Before there was the Women’s Evolution in WWE and an opportunity to compete in the main event of WrestleMania. Before there was WWE’s Four Horsewomen, and even before there was a rise in women’s wrestling in NXT through the likes of Paige and Emma, there was one person who began becoming part of the main story in the WWE, helping force a change in the way women’s wrestling and even women were seen in the WWE, and the person who helped bring that change was AJ Lee.

As a celebration of AJ Lee’s (real name April Jeanette Mendez Brookes) 32nd Birthday, this should be seen as a reminder as to how important AJ Lee was to the Women’s Evolution, even if it wasn’t to officially start until after she had left the company. AJ was trained by current ROH Champion Jay LethalAzrieal, and Mo Sexton down in New Jersey back in 2007, while finally beginning her career in 2008 in the American Championship Entertainment (ACE), where she wrestled a single match under the name Miss April in a losing effort. AJ would stay on the independent scene for a very short time, where her talents were seen on Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU) and National Wrestling Superstars (NSW) for the bulk of her independent matches, including when she captured the WSU Tag Team Championships with Brooke Carter. She would team up with her trainer Jay Lethal to compete in the 2009 WSU/NWS King and Queen Tournament, winning it all by defeating Danny Demanto and Jana in the finals. Following her big win, she would try out for Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW), the former developmental of the WWE, officially signing with them and becoming a part of the company despite her short career to that point.

Her career in FCW was what started to get the name of AJ Lee out there for wrestling fans. Here, Lee would win the Queen of FCW Championship by defeating Serena Mancini (aka Serena Deeb), which she would hold for 282 days while feuding with Naomi for much of her year on top. She had many occurrences down in FCW of great work on the mic and in the ring that many may not have seen. From wanting to make the people understand that she was the “Queen” of FCW and would not be forgotten or overlooked by the FCW Divas Champion, to looking down on her contenders surely letting them know they do not deserve their shot at the championship. In the same year of 2010, AJ would be a part of the third season of the NXT competition show. On here, AJ would begin to become a fan favorite for the people viewing as a part of the show, being a “nerdy, cray” girl that many would come to know and love in the years following. She would compete in multiple competitions against other competitors that many may know, like former SmackDownLIVE Women’s Champion Naomi and the winner of NXT season three, Kaitlyn. AJ had won the most competitions on the show with six but finished in just third place. From here, however, it became clear the AJ Lee was going to become a household name.

On May 27th, 2011, AJ Lee would debut on SmackDown with her best friend and NXT Season Three winner, Kaitlyn, as the team of “The Chickbusters”, losing to the team of Alicia Fox and Tamina. After being mentored by Natalya for a few months, she would turn on AJ and Kaitlyn, teaming with Beth Phoenix to form the team of the Divas of Doom. The Divas of Doom would continuously beat the duo, leading to frustrations mostly on Kaitlyn’s part, as she would eventually turn on AJ, leading to the beginning of their long rivalry together. Yet, not long after, AJ Lee would enter a new story that would begin her rise to the main event scene by becoming the on-air girlfriend of Daniel Bryan. While the story was seen as to be a continuous one-sided relationship, as Bryan seemingly never would give back the love and care that AJ would give to him. This would lead to the forever remembered WrestleMania moment as Daniel Bryan would defend his World Heavyweight Championship with AJ by his side against the Royal Rumble winner in the opening match of WrestleMania 28 in 2012. As the bell rang, Daniel Bryan would tell Sheamus to wait as he would call up AJ to the apron to give the forever remembered “good luck kiss”, and then got drilled in the head by Sheamus with a Brogue Kick, losing his World Heavyweight Championship in a short 18 seconds. In the following weeks, Bryan would blame AJ for the loss, leading to the end of their relationship and the birth of AJ’s mentally unstable persona.

The mentally unstable AJ Lee would become a center piece of WWE programming following her break up with Daniel Bryan. She would change her love interests weekly but remain connected to Daniel Bryan. As Bryan moved on from SmackDown and the World Heavyweight Championship to Raw, so did AJ. However, AJ became a main force in the main event championship picture as Daniel Bryan became the top contender for the WWE Championship, held by CM Punk. It felt as though AJ switched her love interest between Punk and Bryan weekly, mostly being on Punk’s side, possibly to get back at Bryan for what he did, but at the same time, she seemed unsure to what she wants leading into the Over the Limit PPV in 2012. She would even show interest in Kane, as this would lead to the eventual triple threat match at No Way Out, in which AJ would be a deciding factor in the match by gaining the attention of Kane which would lead to a victory of CM Punk to defend his title once again. This would become the time as well during this rivalry that CM Punk essentially confessing his feelings about AJ, saying the memorable quote of “I dig crazy chicks”.

This path of switching and being part of the hottest story at the time would continue into Money in the Bank, as she would become an even bigger part of that story. On Monday Night Raw, Punk would be facing off with Bryan, and following up would be AJ Lee’s music mid-match. However, as AJ came skipping down to the ring, Punk and Bryan would pay zero attention to her, which would lead her to setting up a table on the outside, climbing to the top rope, and finally gaining the interests of her love triangle. Bryan would stand in front of the table screaming his signature “NO!” towards AJ while Punk would get to the top rope and also try to stop her. AJ would lay a kiss on Punk, leaving him dazed before finally pushing him off the top onto Bryan through the table. AJ continued to be unstable but incredibly enjoyable on television, confusing both men, leading to her special guest referee position that would be at Money in the Bank as she would decide the conclusion of the Daniel Bryan / CM Punk rivalry.

At the 2012 Money in the Bank PPV, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan would go to war one last time as AJ Lee would referee the deciding match. And all match long, Bryan and Punk would seemingly be mesmerized by Lee, even when she would be inadvertently taken out of the match in the early going. Questions would be asked all match long if AJ Lee would sway one way or the other, possibly decide the match by herself and turn on one of them. As the two continued to beat each other up more and more, AJ would only help the cause by bringing a chair into the match for both men to use on each other. There would be multiple occasions when both men would look at AJ confused as the match went on, but finally, CM Punk would retain his championship, which left AJ looking confused when he grabbed the championship and seemed not to care about her at the time.

This would follow up to Raw on the way to the big Raw 1000 episode, where AJ and Daniel Bryan were to hold to their wedding following an impromptu proposal by Daniel Bryan after a few weeks back where AJ got down on one knee to seemingly confuse Punk. The continuous antics and craziness only meant that this wedding was going to go down an insane path. When Raw 1000 and the wedding came around, AJ and Daniel Bryan both got to the ring and all seemed to be going well. And when it came to saying the “I do’s”, AJ would respond with Bryan’s signature “YES!” chant. She would follow up with revealing she wasn’t saying yes to Daniel Bryan, but she was saying yes to Vince McMahon, as she would become the Raw General Manager, further planting herself as one of the biggest stars in the company.

In her short tenure, she would make the careers of Bryan and Punk hell by continuously denying their requests, as well as sending Daniel Bryan to therapy. And while her reign as the GM was short, it continued to keep her in the spotlight despite never having the wrestle a match. Eventually, she would step down after having a problem with both Vickie Guerrero and Paul Heyman, leading to a new love interest in the top guy in the WWE at the time, John Cena. She would sucker Cena in to believe this was yet another item, despite Cena never being too sure if she was mentally stable and serious or not. It would prove not, however, as she would turn on Cena at the TLC PPV as he faced Dolph Ziggler for Ziggler’s Money in the Bank briefcase and would ultimately be dumped off the ladder by AJ to end yet another relationship, AJ had suckered Cena in and had actually joined forces with Ziggler.Photo: WWE

This turn would allow AJ to become the performer she was most remembered for, as she would be with Ziggler and the debuting Big E Langston (now Big E), and finally pursuing her own personal success rather than a love interest as much, despite dating Ziggler at the time. With the help of Big E, she would manage to begin her rivalry with former best friend and Divas Champion, Kaitlyn. This became the first real Divas Championship feud that got real recognition in the championship’s existence. The star power that AJ Lee had was what allowed the Divas Championship to finally become prominent, as she would capture her first championship at 2013’s Payback show, defeating Kaitlyn after weeks of mind games and driving Kaitlyn off the edge, leading to a series of matches between the two former best friends that would really catch the eye of fans. While still remaining limited on time back then, the two showed great chemistry in their series of matches. Their rivalry would be such an important deal that some may forget, as they would have the first ever Divas Championship contract signing for the rematch between the former Chickbuster members. As AJ would win the rematch between the two rivals at Money in the Bank, her relationship with Ziggler would seemingly fall by the wayside, as Ziggler would end the relationship following her costing him his World Heavyweight Championship.

After ridding herself of her best friend as her rival and her continuous relationship woes, AJ Lee would continue her record-breaking title reign as she would go after the Total Divas stars with one of the most memorable promos in years that continues to be brought up to this day. Here is what she said which stands to this day:

This was the promo that shook the WWE and made people who realize who didn’t know ahead of time that AJ Lee was the realest deal in the company and the first woman to step up and speak her true intentions in a long time. While AJ always dreamed of being the Women’s Champion, she had no problem being the proud Diva’s Champion, even if she was the furthest thing from a “diva”. Her run continued on, as she continued to face multiple Total Divas stars month after month, eventually with Tamina by her side as her bodyguard of sorts. She would roll into WrestleMania 30 as the reigning Divas Champion, sitting at a record 294 days and would defend her championship in the “Vickie Guerrero Invitational” where she would face off against 13 other women and once again retain her championship. Then would come one of the most notable moments following a WrestleMania on the big “Raw after Mania” on April 7th, 2014.

This is where AJ Lee would head out to the ring and call out every woman, saying no one could beat her and simply no one will. This would mark the ending of Paige’s “Fighting with My Family” film where she would make her real debut in front of thousands in hopes of just congratulating AJ Lee. This is where AJ would slap the smile off of Paige’s face, saying she would do a special event for the whole crowd and put her title on the line. This would be the end of AJ Lee’s first championship reign, a reign that brought attention to the Divas Championship that there never was prior, a reign that at the time was record-breaking at 295 days.

Paige would take over on top of the WWE Diva’s division while AJ Lee would take time off to rest some injuries and even get married to her former on-air love interest, CM Punk. This marriage put a lot of doubt into fans mind as to whether or not AJ Lee would ever return to the WWE following Punk leaving the company and WWE’s problems with him that continue on to this day. No fear, however, as AJ would return to the scene on June 30th, 2014, entering a rivalry with Paige that many fans had hoped for since their first match when Paige was victorious. She would trick Paige into giving her a match the night of her return, as she had for Paige back in April. Paige would be guilted into agreeing, and it would lead to AJ winning back the Divas Championship once again. They would trade the championship back and forth once more before AJ would lose the championship to Nikki Bella at Survivor Series 2014 in a shockingly quick match.

This would mark the last time AJ would hold the championship, and while she had been there to help lead so much of a change, she never was able to fully see that evolution that we see today. On February 24th, 2015, she called out the company, specifically Stephanie McMahon, for not showing an equal treatment of the female superstars compared to the male stars. She would explain how the women would have record selling merchandise and be apart of the highest rated segment on the show. She would use her voice and try to start a movement for the women to finally get equal time and was really the first women inside the company to speak out and take a charge. Here are the tweets below:

Following this rightful outburst to really change the industry, AJ Lee would have her final WrestleMania match at WrestleMania 31, teaming with Paige to defeat The Bella Twins. She would wrestle her final match the following night, winning in 6 women tag match with Paige and Naomi over the “Total Divas” Natalya and the Bella Twins. It is fitting in a sort of way, as Paige became her greatest rival on the WWE brand, while Naomi had been her greatest rival all the way back in FCW, and they teamed together in her last match. Her retirement would be announced on April 3rd, which came as a shock but at the same time, the writing may have been on the wall.

Since her departure, she has continued her work towards equality outside the WWE and has become a true leader in doing so. In her book that was released in 2017, “Crazy is My Superpower: How I Triumphed by Breaking Bones, Breaking Hearts, and Breaking the Rules”, which became a New York Times Bestseller, she explained her departure to be due to permanent damage to her cervical spine and fulfilling all of her personal goals in her wrestling career. Of course, many figures being stuck in the middle of CM Punk and the company probably wasn’t very comfortable for her, but she really did fulfill her career goals of being a champion and making a change in the company.

It would be in the same year that Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Charlotte Flair would finally debut starting the Women’s Revolution, and they would bring back the Women’s Championship in 2016, almost a year to the day AJ Lee had announced her retirement. While she wasn’t there for such change, she was there to force the issue and get it started. She was the first woman to be a key part of the company’s direction and one of the most popular stars of her time. Unfortunately, she may not be involved in any recognition for obvious reasons, it should be known that her doing was a huge part that you must appreciate. She continues to inspire to this day as a self-powered woman who does so much good for the world through her book and appearing at conventions, sit-downs, and more to stress the importance of so many issues and be a role model for so many to this day. She also currently serves as an ambassador for NAMI, the JED Foundation, the ASPCA, and Girl Make Games. She has dedicated her time after to try and make the world a better place, which is truly awesome.

Photo: David and Cathy Photography

AJ Lee may no longer be a current member of the WWE, yet appreciating all she has done for the company in her past shows today as we head into a WrestleMania where the women are locked in to main event the entire show. Here’s wishing a truly Happy Birthday to a difference-maker in the community today, and in the entire history of the WWE.

Happy Birthday AJ Mendez!