Unlike most of the women who have worked for the current World Wrestling Entertainment, April Jeanette Mendez grew up a genuine wrestling fan. Born in New Jersey in the late 1980s, it was her brother who got her hooked during the Attitude Era. While still a teen she met one of her favourites, Lita, at an autograph signing, an encounter that resulted in tears (and can be seen on YouTube).
Growing up in the Garden State certainly wasn’t easy. The Mendez family barely scraped by. Despite enrolling in NYU to study film & TV, Mendez had to drop out after only six months of study.
Thankfully, with a wrestling school very close to where she was living in 2007, it was possible to get the training she needed to start getting booked. She paid her own way through a full-time job.
After working the indies for two years as Miss April, she attracted the attention of the WWE who signed her to a developmental deal. Briefly known as April Lee, she ultimately became AJ Lee.
When the WWE ended its relationship with Florida Championship Wrestling (where Lee became the first performer to win both female singles titles), Lee participated in the third season of NXT, back when it was a pseudo-reality competition series. Making it as far as the final three, she would ultimately team with the winner, Kaitlyn, to form The Chickbusters. They collectively debuted in 2011 on Smackdown.
Four years later, Lee has now officially retired from the WWE. Having quietly married former WWE Champion CM Punk last year, the announcement isn’t terribly surprising. In fact, it seemed inevitable.
While it’s not yet clear what her actual reasons are to walk away at this point in her career there’s no better time than now to reflect on how important she was to professional wrestling generally & the WWE specifically.
One of the smartest things the company did in the last decade was pair Lee with Daniel Bryan. It all started with a quick backstage TV segment. Lee expressed a romantic interest in Bryan and was soon inseparable from the man as he would go on to become a surprise Money In The Bank winner in the summer of 2011. As The Big Show feuded with Mark Henry over the World Heavyweight Championship, Bryan was the X Factor thrown into the mix. When would he cash in?
After Show pinned Henry at TLC that December to take the title, The World’s Strongest Man annihilated The World’s Largest Athlete in the aftermath, leaving him very vulnerable in the middle of the ring. An opportunistic Bryan made the most of that vulnerability, cashing in his briefcase and ending Show’s incredibly brief title reign.
Meanwhile, the new champion’s attitude toward Lee changed dramatically. Channelling mid-80s Randy Savage, he started treating his on-screen gal pal like crap. Lee played the doting, loyal, innocent sweetheart so perfectly, not only did it create genuine sympathy for her, it generated tremendous heat for Bryan, who had just started doing an obnoxious “Yes!” chant whenever he made his way to the ring.
At WrestleMania 28, Bryan insisted on getting a good luck kiss from Lee before facing Sheamus, the 2012 Royal Rumble winner, for the World Heavyweight Championship. As soon as he turned around, The Celtic Warrior brogue kicked him out of the title.
Shortly thereafter on Smackdown, Bryan blamed Lee for the loss and dumped her, setting in motion the brilliant character change that would later see her become the longest reigning Divas Champion in history.
In the spring of 2012, with CM Punk now the WWE Champion & Bryan the number one contender, Lee flirted, kissed, smacked & mentally tormented both men throughout their three-month feud for the strap. When Kane was added to the program, Lee made the moves on him, as well.
Her actions kept everyone wondering about her motives. That led to her guest refereeing some of the Punk/Bryan WWE title match at Money In The Bank that year. (At one point, she took a bump and was briefly replaced by another ref before returning to finish the match.)
In the build-up to the pay-per-view, Bryan was paranoid that because he kept rebuffing Lee’s stubborn efforts to resuscitate their dead relationship she would not be impartial. At one point, Lee even proposed to Punk. He turned her down (talk about ironic). For his part, Bryan proposed to Lee and even though she accepted the second time, it would come back to bite the Yes Man right in the ass.
During their wedding on the 1000th episode of Raw, Lee got her revenge by refusing to marry Bryan right in the middle of the ceremony. Furthermore, Vince McMahon came out to announce she was the new General Manager for Raw, a gig that didn’t last very long.
Speaking of that, another wrestler who owes Lee a debt of gratitude is Dolph Ziggler, the 2012 Smackdown Money In The Bank winner. As The Show-Off began a feud with John Cena, once again Lee played a central role. As Ziggler’s former advocate Vicki Guerrero accused the Raw General Manager of hanky panky with Cena (extremely hypocritical considering her own on-screen history with Edge), Lee would ultimately lose her GM gig because of it.
During a great backstage TV segment, Lee made a play for Ziggler who coldly dismissed her by saying, “Face it, AJ. You’re just trash.” She reacted with a flurry of punches. (Curiously, she would use the exact same line on former tag team partner Kaitlyn as they feuded over the Divas title.)
In the end, it was all a ruse. During a ladder match at TLC 2012 with Ziggler’s MITB suitcase up for grabs, AJ screwed Cena allowing The Show-Off to retain his future WHC title opportunity. Ziggler didn’t think she was trash after all. In fact, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other for the next six months.
The night after WrestleMania 29, Lee was there when Ziggler finally cashed in and defeated a hobbled Alberto Del Rio to win the WHC in an electrifying match on Monday Night Raw. Two months later, Lee would win her first Divas Championship against Kaitlyn at Payback in June, one of the stronger female feuds in recent years. She would ultimately have a falling out with Ziggler, though, shortly after he lost the WHC back to Del Rio at the same show.
Nearly 300 days later during the first Raw after WrestleMania 30, Lee would drop her championship to the debuting Paige. Lee would win it back two more times in 2014 before losing it for good to Nikki Bella at Survivor Series that year in a quickie encounter that paid homage to the Bryan/Sheamus WHC match at WM 28.
Besides helping to elevate male stars like Bryan & Ziggler to main event status and expanding & redefining the look of a female wrestler (I always loved her boot-size Doc Martens), the self-described tomboy could also deliver a devastating promo. Besides her wonderfully villainous shots at real-life friend Kaitlyn in 2013, Lee delivered a blistering diatribe against the cast of the Total Divas reality show in a Raw speech many compared to CM Punk’s infamous June 2011 “Best In The World” rant. A high compliment, indeed. For his part, Punk praised her promo on his own Twitter account.
Speaking of Twitter, when Stephanie McMahon commended Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette for advocating equal pay for women back in February this year, Lee rightly noted that when it comes to female wrestlers she didn’t practice what she preached. This led to the #GiveDivasAChance hashtag and renewed, albeit short-lived interest in the women’s division.
Just before this year’s WrestleMania, Lee & on-screen frenemy Paige rekindled their long simmering tension as they prepared to face the Bella Twins at the Showcase of the Immortals. In the last Smackdown before the pay-per-view, Lee humourously compared the Bellas to the Kardashians. For her part, Divas champ Nikki Bella noted that Lee has been seen less often lately than Brock Lesnar. (Blame a neck injury for that.) At any event, Paige made up with Lee and they went on to beat The Bellas at WrestleMania, her last high-profile match. (April 5 CORRECTION: Actually, AJ worked her final match the very next night on Raw. She teamed with Paige and Naomi in a winning effort over The Bellas and Natalya.)
Whether it was injuries, real-life business issues with Stephanie McMahon, road fatigue, frustrations with creative, wanting to spend more time at home as a newlywed, a combination of any or all of the above or something else entirely is immaterial. The bottom line is the AJ Lee era in WWE is over and with it one of the most entertaining, influential female characters of the past five years.
Like her husband, she was different. She didn’t fit the pre-existing mold of what a female wrestler should look like. She may be tiny in stature (5’2 and less than 120 pounds) but she had a strong personality loaded with wit and bite. And although she played the crazy maneater angle for far too long (which led to Paige and Alicia Fox imitating her freakouts and far too much slut shaming, particularly from Jerry Lawler on commentary), she had great psychology. Just ask Kaitlyn and the Bellas.
Plus, she could work. She was quick on her feet, routinely took decent bumps and could wrestle anybody. Her black widow submission hold was perfect for her character.
Despite the continual lack of respect and support for women’s wrestling in modern day WWE, Lee made the most of the limited time she had on-screen, both on the mic and in the ring. (The way she sold Big Show accidentally running into her at ringside is just one example of how underrated she was.) When AJ Lee was performing, whether she was Daniel Bryan’s sweet girlfriend, the Raw GM or Kaitlyn’s worst nightmare, you paid attention. She made you believe everything she did and said.
Not yet 30, she is still young enough to leave her mark in some other creative forum, should she choose to do so. Having announced a new book deal, maybe writing will define her second act.
In the meantime, here’s hoping WWE puts together a special DVD compilation of her greatest hits along with a behind-the-scenes documentary of her life and times in and out of the ring.
All the best to her as she skips along to the next phase of her life.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, April 4, 2015