Bemoaning the impact of Vince McMahon and Bruce Pritchard on NXT has been done in many places, including this one. For some, it is truly sad to see what was once a unique and massively enjoyable product become yet another base for the boring, uncreative, and rote choices McMahon and Pritchard make with both Raw and SmackDown. A true loss.
But it’s something entirely different when that duo of idiocy delve into straight up Nazism, or something akin to it, while leaning into ethnic stereotypes.
Last night, wrestler Walter (or the wrestler formerly known as Walter, but we’ll come back around to it) made his debut on NXT as a full-time roster member. Walter, an Austrian performer, has been with NXT UK for years — where he was massively popular — and was hesitant about moving to the States. But he had appeared on some sporadic Takeovers, and was a hit whenever he did. His no-nonsense, brutal, everything-is-a-finisher style was easily translatable to anyone watching.
Had he known what he was in for when he finally crossed the pond full-time, he very well might have stayed in Europe.
The trouble began when earlier in the day, news broke that WWE had trademarked the name “Gunther Stark.” The problem is that Gunther Stark was a commander on the Nazi’s Olympia crew in WWII. It’s not a name you would think anyone would want to be connecting to. But then we don’t live in the office of McMahon, where the outside world rarely, if ever, penetrates.
It all came to a head when Walter main evented last night’s episode of NXT, defeating Roderick Strong and declaring that his name was now “Gunther.” No Stark. It is unclear if WWE saw the backlash to the full name and cut it in half or not. It’s also impossible to discern whether they knew the association of the Gunther Stark name, though it’s hard to believe that someone didn’t point it out to them at some point. The uproar is over what they might have been aiming for. There is also no word on whether Gunther will remain simply “Gunther,” or if he might add the “Stark” later.
This isn’t the first time that WWE has thrown itself face first into WWII imagery for reaction. Kenzo Suzuki, 18 years ago, was supposed to debut as “Hirohito,” supposedly the grandson of the Japanese emperor, hellbent on revenge on the US. WWE swerved off of this after one vignette, thank goodness, but apparently never took this kind of thing out of the quiver.
It is beyond bewildering why they feel the need to repackage Walter at all, other than simply because they can and want to. Walter already has a name within the company and with fans, so this only works as a boost inside McMahon’s and Pritchard’s head. It could be as simple as them just wanting to dance the line with “Gunther,” making everyone react without actually delving into it. But, again, Walter doesn’t need it, as fans can quickly recall his classic matches with Pete Dunne or Ilya Dragunov. Perhaps it’s just yet another swing of the wrecking ball to knock down another vestige of the old NXT. This is the cheapest of heat.
The new NXT wasn’t done, though on a smaller if no less worrying scale. The Japanese wrestler Sarray is being repackaged as a Japanese school girl, which has all kinds of connotations that are ugly. Again, Sarray is a wonderfully accomplished performer in Japan, and one that NXT hasn’t really been able to figure out what to do with since she came to the company. But billing her as whatever depraved fantasy that exists in Pritchard’s head is decidedly NOT IT.
It’s just more of a marker of how WWE completely flattened NXT and everything that fans loved about it. And McMahon’s and Pritchard’s belief that any reaction is a good one and any idea, no matter how lazy or ignorant, is good if it gets those reactions, is pissing on the rubble.