I tried these things out,'" he laughed. "I committed, but I knew I was switching the moment I wore them. As soon as my match was over, I texted my gear lady and said, 'Hey, we got to get these shorts back. I have to get the tights going because these shorts are not going to cut it.' She said, 'Already on it!” She was a sweetheart, and I was grateful for her because the hecticness of being on Raw was unruly, man.”
Why Goldberg, Brock Lesnar and Cesaro Lead His List of Desired Dream Opponents
In the short time he's spent on the Raw roster, Keith Lee has already been able to mix it up with the likes of Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton, Braun Strowman, Sheamus, AJ Styles and Riddle, among many others. He's had quality chemistry with just about everyone, but there's still many more marquee matches to be had with Lee.
One of them, of course, would have to be with Brock Lesnar. Lee and Lesnar briefly crossed paths in last year's men's Royal Rumble match, an encounter that electrified the audience and left them wanting more. He also threw out Cesaro's name as someone he can't wait to wage war with eventually.
"I think Brock Lesnar has to be at the top of the list based on the people," he said. "Obviously, there's been some inconclusive things with Brock and with Roman, and those are two things I know they want. For me, at some point, if I had my choice...Thanks to [Baron] Corbin, my number one is gone, which is Kurt Angle. If I could have a knockdown, drag-out battle with Cesaro, that is one thing that I want.
"There's other guys. I'd be honored to battle it out with Shinsuke Nakamura, but I want the handcuffs off," he revealed. "I know what these guys are capable of when they can cut loose. I want the battles that are top tier at all times. That's just how I feel. That's just what makes my engine go. I feel like when I came out of NXT and came here, the most exciting thing is that I hadn't fought a majority of the guys on this roster. You can say, dude, that I just want to fight everybody that I haven't fought. That includes legends, but I know not everyone is available. I'd love to step in the ring with any and everyone, that's just my nature. Competition is just what makes my blood boil."
Another interesting name Lee mentioned was Goldberg, and not just because of the magic they'd make in the ring. A quick interaction they had on Bourbon Street over WrestleMania weekend in 2018 immediately endeared him to the WWE Hall of Famer.
"I was hanging out with some friends and a group of fans were hanging around us and Goldberg comes walking down the street," he said. "One of the fans was like, 'Goldberg!' He stops, and he's a very intense guy. So, he's like staring a hole in this dude. This man does not flinch. The fan goes, 'You see this man right here? He's Keith Lee and he's going to come to the WWE and beat you one day.'
"I'm like, 'Wait, what? I didn't sign up for you to do that. What are you doing?'" he continued. "He looks at me and looks at him and takes a couple of steps toward us. He grins a little and says, 'Whenever you get there, change nothing about you.' Which to me meant he has an idea of who I am and I'm like, 'Wait, what?' And then he shook my hand and just kept walking. That was super unexpected. Goldberg holds a little special place in my heart just because of that.”
Remembering Brodie Lee
Towards the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, wrestlers from all over have shared their heartwarming stories of Brodie Lee, who tragically died on December 26. The former Luke Harper was loved and adored by virtually everyone he came in contact with, and Keith Lee was no exception.
The former NXT champion recalls Jon Huber being a genuine "good brother" throughout his tenure in WWE and was a kind soul to those fortunate enough to know him.
"I only had a few conversations with him, and he's always been an excellent guy," he said. "He's always been one of those rare and few what I like good brothers. I know there's a couple of gents that call themselves that, but it is a term we use for the guys we can trust and are literal good brothers. Jon was very much that, and unfortunately, in this world today, there's not a lot of decent human beings. Jon was that, as far as I was concerned anyhow. He's just a dude you can have a conversation with, and he was pleasant and he was concerned and polite and considerate. He would give advice and suggestions whenever needed."
While the two never had a chance to share a ring together, they did exchange words on a handful of occasions when Keith joined WWE in 2018. His favorite memory of Huber was when Lee's close friend Chris Dijak, best known to fans as Dominik Dijakovic or T-Bar, worked against each on a Worlds Collide show over WrestleMania weekend at Axxess in 2019.
"The one thing I will not forget, and this is something I live vicariously through, through Dijak," he said. "He and Dijak had a match [at Worlds Collide in 2019], and the guy just wanted to go in and have fun, and Dijak didn't know what to expect. You work some of these guys who have been around, and it's like, 'Hold your horses.' My man Jon was like, 'Settle up, bro, we're going to have some fun.' He wasn't being used that much then and it didn't make a lot of sense, so it was a frustrating time. Seeing that match and the fun Dijak had was touching. Not only was he was a good human being in general in terms of business, he was a good dude. Someone that I have absolute respect for and all the biggest wishes of strength and healing for his family.”
Keith Lee's New Year's Resolutions for 2021
Winning the WWE Championship on Monday's heavily touted episode of Raw is obviously the number one priority for Keith Lee at the moment, but there's still plenty more he'd like to accomplish in the remainder of 2021.
Already on Raw, Lee has picked up wins over top talent and been a sole survivor at Survivor Series. He's also been involved in the WWE title mix quite a bit, but the best is yet to come for the former NXT champion.
In addition to continuing to headline pay-per-views and beat the best the red brand has to offer, Lee hopes to have gold in his grasp by the end of the year and to have the opportunity to compete on The Grandest Stage of Them All this spring season.
"I do have some idea of things I want to do within the next year and some of them involve solidifying my station in WWE, and by that I mean having high-profile matches and maybe main-eventing some pay-per-views and things of that nature," he said. "At the very least, getting a taste of what WrestleMania is like and to be in it because that's a different beast, that's a different animal. To go out there and not just shine but stand out, be different, be unique, be Keith Lee. That's the idea. I'm just looking forward to seeing what the future holds and what opportunities come with it."
WWE insider Twitter account WrestleVotes suggested that early plans for the WrestleMania 37 card had Lee competing for the WWE Championship against Drew McIntyre and Brock Lesnar. Regardless of where he winds up on that card, he's bound to be a part of something special that sets the tone of what should be another outstanding year for him.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.