Chicago Reader – July 28, 2011
By Tom Breihan
Scott Colton, aka Colt Cabana
Indy pro wrestler Colt Cabana fought his way to the WWE, only to find that the real path to success was to build a mini media empire of his own
Logan Square Auditorium isn’t a huge room, at least compared to the mega-arenas that host Wrestlemania or Summerslam. But on a Friday night in June, it’s just big enough for an indy pro wrestling ring, with four rows of chairs on each side, plus a few more on the venue’s stage. All told, the space fits a few hundred spectators, along with a simple lighting rig and a few merch tables scattered in the corners. At the start of the night, the line of wrestling fans that wraps around the building and into an adjacent alley buzzes with a punk-rock level of devotion. After the doors finally open, one of those merch tables gets a bit more traffic than the others.
The man behind the table is Colt Cabana, né Scott Colton, a 31-year-old Chicago-based pro wrestler, short-lived WWE personality, and occasional stand-up comedian who’s been building a mini media empire around himself. Later in the night, he’ll disappear into the locker room to don a spandex singlet and slap on some baby oil. But right now, in his baseball cap and his well-worn wrestling academy T-shirt, he could pass for a beefier, more spray-tanned version of your average fan.
Behind his table, Cabana is doing brisk business. One young man tells Cabana he’s never seen him wrestle but that he drove three hours from Michigan tonight because he’s a fan of Cabana’s weekly podcast, The Art of Wrestling. (“I hope I dazzle you,” Cabana offers.) A dad buys his two kids masks of Matt Classic, a character that Cabana sometimes portrays. One fan gives Cabana a ziplock bag full of “I ♥ Colt” buttons. Another asks Cabana how his bike ride over was. (Cabana had said on a podcast that he’d ride his bike to the show; he ended up taking the bus instead.) Over the course of the night, it seems like almost everyone in the venue approaches Cabana at some point, often with money in hand.
A particularly popular purchase is the DVD The Wrestling Road Diaries, a self-financed documentary about a trip to independent wrestling shows that Colt took with a couple of friends, one of whom is now the midlevel WWE star Daniel Bryan. Cabana sells out of the DVD before the match starts. Another is a T-shirt that reads “I [Star of David] Colt”; Cabana tells me how he couldn’t keep that one in stock after his best friend C.M. Punk—currently the reigning WWE Champion—wore it on a recent episode of Monday Night Raw. Cabana’s got an app on his phone that lets him run credit card transactions. He keeps selling his wares until a few minutes before showtime, when he finally heads for the locker room.
If you’ve seen Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, you’ve encountered one vision of independent pro wrestling: old, broken-down pieces of meat destroying their bodies by performing in dingy venues to tiny crowds, trying to capture the feeling of being stars regardless of whether they ever had a run at the top. Listening to Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast, though, you get an entirely different picture of the same world.
Every Thursday, Cabana uploads a new episode centered on a conversation with a fellow wrestler or industry figure, usually someone with whom he’s shared locker rooms. And though sad stories show up on the podcast—consider, for instance, Canadian wrestler Tyson Dux, who blew out his knee the same day he was supposed to sign with the WWE—the main impression you get is of a fascinating world filled with upbeat characters.
Since Cabana is both a fellow wrestler and a lively interviewer, his guests tend to let their guards down and commence with some genuinely entertaining anecdotes: Austin Aries discussing the time he punched out a fan in the front row, Mad Man Pondo telling of a dalliance with a midget porn star, Excalibur talking about how he learned Japanese just so he could translate the text in a Japanese wrestling video game.
Cabana sticks mostly with his independent wrestling peers on the podcast; you’ll rarely hear a big star mentioned. “I think having a Triple H or a Vince McMahon wouldn’t be as cool as having a Luke Gallows or a Domino,” says Cabana, sitting in a WickerPark coffee shop a few days before the Logan Square Auditorium match.
For fans of independent wrestling, the obscure names Cabana drops are anything but obscure. These fans love the indy circuit all the more because they had to work to find it; no company is shoving it down their collective throats.
“What makes The Art Of Wrestling so great is the fact that Colt comes off as a genuinely nice person,” says Damian Abraham, front man of the Toronto punk band Fucked Up. “I also love seeing how his existence as an indy wrestler mimics the life of an indie band.”
Like an indie band, Cabana leads a road-heavy, hand-to-mouth existence that takes him to some strange places: a mostly Inuit town in the arctic north of Canada, a kingpin-controlled drug town in Mexico, the Gathering of the Juggalos. In the Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalo Championship Wrestling federation, he plays a bad-guy character named Officer Colt, a police officer determined to arrest any Juggalo he can find. (He feuds with a drug-dealer character named the Weed Man.) At this year’s Gathering, he’ll wrestle and do stand-up comedy.
A self-described comedy “fanboy,” Cabana drew on influences from that world when he hatched his many outside-the-ring enterprises. The Art of Wrestling is directly inspired by WTF, the celebrated podcast from stand-up comic Marc Maron, in which Maron has fairly intense conversations with comedian peers. “In terms of a business standpoint, I was listening to Marc Maron very early,” says Cabana. “He’d be talking about doing these local shows that he wasn’t getting paid for. He was this poor guy; he’s been in comedy for so long and he’s got nothing coming back to him. A year and a half later, he’s one of the most talked about people in the world of comedy.”
Cabana is hoping for similar results from his own podcast, and he says he’s already starting to see some. “Slowly, because of the podcast, I’m making more money,” he says. “People are buying my stuff, I’m getting booked at shows to wrestle where I’ve never been.”
In addition to stand-up, physical comedy is important to Cabana’s stage persona. Plenty of his wrestling moves verge on slapstick—windmilling his fist like Popeye before punching a guy, or backing up butt-first into the corner. He describes his character as “a happy-go-lucky guy who makes the best out of what he’s doing. He wants to laugh and have a good time at his job, which happens to be fighting dudes in rings.”
In other words, his in-the-ring character isn’t all that different from his out-of-the-ring one.
Cabana came up with his wrestling method partly by studying an old-school British wrestling style known as the World of Sport. “They had this amazing comedic style of wrestling that wasn’t making fun of wrestling, that was adding to the wrestling,” he says. “I developed this character that has a great sense of humor. That started evolving, and I realized people were taking to that.”
It’s a crowd-pleasing wrestling style, but it’s also one that displays Cabana’s devotion to the art and the history of his chosen profession. Cabana considers a match with the 67-year-old Welsh World of Sport star Johnny Kidd to be a career highlight. Only the most feverish American wrestling fans would recognize that name.
Cabana’s comedic expression isn’t limited to his podcasts and wrestling. With comedian Marty DeRosa, Cabana produced online video sketches and a DVD series called $5 Wrestling in which he and DeRosa comment on video of some truly awful local wrestling matches, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style. And Cabana’s documentary The Wrestling Road Diaries, a two-and-a-half hour amble through the east coast and midwest that Cabana sells on his website and hand-to-hand at his merch table, is based on The Comedians of Comedy, a documentary about a group of alternative comedians (including Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifianakis) touring indie-rock clubs. In Road Diaries, Cabana and his friends crash on couches, shop at thrift stores, and generally clown each other whenever possible. If the movie can be said to have a plot at all, then a roadside watermelon-eating contest is a key plot point. It’s a weirdly absorbing, absolutely entertaining viewing experience.
The Logan Square Auditorium show is hosted by Chikara, a Philadelphia company known for its colorful costumes and characters. Grapplers wrestle under cartoonish lucha libre masks, posters and DVD covers boast comic-book graphics, and ring announcer Gavin Loudspeaker opens the show with a song about this being Chikara’s first time in Chicago in three years. Chikara makes a point to be family friendly, and fans comply by chanting “holy poop!” instead of “holy shit!” after the more spectacular moves. Chikara’s version of pro wrestling would be right at home in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Cabana fits in beautifully.
In the opening match, Cabana wrestles as his masked Matt Classic alter ego. Matt Classic is essentially an inside joke for wrestling fans, a 1950s-style grappler beamed into the present. His move set consists of slow-paced, outdated maneuvers (abdominal stretches, airplane spins), and Loudspeaker introduces him as being “from the smoky arenas of yesteryear.” The character gives Cabana a chance to impersonate a noir-era tough guy, and he does it with theatrical verve.
In Chikara, Classic is part of a group called the Throwbacks. He teams up with Sugar Dunkerton, an Afroed 70s-style basketball player (at one point, he repeatedly dribbles an opponent’s head into the canvas), and Dasher Hatfield, an old-timey baseball-themed character with a mustache painted onto his mask (he runs around the ring’s corners, slides into an opponent’s face, and argues with the ref over whether or not he was safe). The trio takes on the Batiri, a demonically face-painted team who look and act like what might have happened if a Norwegian black-metal band played villains on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
The Batiri end up winning, but it doesn’t much matter. The entire point of an opening match is to get the crowd riled up, and this crowd loses its shit for everything Matt Classic does. Cabana is beloved among Chicago’s indy wrestling fans, and it’s not just because of the podcast. He’s been wrestling in front of these folks for a long, long time.
Colt Cabana’s first wrestling match was 13 years ago. Growing up in the well-off Chicago suburb of Deerfield, he never entertained any other career path.
“I had to go to college because my parents made me, but all I wanted to do was wrestle,” he says. “I figured if I did go to college that I should play college football because [announcer] Jim Ross talks about it on WWE television; that seems like something that you need on your résumé.”
After a year of studying and playing Division 1A football at Western Michigan University, Cabana was miserable; football interested him way less than wrestling. So he started training at Steel Domain, a Chicago wrestling school, balancing those studies with his course work. Twice a week for three years, he made the two-hour drive from Kalamazoo to Chicago and then back again.
During his time at Steel Domain, Cabana met and bonded with another student, C.M. Punk. “He’s a punk-rock kid with tattoos all over him who knew everything about the music scene,” says Cabana. “I was this Jewish kid from the suburbs. He always would joke that we’d never be friends in high school. But the love of wrestling brought us together”
E-mailing from a WWE tour of Australia, Punk recalls their early days training together: “I was guarded around him because he was a total jock. The rate he picked up anything he was taught almost made me jealous, but I realized this guy was just like me. He loved wrestling. He wanted it as bad as I did, and the wacky odd couple of independent wrestling emerged.”
Cabana eventually graduated college with a marketing degree. But during most of his time in school, Cabana was traveling with Punk to small-time wrestling shows throughout the midwest. He’d cram in his entire class schedule between Tuesday and Thursday so that he could wrestle on the weekends and rest up on Mondays.
“We’d meet up at ten in the morning at the Jewel in Calumet,” Cabana remembers. “We’d drive down seven hours to Kentucky, wrestle our match, make friends with the guys in the locker room, and the promoter would give us our gas money so we could get back. Maybe we’d make ten bucks.”
While Cabana was still in college, he and Punk linked up with Ring of Honor, a Philadelphia-based wrestling start-up that employed many of the best independent wrestlers from across the country. Between Ring of Honor and other small-time companies, Punk and Cabana were eventually able to make enough money wrestling to scrape by without day jobs. They’d travel around to high-school gyms or rec centers, wrestling against each other, or wrestling together as a tag team. Then, in 2005, Punk signed with the WWE.
“I’d always hear about these other assholes that were football players or who just didn’t do what we did, and they’d get signed and make a lot of money,” Cabana says. “I knew the heart that we put into it, and the sacrifice. When I heard that people like me were going to make a lot of money and be successful, I was ecstatic. Even when [Punk] was World Champion and I was wherever I was, there was never any jealousy.”
A few years later, Cabana would get his own shot with the company, but things wouldn’t go so well. After signing with the WWE in 2007, Cabana spent two years in the company’s developmental system, first in Kentucky and then in Tampa. There, he’d wrestle four times a week and work with the company’s trainer. But as far as Cabana can tell, the developmental system wasn’t there to make wrestlers better; it was to keep them on retainer until a WWE writer could find a role for them. “I was just another guy in their system,” he remembers. “It was a very negative vibe. You start doubting everything about yourself as a wrestler. All the confidence you ever had gets beaten out of you.”
To make things worse, he was making less money in developmental than he’d been getting on the independent circuit. “I was investing in my future. I said, ‘I’m going to take the hit on money here because I know I’m doing the right thing. In four years, I’m going to be on global television. I’m going to be a big star.'”
That didn’t happen. The WWE creative team, it turned out, wasn’t sure what to do with Cabana. They inexplicably gave him the name Scotty Goldman, and he didn’t last long. “I don’t look like [WWE star] John Cena,” he says. “I don’t have these giant muscles. But I do have a natural charisma. Wrestling needs to be different, and I have a way different style than all these guys. I wasn’t given a chance to shine like that. So next thing you know, I get four matches, I lose all of them, I get thrown out of battle royals, and I get fired.”
After wrestling on WWE television a grand total of six times, Cabana was released from his contract. The very next day, he wrestled for the independent California company Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. “Those first few months were depressing,” Cabana remembers. “I grew up watching the WWF; it’s all I wanted to do. They told me that I wasn’t good enough. Me knowing that that was a lie—that I just didn’t get the right opportunity—was fucking heartbreaking. I had to move back with my parents. It was awful.”
Via e-mail, Punk calls Cabana’s treatment in the WWE “tragic.”
“At times, I think the people who love wrestling are punished. He’s a guy that would and could do anything. For anybody to say, ‘We have nothing for you’ to him is laughable. I speak my mind. Our system is broken, and the proof is letting a talent of Colt’s caliber slip through the cracks.”
That was two years ago. Once Cabana reacclimated himself to the indy circuit, he rebooted his career and rediscovered the joy of it. “I’ve made more money now than I’ve ever made before,” he says. “I’ve wrestled more than I’ve ever wrestled before. My creativity levels are as high as they could be. [I’m] 31 years old, two years out from being fired by the WWE—where most people would’ve given it up. I’m at the peak of my career in my mind.”
Something else recently happened to boost Cabana’s profile. Three nights after the Logan Square Auditorium show, Punk ended an episode of Monday Night Raw with a furious rant, packed with insider references, about everything that’s wrong with the WWE, slamming WWE chairman Vince McMahon and his family and verbally reducing the entire company to smoking rubble. For wrestling fans, it was an electric moment that quickly built into the most absorbing and unpredictable pro wrestling storyline in years.
Midway through the rant, Punk talked about winning the championship and leaving WWE with it. “Maybe I’ll go defend it in New Japan Pro Wrestling,” he fumed. “Maybe I’ll go back to Ring of Honor.” Then he turned to the camera, waving and half-smiling, and said, “Hey Colt Cabana, how you doing?” Within a few minutes, Cabana was trending on Twitter. Within a week, he was selling “Hey Colt Cabana, how you doing?” T-shirts.
“Having the platform to say things on live television would be a total waste if I wasn’t trying to help my friends,” Punk says. “It’d be one thing if he sucked, but he’s a goldmine. I believe everybody needs to witness his brilliance.”
Sitting outside Bucktown-Wicker Park Library two days after that episode of Raw, Cabana marvels at the effect of those six words: “There’s a lot of people who weren’t exposed to me before that will be exposed to me now. It’s not like I went out and bought a Porsche. My apartment’s still messy, and I still own a bicycle. It’s all still the same. But it’s cool to know that there’s going to be some more people that know who I am.”
The shout-out didn’t stop there. In subsequent weeks, Punk kept mentioning Cabana in his wild-eyed rants against the company. And when Punk won the WWE title from John Cena on July 17 at Chicago’s Allstate Arena and, in an inspired storytelling twist, took the belt with him as he “quit” the company—Cabana was sitting in the front row. When Cabana’s face appeared onscreen during the match—Punk had paused in the action long enough to high-five him—the crowd chanted Cabana’s name.
All of this has led to rampant online speculation that Cabana will re-sign with the WWE. For now, though, he’s is still on the road, wrestling at least a couple of times a week. “My goal is to go back to WWE,” Cabana says. “I’d like to be successful and get a real opportunity. But the reason I’m doing podcasts and comedy and trying everything out is that I just can’t wait for them to say, ‘Hey Colt, we like you now’—which a lot of wrestlers do. They wrestle, but they’re not making moves; they’re just hoping they’ll be picked. I can’t afford to do that.”
“I’m extremely proud of him,” says Punk. “Fired on a Friday, booked on Saturday. He hustles like nobody else I know. I honestly can’t say I’d have the stomach for it after making it to the WWE. However, it boils down to his love of wrestling. It’s his art. It’s his livelihood. He’s proven to be a talent that can transcend wrestling.”
Back at Logan Square Auditorium, Cabana wrestles a second match later in the night under his usual moniker. He takes on a hulking, shaved-head brawler named Eddie Kingston, and the crowd is completely behind him from the moment he makes his entrance. After a hard-fought match, though, he eventually succumbs to Kingston’s finishing move, the visibly brutal “Spinning Backfist.” Emerging from the locker room a few minutes after the match ends, still in his spandex, Cabana looks legitimately shaken, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s actually hurt or he’s still selling the move—or a combination of the two. “He got the best of me,” Cabana mutters.
Then it’s back to selling DVDs and autographed 8 x 10s. As the evening ends, many of the Chikara wrestlers, in full regalia, line the narrow stairway to shake the hand of every departing fan. It’s a dizzying sight—all these guys dressed like comic-book superheroes, humbly and directly thanking the people who just dropped $20 to watch them perform. Cabana, however, isn’t among them. He still has T-shirts to sell.