As Keith Lee waited backstage at this year’s Royal Rumble in Houston, he wasn’t sure what to expect. The Texas native would be entering the event’s titular match at No. 13 — significant considering his winding path to WWE — and was about to share the ring with Brock Lesnar, marking one of the biggest moments of his career to that point.
Once his music hit and he stepped through the curtain, all of the uncertainty dissipated.
“I wasn’t sure the crowd would know me at all and 40,000 people exploded,” Lee told Yahoo Sports. “That moment kind of stands alone and tells the tale.”
Although he lasted just 212 seconds in the match, one thing was clear: After an arduous journey to WWE, Keith Lee was a bona fide star.
‘I followed my heart and not my brain’
Before he ever set foot in a professional wrestling ring, Lee was on a very different athletic path. Lee, who was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, was a redshirt defensive lineman at Texas A&M in the early 2000s. Despite being successful enough on the gridiron to earn his way to a high-level NCAA program, professional wrestling remained this itch he needed to scratch.
“I feel like my grandmother moved me with her love for the sport,” Lee said. “It’s something that grew in me and as it grew, even with my love for football, it overtook that to the point where I could no longer ignore it. With that being the case, I initially followed my heart and not my brain.”
Despite his natural size and athleticism Lee’s wrestling journey, which began in 2005, wasn’t an easy one. At the time Lee was trying to break in, it was hard for an athlete of his size not to get pigeonholed. Save for a few exceptions, “big men” generally had limited move sets and certain expectations attached to them. The only time most went to the top rope was for a ring-breaking superplex.
In fact, Lee tried out for WWE three times during a five-year period from 2008 to 2013, each time getting turned away from Vince McMahon’s company. Lee, nearly a decade removed from his decision to leave football for professional wrestling, began to question his place in the industry.
“One-hundred percent [I began to doubt whether or not I made the right move],” Lee said. “After the second no [in 2011], there came a point there where it started to creep in, and after the Performance Center opened up and I got a third no [in 2013], then I was pretty much ready to give wrestling up altogether and accept that I possibly made a mistake.”
Lee credits William Regal, Jim Ross and the late Dusty Rhodes as key influences in keeping him motivated and involved in the industry, and as Lee traveled the independent circuit over the next few years, WWE continued to evolve, with its NXT brand turning into something very different than what fans were traditionally used to seeing on WWE programming.
NXT quickly became known as one of the best pure wrestling brands in the world, and with more of the focus on in-ring performance rather than having a specific “look,” it seemed only a matter of time before Lee found his way — finally — under the WWE umbrella.
“I’ve always been a confident individual,” Lee said. “I feel like all I’ve ever really required is an opportunity and a chance to break the door down for a lack of better term.”
Lee’s chance to break through eventually came when he signed with WWE in 2018. As Lee worked on the brand’s mid-card for the next year or so, fans would become acclimated with the giant who moved like a cruiserweight. Lee’s “Limitless” character quickly caught on with fans, who bought into his skill set as well as his entire persona.
“My character represents a lot of my life growing up, but also my experience in entertainment as a whole,” Lee said. “Being told no so many times, being denied, turned down, shut down, talked down and never giving up. That’s kind of the premise that ‘Limitless’ was. Some have applied it to my in-ring ability, but for me it’s a way of life, a mentality, something to help keep one’s mental fortitude intact while they are going through tough times.”
Lee’s perseverance would ultimately pay off, starting last November. As NXT continued to be elevated from a “developmental” brand to a full-fledged competitor with “Raw” and “Smackdown,” Lee took on bigger responsibilities and occupied more prominent positions on the card. Lee’s performance in the main event of “NXT TakeOver: WarGames” and sharing the ring with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns the following night at “Survivor Series” solidified him as one of the top rising stars in WWE.
“I think having those opportunities helps reinforce the thought process [that you have made it],” Lee said. “When those things are reinforced, it creates an even more natural comfort for one’s self. Having those chances, it helped create that.”
Bringing back the ‘big man magic’
Thus far in 2020, Lee has used his momentum to become arguably the biggest star — literally and figuratively — on the NXT roster.
After winning his first championship in WWE in January, Lee began programs with longtime rival Dominik Dijakovic and Damian Priest. The trio, measuring 6-foot-2, 6-foot-7, and 6-foot-5, respectively have managed to elevate NXT’s North American Championship and have become appointment viewing for any wrestling fan.
“When you get gents like us in the ring, it’s oftentimes [jaw-dropping] but also mesmerizing for someone who is seeing it for the first time,” Lee said. “It’s unexpected, shocking for people who have never seen someone like us do what we do. It’s an expression of who we are and wanting to be the greatest, have the highest level of competition. It creates a magical experience. It’s something you cannot replace, it’s indescribable.”
Lee’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. The 34-year-old’s rise in WWE has caught the eye of several high-profile names. CM Punk suggested Lee win the aforementioned Royal Rumble — in turn earning him a spot in the main event at WrestleMania (which eventually went to Drew McIntyre), Paul Levesque has regularly touted Lee as one of the company’s fastest rising stars, and WWE legend Mark Henry recently compared Lee to the Undertaker, saying he was bringing back the “big man magic.”
“That’s something that Mark was kind enough to say regarding me, but it’s always an unrealistic thing for me,” Lee said. “It’s very surreal, in terms of how someone who I have watched for so long can say those things after being such an influence for me. It’s really hard to listen to because it’s someone I have respected so much, what else can one do? When you study people like a Mark, or Triple H or whoever else and then you listen to these guys gush about you, it’s hard to process.
“A lot of people think that championships define a career, personally, I feel like moments like that are career-defining. Those are things I’ll never forget, something that I hold very close to me, very special to me.”
Lee’s journey in WWE is far from over. After spending 13 years trying to break into the company, Lee has finally arrived on its biggest stage and has earned the respect of some of the industry’s greatest minds and fans alike. While his entrance music calls upon fans to “bask in his glory,” it’s something the self-proclaimed “professional mind-blower” isn’t ready to do quite yet.
“I’ve been through a lot and all I can really do is be grateful that I have opportunities to do something else. There’s no reason to have an ego or things of that sort.”
Keith Lee defends his North American Championship against Damian Priest on the April 29th episode of “NXT” on USA Network at 8pm ET.
More on Yahoo Sports: