Amid a Slew of Painful WWE Releases, Keith Lee Stands Out the Most

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2021

Credit: WWE.com

WWE released 18 wrestlers Thursday night, a mix of both main roster and NXT talent that brings the total for Superstars fired in 2021 to a staggering 72, according to names compiled by Fightful and F4WOnline.com contributor Denise Salcedo.

While some names shocked fans and led to massive free-agent signings for All Elite Wrestling, few were met with as much disappointment as the release of Keith Lee during this most recent round of roster cuts.

B/R Wrestling @BRWrestling

Keith Lee has reportedly been released by WWE, per @SeanRossSapp https://t.co/kK4lRFbtrr

Social media erupted with tweets of disbelief, unsure of why such a seemingly short-sighted decision was made in the name of "budget cuts" on the same day that WWE announced a record $255.8 million in revenue.

Northwest Cee @CeeHawk

Keith Lee getting released is an indictment on Vince McMahon and no one else.

Andreas Hale @AndreasHale

Guys, Keith Lee went over on Randy Orton in his SECOND WWE match on August 30, 2020 (first was a DQ with Orton). Somebody gonna have to explain to me how he's released 14 months later. What are we doing here?

Erin Quinn @MsErinQuinn

Marvel got Groot over, WWE failed with Keith Lee https://t.co/xINTli1uWe

More than the reason for his dismissal from the company, it is Lee's wasted potential that most stands out.


A Future WrestleMania Headliner

Lee experienced unprecedented success in NXT, becoming the first and only competitor to hold both the North American and NXT world titles at the same time. He was a hybrid worker, a big man who could play the dominant force one minute and then soar through the air with relative ease, wiping opponents out with a moonsault that left fans in awe.

He was a rare breed, the type of superheavyweight who did not simply walk through the door every day. He was 6'2" and weighed 340 pounds, but he knew exactly how to maneuver that mass around to not only accomplish feats in the ring that no man his size should be able to, but also to set himself apart from the rest of the performers on the roster.

It really is no wonder that Triple H and the rest of the NXT management team felt comfortable strapping both titles on him and letting him have a moment in the sun no other star before—or since—has enjoyed. Nor was it much of a surprise when, at the 2019 Survivor Series, he was one of the final two competitors remaining in the tri-branded, traditional elimination tag match.

On that night, Lee went toe-to-toe with Roman Reigns and had the fans in Chicago firmly behind him. He came within milliseconds of defeating the top star in the business before succumbing to a spear, but it was in defeat that he earned a public show of respect from The Tribal Chief and had fans believing the future was his.

Fightful Wrestling @Fightful

Keith Lee had great moments in WWE https://t.co/SV8bk23I3z

Things only improved two months later at the Royal Rumble, when Lee came face-to-face with Brock Lesnar and nearly ended The Beast's run of dominance. When he debuted on Raw eight months later and spent his first two weeks mixing it up with Randy Orton, there was reason to believe The Limitless One would be headlining WrestleMania as world champion before we knew it.

That was not the case. What followed was a series of disappointments that culminated in the events of Thursday.


Health Issues, Bearcat and the Future

Lee contracted COVID-19 in January of this year; he told fans in a YouTube video he released on his own channel. Following that battle, he was found to have an inflamed heart and was immediately taken out of the ring. He was not allowed to compete, train or do anything strenuous during that time, which meant any momentum he had built prior was stunted.

When he returned, there was a hesitancy to push him at the same level he had been at before. He lost to Karrion Kross and Bobby Lashley, got a win back from Kross but quickly fell back into obscurity, where he worked dark matches amid rumors of a repackaging.

Keith "Bearcat" Lee, it was decided (by someone that wasn't him), would be his ticket back to the big time. 

Bill Shannon @RealBShannon3

Keith Lee on Instagram confirmed "Bearcat" wasn't his idea. IWC still gonna keep acting like they know everything though. #wwereleases https://t.co/zZnJ8gnakF

Except, he appeared in two televised matches (against Cedric Alexander and Akira Tozawa) before his stunning release Thursday. Fiancee Mia Yim was also released as part of the cuts.

Lee now enters a loaded free-agent market as one of its gems. He's still got plenty of years left in the ring as long as his body physically allows it, and the 36-year-old has had show-stopping performers against top competitors in the industry. 

One such wrestler is Adam Cole, who Lee defeated to win the NXT title and is most famously attached to the big man for a rather famous GIF. 

Fiending For Followers ‼️ @Fiend4FolIows

Keith Lee when he sees Adam Cole in AEW: https://t.co/lVvcUUIICn

Dream matches with Kenny Omega, Jon Moxley, CM Punk, Bryan Danielson and other AEW stars make that particular company uber appealing. Potential matchups against Moose, W. Morrissey, Josh Alexander, Eddie Edwards and other Impact Wrestling performers make that company an intriguing option, too.

Kenny Omega @KennyOmegamanX

Old rivals, old friends, some I’ve never encountered… I don’t mind padding my record if they don’t mind being a statistic. See if I care.

Then there is Major League Wrestling, home of stellar big men Hammerstone and Jacob Fatu, against whom Lee would continue his reputation of wowing fans with his size, agility and athleticism. 

Wherever he goes, against whomever he wrestles, Lee will be an impact player. No longer is WWE the be-all, end-all in professional wrestling. There are other healthy, thriving options in the industry for someone of his abilities to go and succeed. 

And he will. He is too good not to. Orton said so shortly after their series of matches. 

WWE's loss will be both another promotion's gain—as well as Lee's. The big man has an enormous future, and anyone running a wrestling company right now that is worth a damn should be on the phone with him, planning the future and all of the money they will make together. 


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