WWE Intercontinental Champion Gunther is ready for ‘SmackDown’ at Capital One Arena

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with WWE superstar Gunther (Part 1)

Gunther is the longest-running reigning WWE Intercontinental Champion of the 21st century.

You can witness him on Friday on “WWE SmackDown” at Capital One Arena in D.C.

Last week, the Scottish Warrior Drew McIntyre appeared to challenge Gunther to a title match at WrestleMania, but Gunther merely shrugged it off by saying, “Get in line.”

“I’m not losing my thoughts on that,” Gunther told WTOP. “Let’s see what happens.”

This week’s “SmackDown” will also feature a preview of the WrestleMania event between No. 1 contender Cody Rhodes and undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns.

Rhodes earned the spot by entering the Royal Rumble at No. 30 and winning by eliminating Gunther, who had entered at No. 1 and set a record by lasting 71 minutes and 25 seconds.

“That’s the way it goes,” Gunther said. “You can make yourself a legend by going from No. one until the end, but there’s somebody joining that match at No. 30 an hour later. … Still, it was a special night for me, having the end bit in the ring with Cody. I think Cody’s an ideal opponent for me for the future, so it was good that we could give them a 7-or-8-minute teaser.”

It’s not who “goes over” by winning, it’s who “gets over” with the fans — and Gunther is on fire as the leader of the faction “Imperium.” Featuring Ludwig Kaiser of Germany and Giovanni Vinci of Italy, the trio coordinates a militaristic posture with arms behind their backs.

“Ludwig and I have been in the ring together for over 10 years,” Gunther said. “Ludwig’s father Axel Dieter was a popular wrestler in Germany. He’s passed away, but he was popular in the ’70s and ’80s. … My parents used to watch Ludwig’s father wrestle when they were young in Vienna. He’d always raise his glass and say, ‘The mat is sacred.’ We were inspired by that.”

Born in 1987 in Vienna, Austria, Walter Hahn grew up a long-distance fan of the WWF.

“In the mid-90s, WWF was very popular in the German-speaking countries,” he said. “Bret Hart was a pop-culture superstar in Germany. Everybody knew him, so I was able to watch like VHS tapes and stuff like that. Also, when I was a kid, the tournaments in Vienna would still be going on, so my parents would take me there to watch it live.”

He made his professional wrestling debut in Germany’s Westside Xtreme Wrestling, also known as wXw, in 2007 under the name of Walter. Gunther signed with WWE in 2019, enjoyed an 870-day reign as NXT UK Champion, and then joined the main NXT roster in 2002. He made his “SmackDown” debut in April 2022, and just two months later, defeated Ricochet to become the Intercontinental Champion.

“That’s when the work starts,” Gunther said. “It’s not like something that you can rest on. For me, it was clear the moment I won the Intercontinental Championship, it was like, ‘OK, now it’s on. Now you have to make something out of this. It’s on you now.’ I enjoy those situations when there’s pressure or expectations on me. That’s the challenge to fulfill or surpass that.”

His most physical match was against Sheamus at WWE’s Clash at the Castle event in September in Wales.

“Over there, it’s a fantastic atmosphere,” said Gunther. “It’s really influenced by the football or soccer culture, their chants. … It has that sports competition feel. The match itself was enjoyable. That’s the thing with Sheamus, he’s a very physical wrestler as well, he has a lot of energy and that guy doesn’t stay down. He won’t stop coming back at you. That was intense.”

He’s also defended his title against Shinsuke Nakamura, Rey Mysterio and Braun Strowman, breaking Shelton Benjamin’s record for the longest Intercontinental reign of the 21st century. Long reigns are all the rage these days, with Roman Reigns being the longest WWE Universal champ of the past three decades, while The Usos are the longest WWE Tag Team champions ever.

“If I make time to follow something it’s definitely The Bloodline,” Gunther said. “It’s one of the best storylines the company has ever produced. It’s entertaining to watch because of the happenings, the drama. Everyone’s had a best friend, everyone’s been betrayed. Having Sami [Zayn] as the outcast underdog, it’s a great story. I’m excited to see how it’s going to end.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with WWE superstar Gunther (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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