Nine months ago, Keith Lee made the conscious decision to strike out on his own. He was in search of a new direction in his career, and sought the kind of creative freedom that would allow him to travel the world and have all of the kinds of matches and opponents he could want.
Lee has had more than 90 matches since signing with WWN/EVOLVE, in 17 different states plus Mexico, England and Ireland, and he has faced most of the best independent wrestlers in the entire world. He has taken on a few guys in particular on multiple occasions, including former UFC fighter-turned-independent wrestling superstar wunderkind Matt Riddle.
He lost three one-on-one matches against Riddle in less than two weeks, and came out on the wrong side of a Fatal 4-Way match and even lost when then they briefly joined up as a tag team. But on a Saturday afternoon in Queens, New York, inside of La Boom nightclub, Lee won a last man standing match against Riddle to become just the second-ever WWN champion.
"As far as winning, and becoming champion for WWN, I think that's obviously a quite the large deal, considering I've been a part of WWN for less than a year," said Lee to ESPN.com. "It makes me super-duper proud, and I think that my focus has [already] shifted to the growth of this title and raising the prestige of it."
Lee is a guy who exudes charisma every time he steps into a wrestling ring, with an unbreakable swagger and a confidence that's evident in his smile and glare. That's just before the bell rings, too, and then he brings an in-ring style all his own. Those who've seen him before know they're in for offense that covers a wide spectrum, and while the physical strength and power is a given from a single glance, the few members of the crowd inside of La Boom or any other venue Lee walks into also get an acrobatic aerial assault that'll blow their minds.
So before he walked out to the ring and implored fans to "bask in his glory" -- before he walked away from his match with Riddle holding his biggest title to date -- what was going through Keith Lee's head?
"There was a lot of preparation for that match. From different training styles, to different mental focus, to new gear," said Lee. "I think, before the match, it was really just a lot of that, just kind of prancing around and being by myself, listening to music, typical things I would do before any match, but more so before a bigger match."
As for the match itself, Lee and Riddle approached the last man standing contest in a far different style than what fans may be used to. They went all out from the opening bell, kept most of the action in the ring, and traded bombs in (almost) every sense of the word. The level of compatibility the pair had developed after so many matches in a short window made the unusually fast-paced match feel right.
"Matt Riddle is a very unique competitor," said Lee. "I think more people are trying to emulate his style nowadays, but his style, as a wrestler, is something I enjoy. We're actually somewhat similar in terms of how we carry ourselves too. I'm a fairly laid-back fellow and I often just enjoy myself in a ring. And Riddle is very much the same. But when he gets pushed to another level he becomes a very intense animal, so to speak. And so getting in a ring with him, automatically, if you are a true talent, it's going to push you to another level."
Now that he's WWN champion, Lee has already set his sights on pursuing an even more aggressive, busy and varied schedule.
"Now my interest is in taking this title to other countries, defending it and making it a world title," said Lee. "Typically, once I get a championship, its value rises -- and it will be no different this time."
Stepping out of one's comfort zone is never a decision to be made lightly, but in the case of Keith Lee and leaving an organization like Ring of Honor, he didn't have much in the way of doubt. Even though some in the industry are just now coming around and noticing how good Lee is, in his mind, it was only a matter of time, as long as he got the right opportunities.
"You know, when I made that decision, I was 100 percent comfortable with it then. I felt like I made the right decision," said Lee. "Other people will tell you, 'Now it's justified -- now I made the right decision.' No, I made the right decision then, and I've been able to capitalize on opportunities given to me. I think that knowing that I was going to get opportunities to push myself and have the matches I believe I'm worthy of, and opportunities to be in a position where I can stand out or have the opportunity to run with the ball, so to speak, meant more to me."
It was just as big of a no-brainer for WWN/EVOLVE, which already had a deep talent pool before signing Lee to a contract in mid-January.
"We aggressively pursued Keith Lee because he had two qualities that we look for in talent that is signed to The WWN Family, which encompasses several brands including EVOLVE," said Gabe Sapolsky, WWN VP of talent relations and creative. "Keith is a very unique talent. His combination of charisma, strength and agility is rare. This makes him stand out on the roster, which makes him a valuable addition. He also had a high ceiling with plenty of upside."
Truth be told, Lee has far exceeded even the lofty expectations that Sapolsky had when ink was put to paper -- largely because Lee had spent most of his run with ROH as a tag team performer.
"I actually thought there would be a learning curve for Keith with going full-time into singles competition," said Sapolsky. "However, he's been having amazing high-profile matches since day one with us. He immediately began performing like a champion. [But] we had two excellent champions with EVOLVE champion Zack Sabre Jr. and WWN champion Matt Riddle, so we were in a good logjam situation with having three talents who were capable of holding either of the two championships.
"Keith waited for his shot, and continued to perform at higher and higher levels, so it only made sense for his entire 2017 to culminate in the title victory."
Sabre Jr. and Riddle are just two of Lee's lengthy list of opponents over the past nine months. In EVOLVE alone, he's had matches with Kassius Ohno, Richochet, Kyle O'Reilly, Timothy Thatcher and WALTER. He'll stand across the ring from WALTER in his first North American WWN title defense on Dec. 9, back in Queens, in fact.
"It's also afforded me opportunities elsewhere," Lee added. "It's not just EVOLVE where there's been growth and great opponents, it's been literally all over the world at this point."
Lee faced Donovan Dijak, arguably his greatest opponent to date, on two different occasions in EVOLVE this year. Lee vs. Dijak was a match that essentially toured the indies, in fact, as the pair had one-on-one matches on eight different occasions for six different companies dating back to May 2016. But in Dijak's final weekend before officially signing with WWE, in early September, Lee and Dijak got to put a fitting bow on their rivalry at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla's Battle of Los Angeles weekend.
On the first of three nights of BOLA, Dijak and Lee formed a super-team they labeled the "Monstars," after the villains in the movie "Space Jam."
"When you look at our situation, even though it was the first time we ever tagged, we had faced each other so many times, it was a seamless moment of coming together," said Lee. "And it was a great joy, because we beaten each other up so many times, it was nice to beat somebody else up together instead."
On the third and final night of the tournament, Dijak and Lee met head-to-head one final time -- and proceeded to blow the doors off of the American Legion post in Reseda, California.
"That final match, man, it was one of the most touching experiences I've had, aside from the fact that I was in horrible, horrible pain," said Lee. "Sharing the ring with that dude is something I greatly enjoyed, and no matter where we are, or where we do it, or how beat-up we are, it's always another gear that we manage to reach."
While previous matches had garnered significant attention, their clash in PWG garnered a full 5-star rating from the Wrestling Observer, standing out even amid a showcase of the best independent wrestlers in the world.
"I was happy that it got as much exposure as it did," said Lee. "Because there were a lot of times he and I wrestled and I just wondered, 'Man, people go nuts for this, but it just doesn't get what I think it should.' And that was the first time where you had people, all around the world, that are losing their mind over Donovan Dijak versus Keith Lee, and it was a very, very proud moment."
As Lee sets off on his WWN title reign, and Dijak begins his journey in NXT, they've left an indelible mark on each other's careers and helped drive each other to greater success. They each have plenty of targets ahead, but considering how successful they were able to make their rivalry almost entirely on their own, it's certainly something that could be revisited down the line.
"I don't know if it's just a natural thing between us, but that match was definitely the best way for us to not see each other for a while," Lee said with a laugh. "However long that while may be -- you never know what's going to happen in this crazy world of wrestling. I was happy that everyone enjoyed it as much as we enjoy beating each other up."