Keith Lee will put his NXT championship on the line against Karrion Kross in the main event of NXT TakeOver: XXX on Saturday night in a battle featuring two of the more sizable members of the NXT locker room. It’s also a showdown between two men who seemed destined for the biggest stage in professional wrestling long before their respective arrivals to the WWE Performance Center.

The hulking Lee exploded onto the scene as one of the top independent wrestlers in the world between 2016 and 2017 before being signed by WWE in 2018. Even before Lee’s signing, Paul “Triple H” Levesque said he could see the potential for the Texas native to be “the man” in WWE.

“I’ve always thought that Keith Lee had the potential to be the guy,” Levesque told CBS Sports. “It’s a funny thing. There are subtleties you look for in talent as they’re coming in, and it’s hard for them to understand that you put them in a position where there’s a lot of excellence around them and they’re trying to find their way and their footing in this environment. I think sometimes talent think they’re ready to go walking in the door, but there are little things you see that would be failure points to them not getting over in the way you would love for them to really, fully get there. Keith was one of those guys that I always thought was … he’s unbelievable. As an athlete, as a human being, as a talent in and out of the ring, I’ve always felt like it was there for him.

“I think there were some stutter steps, and he had some frustrations, but they were all designed to get him to where he’s at right now, which is this moment in time where he succeeds in the biggest way possible. You’ve seen that over the last year that he’s had with moments and the things he was able to do, and you see his star continue to rise and get bigger and bigger.”

Those “stutter steps and frustrations” led to a slow initial build for Lee, whom many felt would come in to NXT as a dominant force who was fast-tracked to big title programs.

Lee admitted to CBS Sports that the biggest issue early in his NXT run was simply trying to take too much advice when much of that advice couldn’t be applied to his unique combination of size, speed and agility.

“I think that there are times when you look to people for advice and then you try and take that advice,” Lee said. “But, the fact is, I am so different that other people’s advice doesn’t apply to me. And it took conversations with [WWE trainer] Terry Taylor to understand that I’m different and I need to make sure that I embrace that, just as I did on the independents, but embrace it in a smarter way. I feel like a lot of those talks with Terry helped me to grow further in my confidence that was already in me. Once that happened, I felt nearly unstoppable. Then, when an opportunity came, I just smashed it. When they continued to come, I just made sure that I teed it up and knocked it out the park. That was the goal every time. That continues to be the goal … and it will always continue to be the goal.”

Similar to Lee, Kross, real name Kevin Kesar, entered NXT as a seemingly “can’t-miss” project, someone who had broken out while working for Impact Wrestling. In Levesque’s view, Kross was someone who just needed to be brought into a system that could turn all his potential into a complete package, and a big part of that meant teaching him the behind-the-scenes end of things that Cross had not learned in places like Impact.

“He’s another guy where you see all the potential and raw tools sitting in front of you, but never really had … it’s a funny thing, there’s a lot of places guys can go work, whether it’s Impact or Ring of Honor or wherever they go,” Levesque said. “And when you begin to talk to them about television production, they look at you like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ They’ve never been taught about it or had the ability to get there. And they’ve still done well, but imagine how much better they get once you teach them that. Those are the things with Kross. He has all the in-ring ability; he has the personality; he’s a charisma machine, to a degree. He has all the components, but he’s just never had anybody sit down with him to put them in the right places at the right times and do the right things. That’s what we’re doing now, but he’s a sponge.

“When you begin to work with somebody like that, you realize the level of professionalism and to get a certain level but still being willing to be coached by people with more experience to get to another level. Every single week that I get to work with him, I think, ‘This is a different dude than I worked with two weeks ago.’ He’s just a sponge and he gets it.”

Karrion Kross has garnered the praise of NXT boss Triple H for absorbing the knowledge at his disposal. 
WWE

Speaking with CBS Sports, Kross agreed with Levesque’s view of things, stating that he has used every day at work to learn and grow as a performer. But he also cited his real-life relationship with girlfriend and on-screen manager Scarlett Bordeaux, real name Elizabeth Chihaia, as providing other opportunities to advance his skillset.

“There are aspects of this business that you can only learn here because they kind of created the playbook for it and other places are very much only trying to imitate or replicate or emulate what WWE does,” Kross said. “It’s kind of like the master playbook for everything in sports entertainment and pro wrestling. I have never, ever gone to work and left without learning something new. It’s always a learning experience for me. For me, I like that challenge of showing up and observe things I may not understand at first sight, but learn so I can use that for the next time. 

“There are roles that Scarlett has engaged in that I, personally, haven’t spent time in or haven’t done at all. For instance, managerial. Her and I watched a lot of Bobby Heenan, Luna Vachon, Sherri, Elizabeth, Paul Bearer, and the roles they took on outside the ring are a lot more intricate and a lot more important than the first ideas that may come to mind to the people watching. So, I’ve been able to have access to someone who has a different comprehension to television and ring psychology to putting on different stories and matches.”

As the learning and growth continue for both Lee and Kross, they head into a massive showdown for the brand’s top title. Lee won the title by ending the historic 403-day title run of Adam Cole. At the time, Lee was also the North American champion, a title he relinquished after capturing NXT’s top prize.

The two men, both made for the spotlight, have the opportunity to lay out the next page in their stories. This is the kind of opportunity that has inspired Kross since signing his contract, he said.

“Without embellishing or sounding melodramatic or anything, it’s a dream come true,” Kross said. “Being a part of WWE and NXT, getting the opportunity to work with the best in the world? This is what we’re all working towards. I’m just very grateful to be a part of the operation; very happy. I’ve been really impressed with the output that fans don’t see that happens behind the scenes every day. On the days where we’re there and on-site and creating a show for people to see, everyone always gives 110%. You would imagine it would be that way, but it’s different when you see it happen right in front of you. It’s very inspiring to be around so many people who are so motivated to create the best version of themselves so people can see it. It’s just really impressive and inspiring.”

As for the NXT champ, Saturday night is just another opportunity to smash.

“I’m not a person that goes somewhere with expectations,” Lee said. “My life and my personal experiences in this world have conditioned me to expect nothing of others and to expect everything of myself. In other words, I’m not expecting anything of anyone else, but my duty is to walk in and say, ‘Hi, I’m Keith. Glad to meet you. Let’s do business.’ And then, at some point in time, pick an opportunity, look for an opportunity — or maybe it comes to me — and then I have to smash it. That’s kind of the way my strategy goes. For me, there are no expectations. Getting to where I have made it has been something really special, man. Really, really special.”

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