How Keith Lee Turned Limited Opportunity into 'Limitless' Potential

Wrestling Features Keith Lee
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How Keith Lee Turned Limited Opportunity into 'Limitless' Potential

Keith Lee/
The man of the hour/
The king of the ring/
Intelligence and power

“Limitless” Keith Lee was in the midst of a six-match weekend on March 31, as he stepped in the ring to wrestle Donovan Dijak during one of two Evolve WrestleMania weekend shows. It wasn’t the first time the two big men had stepped in the ring together, but it was likely on the largest stage, with fans from all over the world crammed into the Orlando Live Events building to see what looked, at first glance, to be something of a hoss fight: Lee runs north of 300 pounds, and Dijak, while a bit more svelte, still hits around 270 with his nearly seven-foot frame. It could have been two giants clubbing each other for 10 minutes, and no one would have batted an eyelash.

Instead, fans saw something more akin to WWE’s cruiserweight wrestling show 205 Live: Flips, cartwheels, dives. There was a corkscrew plancha, a springboard elbow. It was a match and a style that Lee likely wouldn’t have had just five years ago, but one which has come to define him as a performer.

“We had this match that made a lot of jaws drop, and I don’t think anyone expected what we produced,” Lee said later. “That was a personal message to the wrestling world: We’re here, and we don’t care what you think about our style.”

Yes, Keith Lee is definitely here. The former Texas A&M defensive end-turned-wrestler—an imposing figure by almost any standard—isn’t interested in conforming to traditional ideas of pro wrestling or its expectations towards men who look like him. And by sticking to those guns he’s become one of the most sought-after performers in independent wrestling.

But that prestige didn’t come easy. Lee’s been in the business for about 12 years, though he says his name has really only gotten out there over the last two. The other 10 are filled with opportunities—some missed, some realized—and sacrifice. Now, as an increasingly important part of Evolve and a fixture of companies like Beyond, Wrestle Circus and, more recently, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, Keith Lee is making an impact.

“I want to be that prominent player that makes people pay attention,” Lee says. “And I think I’m doing that.”

Lee, 32, started his wrestling career in what was then a fledgling Texas independent scene. Growing up outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Lee grew up a fan of wrestling through the intense passion of his grandmother, whom he said never missed a chance to sit in front of the television and watch what was then the World Wrestling Federation. He’d often join her, and through the lens of 1989 WWF, the seeds were planted for a future in pro wrestling.

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Those seeds began to sprout in college. As a computer science major, Lee’s studies often clashed with his football plans, as did clashes with then-head coach Dennis Franchione. But once he realized that his true passion was professional wrestling, he left football behind him. It was an alarming decision to his family, but one that Lee stuck to. He began wrestling with Arlington-based Professional Championship Wrestling in 2005 before training with Killer Tim Brooks.

In the early years, Lee wasn’t much of a high-flyer. While he pulled out a few dives or moonsaults here and there, his arsenal looked very little like it does today. “I think I threw one or two dropkicks, ever,” Lee says with a laugh. “It was nothing compared to the things that I started doing as of 2014.”

That evolution came after years of peaks and valleys—or, more accurately, a lot of valleys. If the concerns from Lee’s family weren’t enough from stopping his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, the worries of the man himself almost did the trick. In 2008, thanks to a good word from PCW colleague Lance Hoyt, Lee landed a tryout with the WWE, and impressed them enough to stay on their radar. But in 2013, after years honing his craft, he returned to take part in the company’s first Performance Center camp, and didn’t get signed. Soon after, he injured his shoulder. Suddenly, “Limitless” Keith Lee felt he’d reached his limit.

“I very much felt like I made a mistake, and I was about to hang up my boots,” Lee says. “At that point it really felt like a mistake leaving football in the dust. Essentially, I would have had a regular life. A non-free schedule, working nine-to-five.”

The writing appeared to be on the wall, but advice from WWE officials like Dusty Rhodes, William Regal, Joey Mercury, and Jim Ross bounced around in his head: He realized that in order to succeed he had to stop being what he thought others wanted him to be, and instead focus on himself. Lee made his return in July 2014 against Raymond Rowe in Houston, a match that led directly to Lee’s second act.

“We just had a killer match, and after that match he told me I have to come to the next Ring of Honor show and meet people,” Lee says. “And that was really all the explanation I needed.”

From there, the opportunities began to show themselves. He joined up with Shane Taylor as one half of the Pretty Boy Killers, got to learn from locker room leaders like Christopher Daniels—a man Lee credits with helping the two men grow into their tag team role—and feuded with War Machine and the Briscoes.

Taylor and Lee made for an odd couple. The two men have little in common: Lee is a self-described nerd, providing Taylor with enough ammo for some gentle ribbing. (Taylor, himself well north of 300 pounds, is likely one of the few men who can give Lee a hard time.) But they bonded, and while they progressed, Lee was hopeful that the two men would become an important cog in the ROH machine.

As time passed, that hope began to fade. The end game never quite seemed to be there. While he was enjoying his time in the Pretty Boy Killers, there was never an answer to the question: “What’s next?”

“Two big guys is not a tag team that normally works, but I thought they were putting some trust in us,” Lee said. “And you know, I’m sure there must have been some sort of idea, but there were times when I just felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants, and just no real direction. And I don’t know, man. Stuff like that really gets me off kilter, and I like to be balanced.”

Lee is open and honest when talking about his reasons for leaving ROH, a company for which he still has fond memories. Communication was a major factor, as was the limiting nature of the company’s contract structure: At this point it’s common knowledge that ROH—like many other wrestling companies—structures some of its contracts to prevent talents from appearing at certain other live events. This commonly includes any company that appears on television, pay-per-view or iPPV.

Lee’s experiences with ROH were largely positive, but there was also no real indication that he was going to be the sort of major player he wanted to be. “When I go somewhere to do something, I really feel like I’m one of the top type of athletes that can bring something to a company, raise its prestige level if you will,” Lee says. “And I didn’t feel like Ring of Honor was going to put me in a position to help them, and also help myself. I didn’t feel like I was going to be a frontrunner, in terms of someone who gets featured often.”

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Another opportunity would eventually come to him in the form of a conversation with current Evolve promoter—and Ring of Honor cofounder—Gabe Sapolsky. The two men were discussing the possibility of Lee performing a few dates for Sapolsky-affiliated promotions, and Lee mentioned that he was contemplating officially signing with Ring of Honor, a move that would bar him from such dates.

Things moved quickly from there. Over a span of four days, Sapolsky sold Lee on the idea of signing with Evolve. Soon, Lee was giving ROH his notice, and preparing for a new chapter.

“I think I talked to him more in those four days than I’d spoken to anyone in Ring of Honor’s office in 18 months, and that’s something that really resonated with me,” Lee says. “Evolve wanted to make use of my abilities, and to showcase me. They had that obvious want for my in-ring skills.”

Which brings us back to WrestleMania weekend. Up until that point, it was clear that Evolve wanted to use Lee as a major player: He debuted in a match against a departing Chris Hero, and a few weeks later defeated Zack Sabre Jr., who’s currently Evolve Champion. And so he walked into Orlando that weekend with a plan to make waves: His one-on-one with Dijak was joined by matches with Ricochet, Lio Rush, Jeff Cobb, another four-way match and an eight-man tag for Full Impact Pro. During a weekend that included two ladder matches from the Hardy Boyz, the Young Bucks, an influx of UK talent from Progress and Revolution Pro, a strong NXT show—and uh, you know, WrestleMania itself—Keith Lee was recognized as a consistent bright spot in a jam-packed weekend.

“Did I really expect that to happen? Not really,” Lee says with a laugh. “There’s a ton of talent out there, man. When you go to WrestleCon and you see these ridiculous 10-man tag teams between team Ricochet and Team Ospreay, it’s like why are people talking about me? I don’t understand.”

Lee pauses, before adding: “It’s very surreal to me. It was crazy, to be honest with you. But I’m very proud of that.”

He was talking about that specific weekend, but he could have just as easily been talking about his entire journey in pro wrestling. It wasn’t easy, but he’s finally arrived. In his entrance music—which he recorded himself, with a producer—Lee refers to himself as “the man of the hour.” It’s a charge that’s hard to dispute, and though it remains to be seen just how much of his potential he’s able to fill, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the future for Lee is, in fact, “limitless.”

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Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.