KEITH LEE has announced that he is relinquishing the North American title and will focus on being NXT Champion.
The 35-year-old reached the peak of his career after becoming the first wrestler in history to hold both belts in WWE’s development brand.
Limitless pinned Adam Cole in a Winner takes all match at the revived Great American Bash special.
Yet Lee stunned the WWE universe by voluntarily relinquishing the North American title to provide opportunities to other superstars.
Speaking a day before the announcement, he told SunSport: “I feel like if I’m holding them both and it’s always a Winner talks all match it’s not good for the brand and that’s something I care about.
“I want competition open for both championships so that’s important to me personally.”
It’s a mark of Lee’s selflessness that has made him such a hit both backstage and among fans.
The powerhouse wrestler has come full circle in his career since he suffered three unsuccessful WWE tryouts in 2008, 2011, and 2013.
Despite a rapid rise to stardom on the independent scene in the following years, Lee is unsure whether he’d have found his footing in WWE earlier had NXT existed back then.
He told SunSport: “I think that’s hard to determine man because I’m not a big, whatever type of person.
“I would say that I was still fairly young. And they may have considered things based on my athleticism by itself. But as a whole, I think that they would have wanted my skills to be more sharp.
“Maybe in 2011, probably something would have changed but 2008 I was only a few years in and yes, I had the basic skills and above-average athleticism.
“But nothing made me grow here more than my time after 2013, beginning to travel the world so I think that things happened as they needed to happen.”
Over the past 12 months, Lee has firmly established himself as a hot property in WWE.
He was the last remaining member of Team NXT in the Survivor Series five-man team elimination match in November, facing off against Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins.
The Texas-born star also went toe-to-toe with Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble in January.
Yet he recalls a time before he signed with WWE when a fan had told stopped Goldberg in the street before WrestleMania 34 to tell him that Lee was the next big thing.
Goldberg looks at me and kind of sizes me up and then he just starts dropping knowledge. A very interesting moment in time, you only get in professional wrestling
He told SunSport: “This guy yells at Goldberg while I’m standing there and I’m looking silly by the way because I have on this Eevee hat, this Eevee Pokemon hat.
“And I’m sitting here with this fruity type thing. So I’m sitting here with this Eevee hat with these ears that are poking out and I got this drink and he’s yelling at Goldberg…stops him.
“He’s like ‘Hey Goldberg! This is the next big thing in WWE!’ Goldberg looks at me and kind of sizes me up and then he just starts dropping knowledge.
“We shook hands and he was off to go do what he was going to do. I certainly wasn’t sneaking it. But a very interesting moment in time, you only get in professional wrestling.”
Years later Lee proved that fan right as he cemented himself as NXT’s top star by lifting the brand’s chief title.
It was fitting that his crowning moment should come at the Great American Bash, the brainchild of the late Dusty Rhodes.
Lee has credited the American Dream for developing his ring style and helping birth his iconic ‘Bask in my glory’ catchphrase during his third failed WWE tryout in 2013.
The impact that Dusty has had on me as a competitor, me, personality-wise and opening up becoming more of myself. All of those things are very poetic, so meaningful for me personally
He told SunSport: “Dude the whole thing was really cool when you think about it. You got the Great American Bash on the USA Network. And obviously Dusty Rhodes is the reason ‘the bask in my glory’ exists.
“When the (WWE) offer came I wasn’t sure at first. But it felt very poetic to come to WWE just to make the point of ‘you’ve passed on me, now find out what you’ve passed on so many times’.
“And I think that in the case of the Great American Bash and everything else that made it even more poetic.
“Not just for those purposes, but for the impact that Dusty has had on me as a competitor, me, personality-wise and opening up becoming more of myself, regardless of what people think.
“All of those things are very poetic, so meaningful for me personally. It felt awesome.”
Watch Keith Lee on WWE NXT on BT Sport 1 HD at 1am on Wednesdays