From the mean streets to the bright spotlights, it’s been a crazy rocket ship ride for professional wrestler AJ Lee. And things are still looking up. The poor little girl from New Jersey, who vowed to become a professional wrestler at the age of 12, sits on top of the wrestling world at the age of 27.
Lee is the reigning WWE Divas Champion, having defeated Paige and Nikki Bella in a triple threat match last month. She is married to retired wrestling legend CM Punk. And she’s poised to ascend to new heights.
Here are 10 things you didn’t know about AJ Lee.
1. AJ Lee was born April Jeanette Mendez in Union City, New Jersey. She grew up in a poor family, often living out of motels or a car and eating in food banks. Mendez is the youngest of three children.
2. As a child Mendez looked up to her older brother. And it is him she credits with introducing her to wrestling, not to mention video games, comic books and science fiction — the hallmarks of geekdom. Mendez idolized Ms. Elizabeth, Macho Man Randy Savage’s manager, and former WWE Diva Lita, who she once met at an autograph signing for Wrestlemania XX. She decided to become a professional wrestler at the age of 12.
3. After high school, Mendez worked multiple jobs to help support her family and save up for wrestling school. Those positions included janitor and cashier at a Pathmark supermarket near where she grew up.
4. Mendez began her wrestling training in early 2007 at a New Jersey-based wrestling school. She was competing with a local New Jersey independent wrestling promotion as Miss April within the year. She joined Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU) the following year, teaming up to eventually win the WSU Tag Team Championship.
5. Looking to move beyond small-time wrestling promotions, Mendez tried out for Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) in early 2009, scraping together the $1500 camp entrance fee. She signed to a development deal that May and competed in televised events as April Lee by the end of the summer. April Lee soon became AJ Lee, and then won the Queen of FCW title, which she held for much of 2010.
6. Lee was featured in season 3 of WWE’s NXT Divas. As the show existed at the time, rookies were teamed with pros from the main WWE roster to compete in a variety of challenges and matches. She was paired with Primo and lasted much of the season before being voted off the show. Kaitlyn eventually won the competition; Lee finished third.
7. Lee debuted on the WWE main roster in May of 2011 as part of an episode of SmackDown. Lee and Kaitlyn — her best friend in real life — paired up to form the tag team Chickbusters, which proceeded to suffer loss after loss to the Divas of Doom. The duo didn’t last as Kaitlyn eventually turned heel. Lee picked up her first win in individual competition, pinning Tamina.
8. Lee is the current Divas champion, her third time holding the title. With her first reign, which ended in April after 295 days, she set the record for longest Divas title reign. She and Paige have each held the title twice since.
10. Lee married former wrestler CM Punk in real life, earlier this year. Punk, like his wife, holds the record for longest championship reign in the modern era. He was champion for 434 days, a streak which ended early in 2013.
Norm Elrod likes sports and other sanctioned forms of craziness.