Sunday 5 April 2015

AJ Lee Retirement... Outta Nowhere!

On Friday 3 April it was announced that AJ Lee had retired, with immediate effect, from in-ring competition.

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Despite the large amount of time she's taken off over the last year and the persistent rumours that she was leaving, or had decided not to re-sign when her contract expires, this news came as a surprise. AJ had only returned to the company in February and had been involved in a storyline opposite Divas champ Nikki Bella. She had, in fact, made Nikki tap out at WrestleMania. That's an indication that WWE believed she'd be around for a while. Had they known, or even suspected, she would be retiring less than a week later it's likely Nikki would have found herself tapping out to Paige's PTO instead.

The initial response from many people has been to label this a huge loss. "#ThankYouAJ" trended on Twitter within minutes of the news being announced and was still trending a day later. It is a loss, no question, but I don't think it's quite the blow people think it is.

For starters it's important to note that, rightly or wrongly, the Divas division is not that important in WWE right now. AJ may be one of the main names attached to it but it's still a very minor part of the overall product. The division isn't presented with any legitimacy so it doesn't really matter if one of the women who has legitimacy leaves. It won't change the way the division is viewed the way, for example, a Lita or Trish Stratus departure would have done in 2002. Then the women's division was well-booked and they were two of its most popular contributors. Now there aren't any fans of WWE's Divas division, just fans of individual Divas.

There's also the question of AJ's ability. She's frequently credited as being one of WWE's best female wrestlers. She's good, but is she really head and shoulders above the rest of the women under contract? On the main roster Paige and Natalya are easily as good as her, if not better. Naomi isn't far behind, and I don't think the Bellas (on a good time with some time behind them) are either.

If you widen things and consider the women in NXT too then AJ's status takes a further hit. In the last year Emma, Bayley, Charlotte, and Sasha Banks have all had better matches than I can ever remember AJ having. They benefit from more time than AJ has ever done for her matches, true, but that only further highlights how little AJ is able to contribute as part o the Divas division. Alexa Bliss is rough around the edges but improving. The only women on televised NXT that can definitely be said to not come close to being as good as AJ are Becky Lynch and Carmella. That's hardly glowing praise.

Less AJ means more Natalya and Naomi. I'm down with that.
This is not to knock AJ. She's very good. It's certainly not to knock the impact she's had on WWE. Since her debut on the third season of original format NXT (the unfortunate Vince McMahon experiment that gave us the Nexus) she has become one of the most important female wrestlers of the last decade. She was a believable character who got to interact with guys at the top of the card, something which may still prove to be a significant point of progression for WWE in the long run. At a time when women in WWE are marginalised and have their work presented as filler material AJ managed to get over and make herself a meaningful character. That was impressive and speaks to her ability. It's something others will benefit from in the future.

But in terms of match quality AJ Lee's retirement is not the monumental loss it's being treated as. This is one of those periodic shifts wrestling companies actually benefit from. An established star leaves and creates a spot for someone else. A new addition was probably going to get called up to the main roster soon anyway, so AJ's departure means we could get two instead. Imagine how much better the Divas division could (important to note I'm saying could, I'm not confident WWE will actually start giving their main roster female performers the time they deserve) be if Sasha Banks got brought up alongside lead candidate Charlotte.

AJ's impact over the last few years has been important. I think we'll see that when we look back in years to come. But at this point, with the Divas still not getting much air time and the entire division feeling overly familiar, AJ's departure is for the best. It allows fresh names to come in and shake things up. There could be no end more fitting to her legacy than the Divas division flourishing in the wake of her retirement. I hope it's allowed to and I hope she enjoys whatever she gets up to next. Let's just hope it's not a move to UFC. I don't think a fight against Ronda Rousey would end well for her.

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