(CBSNewYork) — A month ago, when NXT Superstar Keith Lee thought about what this weekend would look like, he was envisioning feeding off the energy of tens of thousands of screaming fans who had converged from all corners of the world to celebrate the biggest sports entertainment party of the year. Not in a million years could he have predicted things would turn out so differently.
Rather than defend the North American championship at NXT TakeOver: Tampa on Saturday, he will be putting the belt on the line Wednesday night in front of a live audience of exactly no one. There will be no roar of the crowd when he steps into the ring to face Dominik Dijakovic and Damian Priest in a triple threat match. The deafening silence will continue until the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has passed, and it’s unclear when that will be.
The fact that there will still be hundreds of thousands watching from afar as they adhere to mandatory stay-at-home orders is a major victory for WWE. The global leader in sports entertainment has long maintained a “show must go on” mentality, and these unprecedented circumstances would not cause the company to waiver now.
WWE is one of the few sporting groups not on an indefinite hiatus. Since the outbreak began, the company has transformed its training facility in Orlando into a makeshift broadcast center. Rather than serve as the headquarters for the next generation of WWE Superstars, it is now the home to all Raw and SmackDown broadcasts where established giants like Seth Rollins, the Undertaker, and John Cena are gearing up for WrestleMania.
NXT has also used the Performance Center for broadcasts, but will reportedly move back to its television studio at nearby Full Sail University, where they will continue to tape weekly episodes on closed sets.
For Lee, this means relying on his opponents for the adrenaline rush normally received from the crowd. However, for fans, this means an interesting viewing experience and the opportunity to hear things their collective cheers would drown out.
“Being able to hear the way we hit each other will be something different from them,” Lee said. “I’m kind of looking forward to people seeing that but I also hoping they don’t think we’re just a bunch of brutes because of how hard we hit each other.”
The shots should be quite audible given the physical style that the 6-foot-2, 320-pound Texas-native has employed to become one of the most popular stars on the NXT roster.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Lee ahead of Wednesday night’s massive NXT broadcast that includes the triple threat match for the North American Championship. He opened up about adjusting to a new normal during the coronavirus pandemic and how the outbreak is altering the way he performs. The thought of not competing and erring on the side of caution as others in WWE have chosen to do did briefly cross his mind, but he is confident in the steps the company has taken to ensure performer safety and minimize the risk of spreading the virus.
There was very much a wait-and-see approach with the entirety of WrestleMania weekend in Tampa. From a talent perspective, were you guys really holding out hope, having your fingers crossed that somehow, some way the show will still go on even as we saw these cancellations elsewhere?
For me personally, I just wanted to see what would happen, and I made sure that I was going to be prepared regardless of the circumstance, whether there was a cancellation or postponed, whether it went through. However it was going to happen, I wanted to be prepared for it, and so that’s all I did was mentally prepare myself for either case.
We’ve seen a number of people reportedly step aside and not compete right now [because of the coronavirus]. Was that ever a consideration for you?
It probably has been a consideration for any and everyone, but with the protocols that we’ve had, it’s kind of made it possible for us to get it done. I think that for me, it never was really a thought because I knew of what the protocol would be and the things necessary in order to even be okay and cleared to enter the building and things of that sort. So I was fairly confident in the circumstances that were set forth before us.
Even though TakeOver isn’t going on as planned, you still get this match on NXT Wednesday night. Theoretically, you could even be performing in front of a bigger audience. There’s still a level of excitement there I would assume.
There’s always excitement. When you’re thinking about the fact that I get to defend this championship, regardless of the circumstances right now, and I get to step into the ring with two hyper athletes like Dominik Dijakovic and Damian Priest, that competition itself, that’s something that excites me. So I’m more than ready in order to get it done and make the most of the circumstances and continue to be there for the people and give them what they’re looking for.
Speaking of Dijakovic, the chemistry between the two of you is really apparent. How long did it take for that chemistry to develop, or was this always something that came naturally for you guys?
Every time we step into the ring, it’s a spectacular competition from the very first time we’ve ever beat each other up. I think when you have two guys that want to make statements as much as we do, we tend to push the envelope a little bit and push each other past what I would consider to be normal. And as much as I would like to hold back from time to time, it’s almost impossible because the type of competitor that he is, and it’s just the same with Damian Priest. Those guys, they’ll push you, and they’ll make you do things that you don’t normally do because if you don’t, they’re going to stand out.
There’s a saying that you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. And so in terms of having fans in the crowd, what have you learned about having them there? Did they provide anything that you really miss but didn’t think about until now you’re performing in front of zero people?
Yes, there is definitely a certain level of adrenaline that the crowd offers, and I feel like it makes things hurt a little bit less when they’re there. I feel like there’s a very natural, like as soon as you come out of the back and you hear them, right away you’re in the zone. But I feel like just based on last week’s episode and there being nobody there, the first punch to my ear really rocked me, and that’s not a normal thing for me. So that’s something that I’ve taken note of, and I’ve tried to prepare myself going forward. Things are going to hurt more and that’s okay. All I can do is absorb those and use those instead to hopefully reset adrenaline level where I can push forward.
One of the things that is really fascinating to watch right now are the entrances. You talked about the adrenaline rush that you get when you hear the roar of the crowd when you come through the curtain. Obviously it’s not there, but you still have to carry yourself with that same amount of charisma and play up almost as if the crowd is there as you’re walking to the ring. The first time that you had to do that, how awkward was that, and is it still awkward for you, or are you just kind of getting used to it?
Honestly, I’m a little different because of the fact that I sang my own song. I come to the ring, and I’m in my song mode. Regardless if there’s people or not, I’m vibing, I’m jamming, I’m having a good time, and I’m feeling myself because it’s myself singing myself to the ring. Not to be redundant, but I’m already into it in terms of that. There’s just nobody for me to play with or yell “Keith Lee” when my song does, and that’s the only difference for me.
WWE is moving heaven and earth to continue putting out fresh content when you see virtually every other league just shut down right now. Do you feel any added pressure to continue to go out there and entertain knowing that so many people now are counting on you for a distraction, or do you consider this to be a privilege, and you take pride in that?
100% the latter. Privilege, honor, opportunity, those three words are the things that come to mind when I think about this. And at the end of the day, I’m happy that I can be there for the people that wish to have wrestling still and not at the expense of everything else. I understand that it’s sad times for people that want other sports to be back and things of that sort, but I am very happy that I have the opportunity and that privilege to continue to do what I do and provide what I can for our fans.
There’s no doubt that it is extremely physical and for a gentleman of your size, it is really just kind of a marvel to watch. Do you realize what a hero you are for big guys everywhere?
I get a lot of messages from larger gents and no, I did not realize it because to me a lot of people will spout this, “For a big guy, you move really well.” There’s a lot of things I do that small guys can’t do. So I feel like trying to wrap me in a box like that is not really hindering, but I don’t think that it’s the case.
I lost close to 300 pounds 10 years ago, and thinking back to the guy I was at 420 pounds, there is no way I could come close to doing anything about what you’re doing in the ring right now. That’s why this is really, really impressive from a guy who’s actually been that heavy as well.
I appreciate it. I really do. I think that for me, it’s really cool to know that I’ve touched so many people in such a way, and it’s an honor. Some people will reach out, and they’ll say, “Hey, you’re an inspiration to me and because of you, I believe I can do this,” or, “Because of you, I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve gotten in better shape, I’ve gotten faster. I’ve gotten my wind up.” A lot of different things have changed for people. And at the end of the day, regardless of how it comes about, I’m happy that I can affect people in a positive manner that way.
With the Performance Center now being taken over for filming, what are you doing to work out and stay in shape?
A lot of my training has been a little more athletic style in terms of the way that I train. But aside from the basic things like pushup variations, burpees, squat jumps and lunges, mountain climbers, things of that sort, I also frequent a few YouTube channels like Jeff Cavalier, Mike Rashid and Simeon Panda. They have offered so much information and different exercises you can perform from home, whether you have gym equipment or not. And that’s something that’s been helpful in the creativity of my training currently. So it’s been good times actually and it’s nice and different and because it’s different, my body’s confused and it’s fairly effective. So I’m enjoying it.
Your body is confused. What does that mean?
I guess when one is training, when you get used to a style, your body doesn’t really get sore anymore. You don’t gain strength as quickly. But when you confuse your muscles by doing something different, a different type of movement, a different pace, a different weight level, a different time under tension, those things confuse the muscles and actually make the workout more effective. That’s something that’s been the case for me.
Have you thought about what it’s going to be like for that first show back with the crowd there and that energy back in the arena?
I actually have not. I’m very much a business-today type of person. So, my focus is continuing to represent as a proper champion, raise the prestige of my championship by also doing it in a manner that is still entertaining for the people under the given circumstances. And I’m sure when that day comes about, it’s going to be an enormous celebration for all. From the talent to the fans to production team, I think everyone is going to celebrate in their own way. I’ll do my best not to cry.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.