GIF via Beyond Wrestling

There are a few different ways to experience WrestleMania these days. The most basic distinction to make is between is watching at home versus taking a trip to the host city. From there, there are further distinctions. Some fans only check out the WWE offerings, and some take in the numerous independent shows that run WrestleMania weekend, featuring the best unsigned talent in the world. To the latter group, the super-hardcore wrestling fans, there was a clear consensus coming out of WrestleMania weekend: The MVP of the business’s sojourn to Orlando was not anyone under a WWE contract, and wasn’t even one of the longer-tenured indie superstars. Instead, it was “Limitless” Keith Lee, a smiling cartoon character of a giant who might be the single best athlete on the indie scene.

“Well, realistically, that was probably the most unreal thing that I could have expected,” Lee told Deadspin, laughing. “I was shown a lot of things, sent a lot of screenshots, messages, texts from friends, fans, co-workers and what have you, of just the craziest things. But when somebody sends you this list created by one Larry Csonka from 411Mania, and you’re in the top 10 matches [of WrestleMania weekend] twice, and your match with Donovan Dijak is number two on this list, and the only thing that’s beaten your match is a crazy, ridiculous ladder match between the Hardys and the Young Bucks? You don’t really know how to process these things.”

At first glance, Lee gets your attention because not only is he huge when the average independent wrestler isn’t, but he’s also a better all-around athlete than most professional wrestlers. But there’s a lot more than just the flash. There’s something about him that makes you want to watch him even before you see him pull off an eye-catching aerial or power move for the first time. He’s confident in a way that makes him come off as a superstar, but he also exudes a friendly, approachable personality that’s completely unique to him, even describing himself as a “friendly fellow” during an in-ring promo at Saturday’s Evolve 82 card in Woodside, New York. None of that seems to be a character or a gimmick. But while Keith Lee is the real deal, even his self-belief couldn’t prepare him for the response he got to his WrestleMania weekend matches.

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“A lot of this stuff touched me in different ways,” he said. “From meeting so many new fans that had no idea who I was, and before the weekend was over, I was their favorite wrestler. Or, literally, fans screenshotting themselves asking their companies in different countries to book me, because that one or two experiences they may have had seeing me live wasn’t enough. All of these things come together and create this atmosphere of love and passion. From me, it’s nothing but appreciation, and being grateful. Grateful for the stages, to go out there and lay my heart out in the ring for these fans to see, and display the passion I have for this sport and love for what I do.”

That gratefulness extends to the fans, as well. “Be grateful for the fans who come and support me, who want pictures, who want signatures, who buy merch. Whatever it may be, everything means something to me, because a year ago, I was just a Texas guy in Texas. Fast forward a year, and people are calling me the MVP of an entire Mania weekend. That’s nuts, right?”

While Keith Lee snuck up on the wrestling world at large, he’s been around for over a decade, spending most of his time on the Texas independent scene. Before the last couple years, indie wrestlers had difficulty getting on the radar of the scene at large unless they were based out of the Northeast, Midwest, or West Coast. The rise of YouTube as a distribution platform, as well as the HD cameras in everyone’s pockets, have made it so that it’s easier than ever to get noticed if you have the talent, which Lee most certainly does.

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“Keith is like a WWE guy that somehow slipped through the cracks,” Beyond Wrestling promoter Drew Cordeiro told Deadspin. “Very humble, very personable. He exceeds all expectations in the ring and seemingly lives to surprise fans and top himself.” It was in Beyond, a New England-based promotion that makes better use of YouTube than other group, where Lee first got exposed to a larger audience in 2016. Cordeiro was running a show built around “hosses” (a term for super-heavyweights popularized by Jim Ross), and when there was a spot open, he took a chance on the mysterious veteran, who had been recommended by a friend. “The match with Dijak was so good that it ruined the rest of the show,” Cordeiro recalled. “Nothing else could come close. The very next day I was plopping down hundreds of dollars for a last minute Texas flight to get Keith back for our very next show.”

Beyond has one of the most unique atmospheres in all of pro wrestling, akin to seeing your favorite band’s secret club show, with fans right on the ring. So when someone the size of Lee does a somersault dive over the top rope to the floor, taking out Dijak and whatever fans weren’t smart enough to get out of the way, it makes an impression.

After the splash they made together in Beyond, Dijak has become one of Lee’s most common opponents, taking the match on tour. “There’s no question that Keith Lee and I have an incredibly unique rivalry and series of matches,” Dijak said. “I think that is why people gravitate to the matches so often, because we are literally doing things that they have never seen before. Right now in indy wrestling, the ‘high flying big man’ is very popular. I like to think that Keith and I are bringing that to a whole new level. We don’t just do these things for the sake of doing them, we do them because it is what we do best, and when we wrestle each other we are forced to pull out all of the stops.”

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Lee found himself becoming a regular in Beyond, and with that platform, offers from all over the country started to stream in. “It’s pretty personal,” Lee said of the Beyond atmosphere “So when they develop a sense of loyalty to you, even if it happens in one night, halfway through a match, or whatever the case may be … the sense of loyalty, once they’ve discovered you, is above and beyond. They’re gonna talk about you to their friends who are fans of wrestling, and those friends may be in other parts of the world or another part of the States, those fans hear about you, and when you come around, there’s already built-in loyalty. These fans from Beyond or other places in the Northeast have already hyped these fans up, and all you have to do is deliver with the same passion and love that you did when you were at this place. It’s a really cool domino effect, of friendships and fans made all at once. It’s really cool, man.”

So how does Lee feel about this happening a decade into his career, at a time where a lot of wrestlers are traveling the world just a few years in? “I feel like there are a lot of things I could have learned while growing, and gaining experience, but, by the same token, I developed a lot of things by experiencing things I never would have experienced had I been offered a contract at a younger age, I’m sure,” he said. “The big difference is my confidence level, and the belief in myself and what I do inside the ring. I probably would lean towards that it’s better that it’s happening now.” That confidence shines through in the ring, a huge part of his persona as the man who asks you to “bask in his glory.”

However, even Keith Lee will admit that he’s not perfect.

“Let’s add a Keith Lee flaw,” he began. “I started getting grey hairs at the age of 16, so you can add that. And let’s add Keith Lee Flaw Number Two … here we go: Occasionally, Keith Lee snores like a bear.”

But that’s about it.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.