WrestleMania Diary: AJ Lee, Day 5
WrestleMania is upon us. Before an SUV transports AJ Lee and her closest confidants from the frenetic atmosphere of Axxess to the impending grandeur of The Showcase of the Immortals at nearby MetLife Stadium, a Money in the Bank photo op exhibit catches the trio’s eye.
The attraction, inviting WWE fans to participate in a ladder-ascending duel with a life-sized cardboard Showoff, is an all-too-appropriate pre-WrestleMania pit stop for “Ziggy,” Big E and Ms. Lee. Ziggler’s show-stealing victory at Money in the Bank 2012 still grants him a World Heavyweight Championship at the time and place of his choosing, and AJ capped off her 2012 by shoving then–pseudo boyfriend John Cena off a ladder. For Langston, the connection is more symbolic: With a WWE Tag Team Championship victory tonight, Big E’s climb to WWE’s highest rungs truly begins.
Before joining the rest of his tight-knit triumvirate, Ziggler grabs his battle-damaged briefcase, its contents all the more potent as the eyes of the world turn to The Grandest Stage of Them All.
It’s a cool 48 degrees as AJ Lee arrives at MetLife Stadium, where WWE Universe members are already arriving — and grilling — in a nearby parking lot. Although skies are blue, the brisk temperature is yet another factor that further distances the Jersey native’s hometown WrestleMania from her Show of Shows debut in Miami last year.
“This has been the longest week ever, yet somehow this has been the shortest year of my life,” AJ remarks, lugging bags through the backstage area to the Divas locker room. “I feel like it was just yesterday that I was kissing [Daniel Bryan’s] ‘goat face’ at WrestleMania, so I’m excited and hoping tonight goes a lot better than that. I mean, there’s no ‘goat face’ I’ll be kissing, so it’s already better.”
Two days after sneaking a peek at WrestleMania’s under-construction homage to the Big Apple, AJ passes through MetLife Stadium’s cavernous corridors to meet the open New Jersey air within the arena itself. The sight of the massive recreations of New York’s most celebrated landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, loses none of its luster the second time around.
Amid the artificial New York landscape that has overtaken the stadium, AJ wears WWE’s more personal tribute to the Garden State underneath her black warm-up jacket.
“It’s everything altogether in one,” AJ says of WWE’s New Jersey twist on the iconic “I Heart N.Y.” shirt. “It’s giving New Jersey the love New York gets a lot of the time.”
Less than four hours before the WrestleMania Interactive Pre-Show begins streaming on WWE.com, YouTube, Facebook and the WWE App, AJ gets a fan’s-eye view of things from ringside.
Seated in a commemorative WrestleMania chair adorned with the face of a jean-shorted former romantic entanglement and a certain People’s Champion — identical seats on all sides — AJ is pensive as crewmembers, sound technicians and TV personnel buzz around her. Onstage, in the middle of putting the finishing touches on his Show of Shows performance, Sean “Diddy” Combs shouts out to Ryback.
“It’s terrifying,” New Jersey’s prodigal daughter tells WWE.com. “There’s still so much to do. I don’t even have an outfit yet, so I’m getting a little nervous. I’ve been so emotional just standing out here, and I hope I can keep it together for the match and not just be randomly crying in the middle of it.”
Nearing the end of her reflective tour of MetLife Stadium, AJ feels a buzz in her pocket, removes her phone and is greeted by a screensaver image of her beloved Chihuahua “Cheese” and an unexpected text message from “Ziggy.” Dolph has briefly parted ways with his “babycakes” this afternoon for a last-minute WrestleMania workout, yet still feels compelled to check in. No one multi-tasks like The Showoff.
Even though he’s been separated from her only briefly, Dolph can’t resist making a digital connection with AJ, a gesture that elicits a smile from his nervous girlfriend and reiterates his dual missions at The Showcase of the Immortals.
It’s getting late. After touring MetLife Stadium for the better part of the afternoon, AJ feels the full weight of all there is to do before The Show of Shows begins. From wardrobe alterations to strategizing with Dolph Ziggler & Big E Langston, the rest of AJ’s day is spoken for.
To expedite her retreat to the locker room, an anxious AJ finds a shortcut beneath the WrestleMania set, navigating the low-ceilinged corridor without ducking her head — just one of the advantages of being 5-foot-2.
As Titus O’Neil chats in the corner with WWE Hall of Famer Ron Simmons, Chris Jericho speeds by on the back of a golf cart, his thumbs vigorously tapping the conclusion of a pointed text message. A flock of sequined dancers floats by, preparing to herald the WrestleMania arrival of Fandango. There is nothing quite like the atmosphere backstage at The Showcase of the Immortals — especially in the moments before the show is about to begin.
AJ rushes from the Divas locker room to the seamstress station, requesting some late-in-the-game alterations to her custom T-shirt. It’s artfully ripped apart and pieced together in a pattern eerily reminiscent a spider’s web, and for the young woman who was christened the “Black Widow” for her life-ruining relationship tendencies, the design is apropos. Ex-boyfriends beware.
AJ’s pre-WrestleMania jitters melt away as she joins Dolph Ziggler & Big E Langston on the entrance ramp, a spring in her step all the way down to the ring. Just minutes away from Union City, where she could barely afford bus fare as a child, AJ has brought full-circle her Show of Shows saga that began with her father taking her to the uppermost level of Madison Square Garden at WrestleMania XX.
Now, nine years later, AJ has the best seat in the house as Dolph & Big E seize championship glory on The Grandest Stage of Them All. Before the match, Ziggler passes to the unhinged Diva his long-held Money in the Bank briefcase — an insurance policy for The Showoff that could pay dividends tonight in more ways than one.
WWE’s most unpredictable Diva is part Miss Elizabeth, part “Sensational” Sherri and 100 percent AJ Lee as she directs her boyfriend and platonic powerhouse in their WWE Tag Team Title clash with Kane & Daniel Bryan.
After a good luck kiss for “Ziggy” that salts any and all of Daniel Bryan’s lingering WrestleMania XXVIII wounds, it’s only a matter of time, it seems, until the pint-sized powder keg erupts in a major way.
Sliding Dolph’s battered blue briefcase into the ring, eliciting an uproarious reaction from more than 80,000 WrestleMania attendees, AJ orchestrates a referee distraction while Dolph lunges at Kane with his Money in the Bank prize. It backfires. The ring bell chimes, but not for Dolph & Big E.
AJ’s five-day WrestleMania journey comes to a close as she shuffles backstage — no skipping, this time — with the would-be WWE Tag Team Champions.
“It’s bittersweet,” AJ says dolefully following her home state defeat. She watches as Dolph & Big E retire to the Superstar locker room, the briefcase holding The Showoff’s Money in the Bank contract dangling loosely from Ziggler’s fingertips. “Everything kind of comes back all at once. It’s amazing how far I’ve come. It’s so much bigger than you think it’s going to be. But I wanted to come home happy, and that’s not the case right now.”
Perhaps AJ’s ideal New Jersey triumph will come tomorrow night at the IZOD Center on Raw, or maybe her Show of Shows odyssey was always meant to end this way. After all, hardship has long been this wily young woman’s strength; the fuel by which she has traversed even the most treacherous terrains.