Keith Lee strikes an imposing figure. At around 6 feet tall, north of 300 pounds, he's everything you could want if you were creating the ideal powerhouse bruiser in professional wrestling.
His power is abundantly clear when Lee lifts up opponents of all sizes nearly effortlessly for powerbombs, suplexes and everything else in his well-stocked arsenal. If that was all he was, he'd be a valuable commodity in the world of wrestling, but that's only scratching the surface of what "Limitless" Keith Lee brings to the table as one of the fastest rising stars on the independent scene.
Top rope moonsaults? You bet. Corkscrew planchas? You better believe it.
Lee moves around at an impressive pace, and his high-flying moves alone put men half his size to shame. Lest you try to pigeon-hole Lee into any kind of big man stereotype, however, he's quick to call you out by making a fair point.
"First of all, I'll say that for me personally, I feel like the things I do can be considered impressive regardless of my size, to be honest," said Lee. "I've always been an athlete. I've always loved the more athletic-style approach to things."
He put that style on display as one half of "The Pretty Boy Killers" for Ring of Honor, and later as a singles wrestler for a variety of Northeast independent wrestling companies. It got him noticed and ultimately led Lee to sign with WWN/EVOLVE to take a big step forward in his solo career. But long before there was a somewhat acrimonious split from ROH, and difficult decisions to be made, we should get to the heart of what drives Keith Lee's story -- and like much of his career. That takes us down to Texas.
"For me, this story is not an average story, like 'I saw a particular wrestler that inspired me,' or anything of that sort," Lee recalled, during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "As a young kid in my family, my grandmother was kind of the catalyst for my interest in wrestling, because she loved it so much. A lot of my cousins and stuff, we would wrestle when we were young."
Growing up about two hours north of Dallas, Lee remembers others losing interest, but for some reason wrestling just stuck with him. Even still, it never really struck him that it could be an actual career choice until the idea snuck up on him one day.
"I guess her love kind of buried itself within me, because sometime in college while I was playing football, I just kind of had a moment where it became, 'I want to wrestle.' Her love became my interest." said Lee.
After doing his due diligence and research, Lee found "Killer" Tim Brooks' school just south of Dallas in Waxahachie and began his training in 2005. He credits' Brooks' teachings for laying down a strong foundation for his career, but for the better part of the next three years, Lee's bookings were almost entirely confined to a small halo around Dallas. As much as he felt like he was learning at a rapid pace, this limited exposure created a significant road block for his development.
"Oh, man. Wrestling in Texas back then was pretty bad, in my opinion," said Lee. "There were only a few promotions here, and none of them wanted to pay. At all. It took a lot of time and I guess, almost bitterness to [make it in] wrestling because in Texas, everyone just seemed to want to get over on you, and make a buck on you. I didn't learn a lot because I didn't get to experience a lot of different talent."
In 2008, Lee got his first WWE try-out. While he still had to put some things together (Lee admits "my microphone capabilities were terrible," at the time), his look, his charisma in the ring and the things he could already do as a big man led to conversations that made him believe he was close to living out his WWE dreams.
Lee wasn't fully letting things fly, so to speak, because there were other elements of his Texas isolation that were working against his goals going on just beneath the surface.
"There were things I felt like I was always able to do, but there was a stigma here in Texas about big guys being athletes," said Lee. "Apparently, that wasn't something appreciated from people that you worked with, and I guess that's something that I kinda allowed to control me for a while. And by a while, I mean a very large portion of my career."
"I dealt with that, and I came back [to try out with WWE] another time," recalled Lee. "I didn't get signed again. I was actually pretty ready to hang it up with wrestling, because between the atmosphere of Texas and then not being signed ... really, all I knew was WWE. I didn't experience other things very much, because of my solitude."
It was during one of those tryouts with WWE, however, that Lee got some sage advice from a few of the brightest minds in the history of the wrestling business. These moments finally allowed Lee to seek out greener pastures and improve himself outside of the Dallas bubble that he'd lived in for so long.
"I was about ready, but it took a few great minds in wrestling, and some great mentors and good words of encouragement," Lee continued. "During that time I'd say the two most prominent voices would be Dusty Rhodes and William Regal that really gave me a fire and kind of lit it under me."
Between Rhodes and Regal, and conversations with Jim Ross and Joey Mercury, Lee finally went out and made a name for himself. It started by simply expanding to other parts of Texas, like NWA shows in Houston and Austin, where he found success at Inspire Pro Wrestling. It was during one of those Houston shows in 2014 that Lee first tagged with Shane Taylor, who would play a key role in helping Lee garner the attention of Ring of Honor almost a year later when they visited Amarillo.
In May 2015, Lee and Taylor teamed up for the first time for ROH as part of an event held in Amarillo, Texas. As you could see in the clip featured earlier in this story, which comes from this match, Lee made an immediate impression and both Lee and Taylor were immediately on the company's radar. They wrestled a dark match the following night for ROH in Oklahoma City, and then again when ROH visited San Antonio that September.
Over the next few months, the pair would appear on shows in Nashville, Indianapolis and Collinsville, Illinois, before returning to Dallas as part of ROH's WrestleMania weekend "Supercard of Honor" shows.
"In all honesty, Ring of Honor was somewhere I wanted to be, even before my last WWE tryout at the Performance Center in 2013. Part of that talk with Regal was to go where I wanted to go, and Ring of Honor was one of those places," said Lee. "I'm always going to be grateful that I had a chance to do work with them, and had a few great opponents there."
By June 2016, Lee and Taylor started appearing regularly on ROH TV. While their run together in the spotlight in ROH only lasted about seven months, the "Pretty Boy Killers" made quite an impression. Much of it can be attributed to an incredible rivalry the pair had with former ROH tag team champions "War Machine".
In their four tag team matches with Ray Rowe and Hanson, along with two multi-team matches, all four men showed an incredible athleticism that turned heads every time out. As someone who had previously spent most of his career as a singles performer, these matches and this run provided Lee insights into tag team wrestling and the business as a whole that ultimately altered the course of his career.
"I learned a ton about tag team wresting, because I was never a tag team guy. Really, I was learning on the job. I'll take the time to thank Christopher Daniels, because he did a lot to teach and guide me and kind of mentor me on that. Obviously, Shane [Taylor]'s an equal partner, and I didn't have to get hit by him, so that was always great," Lee continued, with a laugh.
After Lee announced he had signed with EVOLVE, and Taylor resigned with ROH, the writing was on the wall. Lee was, however, able to close out his run with the company alongside Taylor in San Antonio, against the company's long-time top team.
"I think in the end, I learned a ton, and we had some great fun. We even got a dream match, the two of us versus the Briscoes, in my final night there. That was a joy as well."
So what was it that led Lee to walk away from ROH, the company that had given him a chance to leave the Texas bubble and take his biggest steps forward to date?
"Opportunity, I think. Probably communication," Lee said, when considering what ultimately led him to sign with EVOLVE. "[They] approached me in a manner completely different from Ring of Honor, and that was one of the major selling points. A lot of mentors and friends thought it to be the best choice, and currently, I can say that I definitely feel like it's easily the best choice for me.
"In the span of a few days, I spoke with EVOLVE probably more than I spoke with Ring of Honor in 18 months. They really showed an interest in me, and my ability, and you know, giving me a chance to exude who Keith Lee is, and introduce myself to crowds in a way that I see fit."
In the earliest stages of his work with EVOLVE, they've put their money where their mouth is.
Lee faced Chris Hero (NXT's Kassius Ohno), beat Zack Sabre, Jr. the night before he won the EVOLVE title and Tracy Williams the next night. It'll continue in Orlando, as Lee faces Ricochet and then Donovan Dijak, with whom Lee has already had a tremendous series of matches for Northeast Wrestling, Beyond Wrestling and Wrestle Circus.
"It's just a lot of opportunity to showcase myself. It's also a chance to try and be the guy who raises the bar for EVOLVE, you know? It's not a selfish thing, for me. I've always been one that wants to be a key [player] that raises the prestige for whoever I work for," said Lee.
No matter how good things get in EVOLVE for Keith Lee in the future, the decision to move on was certainly not an easy one.
"I can't say that there's anything that's super happy [about having] to move on. It was a very difficult decision to make," said Lee. "Shane was someone that I thought about during that decision a lot, but I [talked to] him and a few others, where I felt like EVOLVE was the better choice, to go after it."
The good news is that, despite no longer appearing together for ROH, Lee and Taylor have continued to tag for other independent companies, primarily for two Texas-based promotions. They won tag team gold for VIP, and teamed together for WrestleCircus. With the latter, a new Austin-based promotion that has taken independent wrestling by storm, Lee gets to live the best of both worlds with both singles and tag team action.
His match with Dijak for WrestleCircus in October 2016, like a handful of Lee's other one-on-one contests, earned particular attention and acclaim for what the two big men were able to do in the ring -- things rarely seen from men of their size and stature. Lee enjoys any chance that forces him to get creative, from the occasional inter-gender match to a future showdown with a much different kind of wrestler in Lio Rush.
But the spectacle of having two big men in a "hoss fight" moving around like cruiserweights and getting creative has a certain allure that can't be matched.
"I definitely believe that I'm an athlete, and I don't ever put the words "for my size" around that, because I feel like there's a lot of things I do that smaller guys can't do," said Lee. "On the same token, I also realize that because of my size, it makes it that much more of a wow factor; when you add another big guy to the mix that also produces the same wow factor, of course it's going to be a spectacle for the crowd.
"To me, those are special moments, because those are things that the fans love," continued Lee. "That back and forth transfer of energy between the people in the ring and the crowd, it just creates this atmosphere that's absolutely tremendous. It's amazing, to be honest."