Pioneers is a series dedicated to the women who pushed forward the evolution in women’s wrestling. Diva Dirt staff will highlight women with spotlight pieces all March, in honor of Women’s History Month.
It’s hard to imagine where the WWE women’s division would be right now if it weren’t for AJ Lee. It seems to go without saying because she is a favorite among internet wrestling fans, but her impact can’t be overstated.
Women’s wrestling in WWE is possibly the best it’s ever been. Of course, there is still some work to do, but the quality of the matches and average in-ring ability among the active roster has vastly improved. In addition, the roster is at its most diverse. There are five women’s championships, and fans are on the brink of seeing what used to seem unthinkable—women performing in the main event of WrestleMania.
At any rate, in the last four years, the Women’s Revolution has sparked much debate about who really started it. So much so, at one point Emma used to claim she started it in storyline. Honestly, there were numerous contributing factors behind the change in direction, but it would be hard to argue AJ Lee wasn’t a vital influence.
She revolutionized women’s wrestling at a time when the division was seemingly at its most stagnant and superficial. WWE appeared to still be in search of the next Trish Stratus when AJ stepped in and changed the perception of what the face of women’s wrestling could look like.
From the very beginning, she wasn’t a prototypical Diva. AJ was a wrestler who wore Daisy Dukes, Converse, and geeky graphic T-shirts. She didn’t look like any of her contemporaries and she never shied away from that.
In her book, Crazy Is My Superpower, she says the Head of Talent Relations brought her into a meeting where he told her “nobody wants to have sex with you.” What was supposed to be an indictment on how profitable she could be, turned out to be specious. AJ became one of the most popular and marketable female superstars in the company just by being herself.
The Black Widow broke barriers as a relatable role model to young female fans, as well as up-and-coming indie wrestlers who didn’t fit the typical mold.
After a mere two years in the business, she signed with Florida Championship Wrestling. She missed the boon of NXT as a formative brand. Instead, AJ came in third place during its predecessor’s third season. Unfortunately, once she got to the main roster in 2011 she was saddled with tired on-screen romances and even worse, the crazy ex-girlfriend trope. Regardless, Lee used the angles to create an entertaining character and parlayed the screen time she got with main event stars into an opportunity to compete for the Divas Championship.
On April 22, 2013, AJ won a battle royal to become the number one contender, setting her on a collision course with the winner of her season of NXT, Kaitlyn. The Geek Goddess defeated her former friend at Payback and went on to hold the title for 296 days—the second longest individual reign in the championship’s eight-year history. Overall, Lee tied the record for most reigns as Divas Champion with three, and she holds longest combined reign as champion at 406 days.
Throughout 2013, she further set herself apart from the rest of the division by distancing herself from the Total Divas cast. On Aug. 26, 2013, she cut the infamous #PipeBombshell promo on an episode of Raw. Her scathing barbs about the cast could be perceived as problematic because it pits fans of the Divas against other women’s wrestling fan, a divide that can still be felt today. However, it’s also notable because it helped usher in new storylines that the division was lacking.
In 2014, recent NXT call up, Paige, ended AJ’s record-breaking reign in her debut on the Monday after Raw. Their rivalry took some time to find its legs, but the two seemed like a perfect match, competing at Battleground, SummerSlam, Night of Champions and Hell in a Cell. Their in-ring style and clashing looks easily made them stand out as what seemed like the future of the division. They even teamed up to face the Bellas Twins at WrestleMania 31.
Nevertheless, in the following week, AJ Lee shocked the wrestling world, announcing her retirement from in-ring competition on April 3, 2015. It seems disappointing on the surface but there is something so empowering about leaving on her own terms. Not many wrestlers are able to do that, and she undoubtedly left a mark on the company.
AJ may not have created the #GiveDivasAChance movement that is often credited for getting WWE to see the women as more than a sideshow, but she helped to inspire that fan who did. As a matter of fact, around the same time, she famously called Stephanie McMahon out on Twitter over the issue of equal pay. Since retiring almost four years ago, she has been a vocal advocate for mental health awareness.
Using her experiences and platform to eliminate the stigmas around mental health is admirable. Coupled with her contributions to women’s wrestling, it’s safe to say AJ Lee has made a lasting difference in the lives of fans all over the world.