Keith Lee on Defending the WWE NXT North American Title & Fan Appreciation
Keith Lee is a hybrid WWE superstar who is built like Thanos, yet has the capabilities to move around like Spider-Man. Sprinkle in some natural charisma, and you have the complete package for a sports entertainer. Therefore it’s no surprise fans have taken a liking to the powerhouse and bask in his proverbial glory.
The current NXT North American champion’s exceptional athletic abilities have been put to the test in recent months against regular rivals Donovan Dijakovic and Damian Priest. This week he defends the gold against both in a triple threat match sure to bring fans to their feet. However, the added challenge for Lee and his opponents is working without a crowd to feed off of.
“I don’t think it really changes the dynamic as much, except for the fact people are going to hear us hitting each other really hard,” he said. “You might hear us screaming out in pain a little more often. These guys are such awesome competitors you almost forget the crowd is there at times. Sometimes you catch a punch to the ear and lose yourself. It might light a fire under you. It changes the adrenaline level.”
The 35-year-old admits the crowd does add to the atmosphere and pushes him to do extraordinary moves. It’s why he expresses appreciation to the fans every time he sees them.
“People provide a natural adrenaline that increases my strength, my speed, my leaping ability, my body control. All of those things,” Lee said. “Without that, it’s going to be desperation and viciousness. You got guys in the ring who are super athletes and abnormal. It’s going to be a brawl. It’s going to be one guy trying to one-up the other. It’s going to be about brutality. I’m going to have to get in the zone and bring out some animalistic tendencies most likely to get by.”
Before the big match, Lee sat down via phone (social distancing) to talk about his recent accomplishments and why many see big things in him.
With a Twitter handle of Optimistic Lee, what has been getting you through these uncertain times?
Keith Lee: I have a natural positivity that helps me get through most things. Outside of that is mental capacity and trying to stay focused on the things I can be thankful for in life. It’s about moving forth regardless of the circumstance.
With gyms closed, how has your workout routine changed?
Unlike some of my more well prepared coworkers and associates, I do not have a home gym. So a lot of what I do currently is different variations of pushups, burpees, lunges, squat jumps, planks with movement. More body weight and athletic style.
You’re providing a welcome distraction for many people with NXT coming up this week. What’s the atmosphere like going to work these days?
That’s one thing I’m honored to be able to do. I know times are somewhat tough for people these days. Being able to go out there and be one of the few to defend a championship now and being a part of a show people can enjoy. It’s something I’m very proud of to help provide that.
You were visibly emotional when you won the North American championship. Looking back, what did that moment mean to you? How do you think it has kept you motivated?
For me, winning it meant a lot in terms of making my presence felt in a completely different manner. Proving what I said I was. Putting an exclamation point on Keith Lee and what he is for this industry. Winning a championship isn’t as big a deal as what I do after. My thought process, my focus, my want is to continue to elevate the championship. Make it prestigious and an important championship where you can see many people are going after it now.
Your match series with Donovan Dijakovic put the spotlight on yourself and your opponent. What has it been like working with him where every outing you’ve raised the bar so high it can be challenging to take it up another notch?
Making each match different and special comes down to the two people in the ring. You have two athletes who want to set a standard and prove a point and show the world what we already know in terms of our capabilities. In that sense, it makes every match very physical and painful. When we come together in these matches, it’s all about competition. People think it’s one thing, and it’s never what they think because for us it is simply a battle. That’s what we bring every time. We raise the bar by beating the crap out of each other.
You, along with Donovan Dijakovic and Damian Priest, are all redefining what a super heavyweight and big man is in pro wrestling. What do you say to those who might say you’re big guys who don’t need to be taking these unnecessary risks?
The answer I say to those people is step in the ring with a Donovan Dijakovic. Step in the ring with a Damian Priest. Tell me you don’t have to step your game up at all. There are times I admit I like to show off because I’m capable of spectacular things and know it. I love it. It’s something I enjoy for me. There are also times where the competition is enough that I have to resort to those things. That’s the benefit and beauty of being a versatile competitor. I can adapt with who I’m in the ring with. That’s a great thing.
Who did you look to for inspiration when you were fine-tuning your style?
First and foremost, definitely Kurt Angle. There is a long list of guys from Shelton Benjamin to Mark Henry to early Brock Lesnar. Even current Brock Lesnar. Farooq, even Bradshaw. I like such different styles. I like taking everything and making it into something that is more unique to me.
You mention Brock Lesnar — we’ve seen a tease between the two of you in the past. Is that a match you want to see happen down the line?
I think it would be quite the pleasure and would be an honor to step in the ring with him. Not only that, it’s another opportunity for me to make magic the only way Keith Lee can.
You along with other select superstars are featured in the upcoming Netflix movie The Main Event. What can you tell us about that filming experience? Have you caught the acting bug?
I think it’s more than a bug. That experience created another passion for me. I enjoy entertainment as a whole from music to professional wrestling in terms of sport. Now film is something I did not expect to be as great as it was. I didn’t know what to expect. I enjoyed it so very much. It was an honor. I’m definitely hoping for more opportunities in that realm one way or another and reaching out and making things happen. Who knows?
You built such a great body of work before coming to WWE and had this wealth of experience. Though WWE is a different animal and on such a high level, what would you say was the best advice you’ve received that set you up for success?
I don’t talk about this a lot. I’ve received great pieces of advice from so many different people from Booker T. to Mark Henry to Ric Flair. I’ve gotten so much information and knowledge from all these guys. However, the most impactful piece of knowledge actually came from before I was even in WWE. It occurred in my first-ever experience as an extra talent for, it may have been a SmackDown. I guarantee you he will not remember this, but I ran into The Undertaker backstage.
You do your best to be respectful to anyone backstage, especially when you are brand new. At that moment, I introduced myself and took a moment to ask, “Hey, are you busy right now? Is there anything you can offer me? I would like to pick your brain if you have a moment.” He didn’t have a lot of time, but he took a moment for me and said, “Here is my piece of information for you. Whatever you do in this industry, make sure it means something.” That I have taken throughout my career. If you notice, I don’t do a lot of offense, but when I do, it’s so impactful. When I do something, it matters. Every single time.”
WWE NXT, Wednesdays, 8/7c, USA Network