Over the last year, I wrote a series of article looking at the illustrious history of the WWF/E Intercontinental Championship; chronicling the greatest title-holders from over the last four decades, and some of the greatest matches ever waged for this prestigious belt. When I began covering the best IC Champions from the 2010s, I admitted that the Intercontinental Title had lost some of its value at the time I started writing the series.
Despite rough bumps in the road throughout the 2010s, you had the likes of Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Drew McIntyre, Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, Dolph Ziggler, Seth Rollins and The Miz still making the IC Title feel like a prize worth fighting for. But after Seth Rollins lost the championship in 2018, the Intercontinental Belt truly hit rock bottom. Bobby Lashley, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Big E, and Apollo Crews…all tremendous wrestlers who should’ve had glorious Intercontinental Title reigns, yet were let down by appalling creative. Nakamura in particular had a 182-reign, yet was hardly booked to even defend the title!
Other lacklustre booking befell Sami Zayn, who won the IC Title three-times from 2020 to 2022 and brilliantly used the belt to fuel his Conspiracy Theory gimmick, yet he wasn’t treated seriously as IC Champion. AJ Styles won the Intercontinental Title in a tournament-final on SmackDown back in June 2020, in what was arguably the greatest WWE match during the entire pandemic. The Phenomenal One had joined the Grand Slam club and (with Daniel Bryan) produced one of the greatest IC Title matches in years! But the subsequent reign was short-lived and got lost in the shuffle. Poor Ricochet was also criminally overshadowed when he won the IC Title in March 2022. Despite being a fighting champion and producing several good title-defences on television, Ricochet wasn’t even booked to defend the belt at WrestleMania! From 2018, it had been a dire four-years for the Intercontinental Title, thanks to dismal WWE Booking.
10th June 2022 was the date everything FINALLY changed. That was when Gunther defeated Ricochet for the Intercontinental Title.
There was no denying that the former Walter had the makings of a great Intercontinental Champ; given the name he’d made for himself on the independent scene. Walter was a brutal, vicious workhorse with uncanny speed and exemplary mat-wrestling skills. His technical abilities had served him VERY well on NXT UK, where he would enjoy the single-longest-reign as the NXT UK Champion at a staggering 870 days! Boasting a catalogue of astonishing five-star classics against the likes of Pete Donne, Tyler Bate and Ilja Dragunov! Walter had also mastered character-work as the leader of Imperium, one of the best factions in all of NXT, and famous for their wicked feud with the Undisputed Era.
But could Walter (now rechristened Gunther) prevail on the main-roster? Especially after that infamous appearance at Survivor Series 2019? Where Walter had been unceremoniously eliminated in no time at all? (Team NXT vs. Team Raw vs. Team SmackDown).
After making his main-roster debut on SmackDown (8th April 2022), Gunther was partnered with his old-Imperium teammate Marcel Barthel (now Ludwig Kaiser) and soon got over. Gunther was presented as a strict, no-nonsense, disciplined, old-school grappler, who held the wrestling-mat sacred above all else. The persona was refreshing for wrestling audiences who weren’t familiar with NXT, and Gunther (along with Kaiser) climbed up the ladder very quickly. When Gunther captured the IC Championship from Ricochet on 10th July 2022, it was a good bout indeed. As was the rematch the following SmackDown where Gunther retained his new prize. Promising stuff…but would dodgy creative get in the way again?
No chance…in hell! Gunther’s rise coincided with Vince McMahon’s temporary retirement from WWE, and Triple H was now appointed the new Head of Creative. Having already proven himself with all his work for booking NXT, Hunter was now in an ideal position to change the WWE product for the better; better than it had been for a long time. And Gunther (as well as the Intercontinental Championship) were sure to benefit.
The winds of change first came into effect on 12th August 2022 edition of SmackDown, when the IC title match was promoted as being the MAIN-EVENT of that show. The WWE Production team had prepared another first-rate video package for today’s fans summarising why the Intercontinental Title was so prestigious throughout its 40-year history, and it superbly hyped-up the showdown between Gunther and his next-challenger, Shinsuke Nakamura. The resultant clash was full of heat, an enthusiastic crowd, and Michael Cole and Pat McAfee on form as the commentary team. Both the Ring General and the King of Strong-Style had the WWE Universe in the palms of their hands. It was not only Nakamura’s best WWE match in ages, it proved WWE were serious about returning the IC Title to the Promised Land. Gunther ultimately retained in a hellacious TV bout, and he was now on his way.
Gunther’s vow to make the IC Title the single-greatest-prize in all of wrestling was taken even more seriously when he locked horns with Sheamus. The Celtic Warrior had been a proud WWE veteran for 13 years, accomplishing everything there was to achieve EXCEPT winning the Intercontinental Belt. On paper, it was a match that had the makings of a hard-hitting bout. Instead, we received a bout that wildly exceeded all expectations. At Clash of the Castle, Gunther vs. Sheamus was quite simply a twenty-minute epic. Many fans and critics regarded the Intercontinental Title showdown as THE Match of 2022, and the single-greatest IC Title match in years. Even Dave Meltzer rated it five-stars!
Gunther’s feud with Sheamus continued to much acclaim, with Gunther & Ludwig having reformed Imperium with Giovanni Vinci (the former Fabian Archer) to tangle with Sheamus’ Brawling Brutes (Butch and Bridge Holland). Gunther retained the title against Sheamus again in a cracking-rematch on the 7th October SmackDown, and then the Brutes & Imperium had a wicked street-fight at Extreme Rules 2012.
Gunther’s dominance and sheer-match quality as the Intercontinental Champion rivalled Roman Reigns’ epic work as the Tribal Chief/Undisputed WWE Universal Champ. Every IC Title Match on television had become a must-see attraction, with Gunther selling perfectly for his opponents, before ultimately dominating them. Title defences against Rey Mysterio and Ricochet were terrific clashes, as were bouts against Braun Strowman and Madcap Moss.
As 2023 dawned, Gunther’s work as Intercontinental Champion transcended even further. Entering the Royal Rumble at No. 1, the Ring General broke the record for longest-performance in the Royal Rumble Match with an astonishing 71 minutes, 25 seconds; eliminating five superstars and making it down to the final two against the No. 30 entrant – and eventual winner – Cody Rhodes. What made Gunther’s herculean performance all the more incredible was that he’d been able to remain the dominant heel at No. 1, and selling enough to keep fans invested in Cody Rhodes’ story. It would’ve been so easy for fans to reject Cody’s babyface victory (given he’d entered at No. 30) in favour of the Intercontinental Champ after his marathon showing. And yet by targeting Cody’s previously-torn pectoral muscle, and making the American Nightmare fight for his life, Gunther had successfully rallied the fans behind Rhodes. When Cody was finally able to eliminate the Ring General, the victory felt earned and deserved. Cody was on his way to WrestleMania, Gunther had elevated the Intercontinental Title’s status even further, and showed that – like many IC Champs before him – Gunther could himself become a World Champion one day.
Onwards to WrestleMania 39, Gunther continued to smash records. On 9th February 2023, he surpassed Shelton Benjamin’s 244-day reign to become the longest-reigning IC Champ of the 21st Century. Then on 17th February, Gunther surpassed Mr Perfect’s 280-day reign to become the longest-reigning IC Champ of the last 34-years. More and more people were taking notice of the Ring General’s Intercontinental Title run; especially as he arrived at Night 2 of WrestleMania 39 to defend his title against old-foe Sheamus AND Drew McIntyre.
Fans were relieved that finally the Intercontinental Title had been booked in such a prominent-spot on WrestleMania after too long. Like the first Gunther/Sheamus match Clash at the Castle, Gunther/Drew/Sheamus had the makings of another great slugfest on paper. And like Clash at the Castle, the triple-threat match at WrestleMania 39 wildly exceeded expectations. For over 16 minutes, Gunther, Drew and Sheamus delivered arguably the match of their careers. In yet another blistering-epic, Gunther retained the title in dominant-fashion. The commentary team and fans in attendance wildly cheered & applauded the efforts of all three men, Dave Meltzer again gave Gunther five-stars, and the Triple-Threat was another strong-contender for Match of 2023. It was arguably the greatest IC Title match at a WrestleMania since Shawn Michaels/Razor Ramon at WM10!
Having achieved everything he could on SmackDown, Gunther and his Imperium Chums were drafted to Raw in the 2023 WWE Draft, and Gunther soon had some fresh challengers to contend with. He retained the title against Matt Riddle at Money in the Bank, and then enjoyed another almighty clash against Drew McIntyre at SummerSlam. Gunther was getting nearer and nearer to surpassing the Honky Tonk Man’s legendary reign of 454 days; a reign that for 35 years, looked like it was never going to be beaten. And many fans – who had truly come to appreciate everything Gunther had done for the title – were now clamouring for the Ring General to break Honky Tonk’s reign.
On the 21st August, Gunther’s reign featured another historic moment when in a heated defence against Chad Gable…HE LOST! Gunther’s undefeated streak on the main-roster had FINALLY been broken, but because Gable had won via count-out, Gunther still retained his title. A rematch was now set for the 4th September edition of Raw…in the main-event. Chad Gable was determined to win his first singles-title in front of his wife and children, and Gunther was determined to not only avenge his loss to Gable, but FINALLY break the Honky Tonk Man’s elusive record.
The result was yet another hard-hitting wrestling match. A rollercoaster-epic that may be the best match on Raw for 2023. Chad Gable came SO close to scoring the win of his career, only for Gunther to narrowly avoid defeat yet again, turn the tables, and conquer Chad Gable for the victory. Chad Gable’s family were reduced to tears, and Gunther and truly asserted his dominance. Gunther officially became the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion of ALL TIME.
So far, it’s been an absolutely legendary story. Full of epic moments and such growth for the former-Walter. One of the most MUST-SEE wrestlers on television today, Gunther was also recently ranked 4th in the PWI Top 500 rankings for 2023! But does all this make Gunther the GREATEST Intercontinental Champion of all-time?
‘Greatest’ is always a matter of opinion when discussed by fans & critics. And of course, this is mine…Gunther has definitely become the greatest Intercontinental Champion of all-time. Obviously, there are so many legends to choose from. Wrestlers who embodied the workhorse aspect of the IC title, delivered so many legendary matches and made such historic-achievements with an Intercontinental Championship. I’ve covered them all on SmarkDown’s Blog over the last year, and Bret Hart was my favourite IC Champion ever. Until Gunther came along.
It’s not JUST the fact that Gunther finally broke Honky Tonk’s record that makes his reign so historic. It’s EVERYTHING! A legendary rivalry with Sheamus. Two absolute classics for the Intercontinental Title that even Dave Meltzer absolutely loved. Prominent title defences against superstars on television and on pay-per-view. Breaking the record for longest-performance in a Royal Rumble match. Gunther embodies everything a workhorse should be for the modern-era, and the longer he holds the title, the better it will have been because Gunther has held it. The more ready Gunther will be for that inevitable World Title that he’s sure to have once he finally loses the IC Strap. Even if Gunther somehow never becomes WWE Champion, he can always be proud of what he has done for the Intercontinental Title, and will surely go into the Hall of Fame because of it.
Of course, Gunther is STILL Intercontinental Champion as of time of writing, with his glorious reign now standing at an almighty 472 days. The only wrestlers who have spent more time as Intercontinental Champion are Don Muraco, The Miz and the late, great Pedro Morales (whose two-reigns total 617 days). You could argue that Gunther’s ONE REIGN has achieved much more than any of these greats across their multiple-reigns. And that would be the next thing for Gunther to prove, surely. If Gunther can surpass the Miz’s combined total of 592 days, that would be another incredible accomplishment. But because I’m so invested in the Ring General’s dominance, I find myself wanting him to break Pedro’s record as well. That would truly be something!
Now, Gunther can’t be the Intercontinental Champion forever. It’s inevitable that he will lose the title. And just like when Roman Reigns’ historic run as WWE Champion finally reaches its’ conclusion, Gunther’s title loss will HAVE to be epic. Us at SmarkDown have debated how, where and when this should happen. In the main-event of Night 1 at WrestleMania 40? Maybe in a Champion vs. Champion. Title-For-Title Clash against either Seth Rollins or Roman Reigns? Where Gunther goes right to the top and then forfeits the IC Title? Or is allowed to hold two championships until he finally goes down?
Whatever the possibilities, whatever form the end will take, Gunther has truly restored the Intercontinental Title to prominence. He demands gratitude and acknowledgement. And from me…he’s got it.