Twenty-eight years after the inaugural event took place at Madison Square Garden, WrestleMania returns to the New York Metro area this Sunday.
But for nobody in WWE is WrestleMania 29 more of a homecoming than for AJ Lee.
“It’s possibly the most surreal feeling that I’ve ever experienced,” Lee, 26, said about being part of WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium — just 15 minutes away from the Union City, N.J., neighborhood where she grew up. “It makes you feel like, ‘Hey, I actually made it.’ ”
Nine years ago, a 17-year-old Lee waited on line at the Madison Square Garden box office for seven hours to score the worst seats in the house for WrestleMania XX.
This Sunday, Lee will have the best view in the house when she stands at ringside as her two charges, Dolph Ziggler and Big E. Langston, challenge for the WWE tag team championship against Daniel Bryan and Kane.
For Lee, the match is almost “too good to be true,” as it ties together a year’s worth of storylines involving her romantic exploits with Bryan, Kane and Ziggler.
“I feel like I’ve been part of one of the best-told story arcs,” said Lee, who noted that, in a year, she went from loving Bryan and Kane to “trying to ruin their lives. I think that’s really cool storytelling.”
The match will cap off a year where Lee became one of WWE’s biggest, and most unlikely, breakout stars in 2012. A year ago, Lee was playing the part of Bryan’s meek girlfriend. In the months that followed, Lee became one of WWE’s most influential and prominent acts — getting involved in storylines involving John Cena and CM Punk, and briefly acting as general manager of “Monday Night Raw.”
Lee said attributes her big break to a number of “happy accidents.” But, she said, her success has been no fluke.
“Being somebody that knew she wanted to do this since she was 11, I was prepared mentally for over a decade. So when the opportunities came, I stole them. I made the best that I possibly could, because I had been waiting for so long.”
Also helping Lee’s career, she said, is the fact that she doesn’t fit the mold of the typical Diva. Lee said her nerdy, boyish style connected with fans — especially young girls. And, Lee said, WWE responded in kind, realizing, “This is cool. This works.”
But Lee’s rise as a WWE personality has been somewhat bittersweet. Since her days cheering on Mickie James and Lita, Lee has loved women’s wrestling. But these days her job involved delivering interviews more than it does delivering drop kicks. The adjustment took some getting used to.
“I used to be naive. I didn’t realize the value of being a whole performer . . . People start to care about you when they know more about you and see different aspects of your personality,” said Lee, who noted that cutting down on her wrestling could also prolong her career. “What I’ve always wanted is longevity. I want to be able to do this for a really long time. I have this goal of being Diva of the Decade.”
But, Lee acknowledges, she’ll have stiff competition for that title, including from several talented prospects in WWE’s developmental system, NXT. Lee said the female rookies are “very respectful,” and have approached her for advice.