It dominated the rumor mill for much of his time on the main roster. What was WWE trying to get Keith Lee to be?
As the guest on the latest Talk is Jerichothe newly signed AEW wrestler explained what happened when he came back last summer after a long layoff caused by COVID and a heart issue discovered while treating him for the coronavirus.
Chris Jericho asked Lee if he thought WWE lost faith with him while he was sidelined for five months:
“I wish that I had an answer for you. The reality is — what happened is, when I was about to come back, they kind of hit me with the vision for the Bearcat thing. During that time, I was like, I don’t understand what that is, I’m not sure if I’m feeling that. And they brought me back just as myself. And then, I don’t know, my second match, I think, yeah. So first match, lost to [Bobby] Lashley. Second match, lost to [Karrion/Killer] Cross. In the middle of the show, Vince [McMahon] pulls me to a room and wants to sit down and have a talk.
“In the middle of Raw — like, he’s got like the semi and the main event coming up. He’s just like, ‘Let’s go chat.’ Dude, you’re the guy on the headphones. What are you doing? But it was in that conversation he basically was like, ‘Listen, I need you to do this. I need you to be this.’
And I was like, ‘I mean, listen, I work for you. So, if that’s what you want, that’s what we’re gonna do.’”
That response to McMahon is similar to what Lee was saying in interviews shortly before his release. Now that he’s not working for Vince, he can be a little more forthcoming. The 37 year old Texan told Jericho what WWE’s Chairman & CEO said to him:
“So, the weird thing, and this is something I’ve also discussed recently is, obviously, you mentioned the way that I speak, my cadence, the way that I seem very thoughtful about how I deliver things, my choice of diction, all of those things, is something that Vince was not a fan of. To the point where he literally told me, he’s like, ‘You sound too smart for your own good.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t understand what that means. Like, what is that?’ He wanted something more grimy. I don’t know, I don’t think I delivered that for him.
“He wanted some intense guy. And I think that I can be intense, but I need a reason to be intense. It’s easy for me to flip a switch, but if it doesn’t make sense, it’s hard for me to do that. So I can’t be just — and I say can’t, I tried, I don’t think I’m very good at it. And I think that that’s something that kind of facilitated that.
“But I’m just not a big, angry, grunty, yelly guy. I’m not that until someone makes me that. And it’s usually a match that causes that or a story that causes that. But when there’s no competitive match that pushes me or when there’s no story that gives me reason for a character to be that, it’s something — and maybe that’s what he means when he says I’m too smart. To me, it’s illogical. I like to do my best to make sense of what we’re doing.”
Keith’s manner of speaking is definitely an acquired taste, and not for everyone. It is unique to him, however. It doesn’t sound like McMahon wanted unique. He wanted another monster.
And the Bearcat moniker WWE gave Lee was part of that. It was not meant to be a tribute to pioneering Black wrestler Bearcat Wright. This is also something the Limitless One hinted at before, but expanded on with Jericho:
“Realistically, that’s the first thing I thought. I’m very big on being myself as opposed to trying to be someone else. So, it didn’t make sense to me, but this is what I was asked to do. That’s what I thought, like, ‘Oh, maybe this is an homage to this guy that was making waves back in his day.’ I feel I’ve made waves, but if he wants me to make more, hell, let’s go for it. And then I asked about it one day because people were asking me, ‘Where did this name come from?’ I’m like, ‘Hell, I don’t know, I was told to be it.’ I couldn’t make a story for this. It just — it didn’t resonate.
“The reality is, the direction was, ‘Be intense. Be angry.’ And that’s it. And so that’s what I tried to facilitate. But then they would want me to cut promos similar to the way that I did before. And I’m like, ‘But you guys have a problem with the way that I speak. How would you like this promo delivered?’ This is where I would like something written for me. I don’t normally care for that, I prefer to go off the cuff and just kind of feel it. But if this character is so far removed from what I’ve been doing, I would like something to tell me who and what this character is, why it exists, like where did it come from.
“And as much as I tried to make things in terms of story for it, either it wasn’t what was asked for or I was asked to not use it anymore. And Bearcat Wright is one of those things. Like, ‘Don’t reference him.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, so be it.’”
The conflicting visions included how Lee works in the ring. Jericho mentioned the reports WWE wanted Keith to “cut the agility stuff”, noting he’d seen them do it to other big men in the past. Lee confirmed that, saying:
“I’m 100% certain that it was some sort of attempt at a test… ‘I wonder if he’ll listen to what we say.’ It doesn’t have to be this complicated, but so it was, and I think it was a test to see if maybe I was trustworthy or what have you. So I stripped everything. Even when I came back and did the Bearcat thing… it was similar when I came back. The double chop I’ve been known for, they snatched that. They snatched — they didn’t want me looking at the crowd at all.
“I don’t know — it’s really hard to say, but I don’t know why these things were a thing. But there was no interaction for me that I was allowed to have. Couldn’t look at the crowd, couldn’t acknowledge the crowd, I could only look at my opponent. It was ‘go, go, go, go, go.’ And I’m like, ‘This is not professional wrestling.’”
Jericho asks if trying to focus on working the WWE big man style caused Lee to lose himself in the ring. It sounds more like it made him worry he was going to hurt someone else:
“There were moments like that, but it’s easy for me to follow directions. But if I need to give directions in the ring — because some people get lost, let’s be honest. And sometimes we ourselves do. We may need to talk to a ref, or talk to an opponent, or whatever the thing may be. If I help them in delivering directions, that was a problem. If I took a moment to communicate what was necessary so that I didn’t have to just ragdoll you, that’s an easy way for someone to get hurt. I understand and I’ve learned it in my time being there, with some of the biggest guys on the planet. Obviously that locker room size is much different than here [AEW]. But even amongst that, I am abnormal, and I’ve figured it out.
“Me just selfishly doing what I want to do in the ring is a surefire way for someone to get hurt, and that’s not a goal of mine. That’s not a legacy I want to leave. So I try to make sure they know what’s coming. And that was an issue. If I did that, maybe they thought I was looking at the crowd, or maybe they thought I was lost in the moment. I’m like, ‘No, I’m trying to make sure this guy knows what’s going on. I’m trying to give you what you want. If they don’t sell in a way that’s expected, then I need to get them in a position they need to be, or do things a certain way. It’s help, It’s part of the job.”
Overall, it really just does sound like Keith Lee and WWE was a bad fit for both parties.
AEW is supposed to be letting Keith be Keith. Maybe that will allow him to turn into the big star his fans from the independents & NXT, and those who were wowed by his main roster showdowns with Roman Reigns & Brock Lesnar, believe he is.
It’s clear that wasn’t going to happen on Raw or SmackDown.