At one time, Keith Lee seemed like a can’t-miss prospect in professional wrestling.

Where did it all go wrong?

After a strong career on the independent scene, Lee joined WWE in 2018 and slowly made a name for himself in the land of Triple H’s NXT.

At the end of 2019, it seemed like Lee was earmarked for a position at the top end of WWE’s main roster. At the end of Survivor Series, Keith appeared to be the breakout star from the brief NXT vs. Main Roster story, which headlined the annual PLE.

He went toe to toe with a pre-Bloodline Roman Reigns to end the show and was shown to hold his own against the strongest booked man in American wrestling. Lee looked like the next breakout star and the Survivor Series rub from Roman seemed to signal his arrival as the next big thing in WWE.

This was followed up with an impressive yet short showing at the Royal Rumble 2020, in which Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman and Lee briefly locked heads. While he didn’t last long, Lee was mad to almost look like Lesnar’s equal, and it seemed like he was being groomed as a soon-to-be main event player in Vince’s world of sports entertainment.

It was all looking up for Keith Lee. He was over with the fans, who ate up all his high-octane movements and marveled at his freakish strength. Lee seemed to have WWE creative behind him to an extent, as he was made to look every bit the star at both PLEs and just by being in the presence of both Lesnar and Reigns, Lee looked like he belonged.

But this popularity wasn’t capitalized on by WWE. Keith Lee was over like rover in January 2020, but it took until September to promote him to the main roster.

Lee’s absence from Rumble to his RAW debut played a part in cooling him off. By the time he arrived on RAW he wasn’t carrying the same momentum of his previous main roster appearances.

Why did it take so long to call him up? Could they not find a place for him on the WrestleMania card? Did they want to hold off until fans returned but ran out of time?

Whatever the reason for the long delay, it was nothing short of a crime how WWE couldn’t find a place for him after his strong Survivor Series and Rumble showings. Typical WWE doesn’t know when to strike the iron while it’s hot. It wasn’t all bad, to be fair.

When Keith Lee was called up to the fan-less RAW, and was booked immediately in a program with top star and WWE golden boy, Randy Orton, which included the WWE Champion Drew McIntyre in its orbit. Positives, for sure. You might say that Lee was booked as good as anyone was in WWE at the time that wasn’t a world champion.

Lee looked every bit a star in his matches with WWE mainstay Orton, even winning their match-up at WWE Payback. Lee was then part of a clean sweep victory for Team RAW. But, like nearly every talent in WWE in the past 15 years, he slowly began to suffer from inconsistent booking. Nothing seemed to have a solid direction, and he began to lose matches he really should have been winning. I guess WWE didn’t exactly see him as the guy just yet.

Par for the course in WWE Town.

But then, before he was allegedly set to capture the United title from Bobby Lashley, it all went to shit.

Lee was removed from television due to “an injury,” or so WWE initially informed its viewers. Details of the injury were kept private, and speculation mounted that Lee had contracted COVID-19. After a good deal of silence, these concerns were confirmed. Lee was dealt an unlucky hand by fate.

While so many had mild symptoms or remained unaffected, Lee would suffer a more serious effect. The virus brought on heart inflammation, and Lee was in serious trouble. Lee would miss out on the US title and WrestleMania, and as time progressed, the possibility that his career could be over was very real.

But while those were significant challenges to overcome, he had an even bigger challenge: Vince McMahon’s vision.

Vince loves to destroy what works and rebuild things in his vision. He attempted just that with Keith Lee. Make no mistake, while he perhaps lacked fitness initially, and his aura perhaps suffered from his absence, Keith Lee was still capable of being the bulldozer-like ass-kicker that made him popular.

But Vince knew better.

Vince saddled him with a moderate repackage. Keith Lee was now to be Bearcat Lee, with a full-on singlet and presumably bearskin skirt around his trunks. Lee would be rebuilt in Vince’s image. Keith Lee was Dean Douglas-ed.

The story is simple for those who aren’t unaware of who Dean Douglas is. Vince signed Shane Douglas, a mouthy renegade figure from ECW, in 1995. Douglas was over for being a foul-mouthed, straight-talking heel. Vince brought that guy in but repackaged Shane into Dean Douglas, a 1-dimensional evil teacher who corrected WWF superstars on their grammar and dragged his nails on a chalkboard for heat. Seriously.

Vince stripped Douglas of everything that made him popular and saddled him with a childish, cartoonish character that would be more fitting for a ’60s Batman villain. Dean Douglas couldn’t be further from Shane Douglas in execution. Yes, Douglas had other backstage issues in WWF, but his gimmick meant he was dead on arrival in the New Generation era of WWF. Vince brought in a round peg for a square hole, akin to buying former US footballer Landon Donovan and throwing him in goal.

Douglas left WWF and re-joined ECW, but he wasn’t as hot as previously.

I’m not Douglas’ biggest fan, but I always wonder if his ECW persona would have transferred to WWF at the time. The Attitude Era was just around the corner, and it’s possible that “The Franchise” could have been a big hit if Vince didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken.

Lee and Douglas are two completely different wrestlers who suffered the same fate as many others when Vince’s stranglehold over professional wrestling began.

Bearcat probably wasn’t as dramatic a change as Dean Douglas, but the principle stands. Lee didn’t need a new gimmick; he didn’t need a physical makeover. He just needed to be himself to get over being himself, which he proved he could.

Lee may have recovered from COVID and the lengthy layoff, but he wasn’t going to recover from Vince. Like Shane Douglas before him, he just hasn’t been as hot since. He would leave WWE and join Tony Khan’s AEW. While initially seemed to be positioned to do well in AEW, especially on a lighter schedule, his booking has only wound up making him colder than ever.

Lee made the most of his tag team with Swerve Strickland and seemed to be at least in Tony Klan’s plans for the future, but once he and Swerve split, Lee has been in a booking quagmire ever since. His feud with Swerve never had a singles match or any real conclusion, and Lee has meandered into obscurity.

AEW have their biggest show to date this Sunday, and Lee is nowhere to be seen. To think he could have easily been pushed to the moon in late 2019 and early 2020 and become a huge, larger-than-life megastar is such a wasted opportunity.

Lee was on the cusp of something big once, and it’s hard to see him ever rising to that position again. In AEW, so many wrestlers are ahead of him in the pecking order. The bloated roster means only so many chances to push himself out of his current situation into a more prominent role in the company.

Things need to change for Keith Lee if he is ever to truly become a massive star in professional wrestling rather than the also-ran he appears to be currently.