When news of A.J. Lee’s retirement broke this afternoon, my first thought was as follows: I will always respect A.J. for the fact that she brought some legitimacy to women’s wrestling in WWE, in an era in which the company provided very little of it themselves.
A.J.’s WWE career began on season three of the original NXT, and her introduction to the main roster basically revolved around typical Divas storylines. A.J. spent her early years bouncing around in romantic alliances with Daniel Bryan, John Cena and Dolph Ziggler, while also serving as the General Manager of Raw for a couple months in 2012.
What stood out about A.J. in her first few years was that she managed to get over with fans, despite Creative not doing her any favors. (I don’t think anyone misses the days of A.J.’s alignment with Cena, for example.) The faction of Ziggler, Lee and Big E Langston elevated all three talents to the greatest heights of popularity any of them had experienced prior, and led to A.J.’s breakout as an in-ring performer.
What’s amazing about A.J. is that she will go down as one of the most influential female wrestlers in history, despite retiring at the age of 28 after just a couple years of full-time in-ring action. Keep in mind that she wasn’t really presented seriously as an actual competitor until 2013, when she feuded with Kaitlyn over the Divas Championship. This rivalry resulted in arguably the best match either woman ever wrestled, and one of the top women’s wrestling matches in history.
Just two months after her tremendous title match at Payback, A.J. shot into the stratosphere of popularity with her worked shoot promo on the August 26 edition of Raw. Following real-life boyfriend (and now husband) C.M. Punk’s “pipebomb,” A.J. dropped a promo for the ages, as she ripped apart the cast of “Total Divas.”
Not only did A.J.’s pipebomb shatter the fourth wall, it made her one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender. Much like her husband’s own worked shoot, A.J.’s words in that fateful promo ring more true upon her retirement than ever before: “I have done more in one year than all of you have done in your entire collective careers. I have saved your Divas Division. I have shattered glass ceilings. I have broken down doors. Why? So a bunch of ungrateful, stiff plastic mannequins can waltz on through without even so much as a ‘thank you’?”
A.J. would go on to become the longest-reigning Divas Champion, with Paige eventually ending her reign at 295 days. Following this loss, A.J. spent her final year in storylines with Paige and the Bella Twins, winning back the title twice, making her a three-time Divas Champion. During this time, she took two hiatuses — one injury-based — before coming back a month ago, for what in hindsight appears to have been a brief farewell run.
It may seem like I glossed over the last year of A.J.’s career, but the intention of this piece was not to simply compile a match-by-match career retrospective. The point is to highlight that A.J. is arguably the most influential female wrestler of the modern era. Only Lita and Trish Stratus come to mind as more important, but Lita and Trish had each other to bring out the best in themselves. Aside from A.J.’s feuds with Kaitlyn and Paige, she was carrying the entire Divas Division largely alone at times.
I’m trying to avoid hyperbole at all costs here, but without A.J. Lee, would #GiveDivasAChance have ever happened? Would NXT’s women’s division be churning out great matches on a regular basis without someone on the main roster showing that women can draw in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling? Would women’s matches have advanced beyond the typical ‘piss-break’ mentality amongst the largely male fanbase?
These questions are all largely unanswerable, but it’s impossible to imagine the Divas Division being better off today if A.J. Lee hadn’t left her mark on WWE. Thankfully, she leaves the division in good hands, with the likes of Paige, Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Bayley and Becky Lynch positioned to keep developing women’s wrestling in WWE.
Obviously, watching her this past weekend, we had no idea we were seeing her final two matches in WWE. In retrospect, it’s a real shame that her last time in the ring was on Monday’s Raw, when she found herself the target of a disgracefully sexist “you suck Punk” chant. She was far from alone in this regard in that match, as the crowd had already targeted both Bellas and Natalya before attacking A.J. and her tag-team partner, Naomi. Still, it’s unfortunate that this disaster will remain in the record books as A.J.’s final match, seeing as the crowd’s reaction was everything A.J. spent her entire career fighting against.
Goodbye, A.J., and more than anything, thank you.