An Ode To Keith Lee & Karrion Kross - The Final Failures Of WWE's Disconnected System
What do these releases tell us about WWE's direction?
We’ve said it on countless occasions, about countless NXT call-ups, but perhaps never with more certainty and seriousness than on this occasion.
Keith Lee and Karrion Kross should have succeeded on the WWE main roster.
The ‘fool proof’ tag has been added to various mistreated stars of the (former) black and gold brand before, from Aleister Black to Andrade, Nakamura to Ricochet and beyond. But Lee and Kross seemed to be a pair that would avoid the common obstacles in the way of those before them.
The most obvious shared advantage for the two men was size. Both are big guys, and we all know the advantage of being tall and imposing on the main roster.
But they had differing qualities too.
Kross seemed to really fit the classic WWE mould, certainly more than he ever did in NXT. His title push over the likes of smaller workhorses like Adam Cole, Pete Dunne and Kyle O’Reilly soured his relationship with the NXT faithful, but fans of Kross understandably believed that he’d do better once the call-up came.
He had the intensity and stature to really catch the eye of Vince McMahon, while on-and-offscreen partner Scarlett Bordeaux complimented his act perfectly. The pair seemed capable of instantly stepping into a main roster programme, or so we thought.
Despite not matching up quite so well with that main roster blueprint, the general consensus seemed to be that Keith Lee had an even higher ceiling. He checked the box marked ‘size’ too, but also possessed an innate charisma. At WCPW, I watched him transfix rooms of semi-familiar crowds, forging connections with those who maybe weren’t aware of his stellar indie career. He did it with ease, and that was still very much apparent in NXT.
His incredible showdown with Roman Reigns at Survivor Series 2019 put it beyond doubt: Keith Lee had the potential to be a serious star in WWE.
Both men would surely do well upon reaching the main roster, Lee building upon his NXT success, Kross in spite of his own. But instead, both have now been released along with Scarlett, part of the most recent wave of roster cuts, on yet another horrible day for so many talented names.
It should be clear by now that there was no continuity between the pair’s NXT careers and their brief stint on the main roster. Both were NXT Champions, and both were trusted with high profile matches and feuds. But however high an opinion Triple H may have had, it’s now apparent that his recommendations meant nothing to Vince and his advisors.
Any development undertaken on the developmental brand was, somehow, completely irrelevant.
We all know what happened next. WWE screwed everything up, basically - although they at least had the decency to do it in two slightly different ways.
Lee followed the path of the classic NXT flop, albeit on fast-forward. The best and most original parts of his persona were greatly reduced; they changed his gear and theme music; he was reportedly sent back to the Performance Center to alter his in-ring style.
There were health issues too, of course, which we’re all very relieved to see Keith recover from. But even if he wasn’t forced to take time away from the ring, do you think that would have changed anything? The ‘Bearcat’ name may have come around sooner, I suppose.
The treatment of Kross was different. If Lee’s creative treatment was the stereotypical NXT call-up, Kross’ was a parody of the genre. His Raw run reads like a sarcastic r/SquaredCircle post, from the disastrous gladiator attire, to losing to Jeff Hardy while still NXT Champion. The very fact that he was called up in possession of the belt hinted at a creative disconnect between Vince and Triple H, one we now know to be severe.
So why did this happen?
Lee seems to be the classic case of WWE not favouring those who are already over, or have managed to charm the fans with originality. (Zack Ryder is usually cited as the prime example in such instances, with good reason.) WWE still believe they know what we like better than we do, and tried to recreate Lee to fit their own method. Those new ideas actually being ‘good’ was clearly less of a priority.
What makes the Lee case even more baffling is the passion Vince clearly had for the newest plaything from the NXT toybox, as documented in the '24' Documentary about the Limitless one.
In Kross’ case, it’s honestly hard to see his booking as anything other than sabotage. Perhaps he ruffled the wrong person’s feathers backstage, or perhaps he was seen as an NXT scapegoat - a Triple H project to be stamped out ahead of NXT 2.0.
Stories have since emerged of both men having ‘attitude’ issues behind the scenes, claims that have also recently been aimed at the likes of Bray Wyatt and Chelsea Green. The common thread, though, is that all have had cause to be unhappy with creative decisions made on their behalf.
It’s understandably hard to see WWE as the victim in such circumstances.
A key point of contrast is Damian Priest, who was called up between Lee and Kross. The current United States Champion has inarguably enjoyed a more successful time on the main roster - he's still employed, for one thing.
He was a crucial part of Bad Bunny’s astounding WrestleMania showing, and is clearly seen as a wrestler of importance to the company. But it’s no coincidence that, compared to Keith and Karrion, Priest’s persona has barely been changed at all. He’s still largely the same wrestler he was in NXT. You’d think that Vince would be able to spot the pattern at some point…
So what does this teach us? Well, as bizarre as it may sound, WWE is no longer a company in as much internal turmoil as we thought. This is not the same WWE that surprisingly portrayed NXT as the strongest brand at Survivor Series 2019, while also blindly pairing Gargano and Ciampa together in the midst of a long blood feud. Those contradictory forces now appear to be working together, with NXT 2.0 emerging as proof of this recent harmony.
As the treatment of Keith Lee and Karrion Kross has proven, that might be even worse than before. WWE may now be pulling in the same direction, but that doesn't mean it's going the right way.
In any case, with NXT now the newer, fresher 'NXT 2.0' and with Vince having more control of the talent on that roster, we can but hope that future call-ups go to the main roster with a seminice of stability and consistency in their presentation.
For Kross and Lee though, their WWE legacies become simply, and sadly, the final failures of a inept and disconnected system.