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Inside The Surprising DIY Empire Of Colt Cabana

Born Scott Colton, he’s now a rather ripped professional wrestler, podcaster, and an indie comedy favorite. Here’s how Colt Cabana wins.

Inside The Surprising DIY Empire Of Colt Cabana

The statement was as succinct as it was brutal. Like a folding chair to the noodle.

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And there it was, right on the WWE’s website: “World Wrestling Entertainment has come to terms on the release of SmackDown Superstar Scotty Goldman (Scott Colton) as of February 20, 2009. WWE wishes Scott the best in all future endeavors.”

Ouch.

The brief, painful statement informed the world of the firing of newcomer Scotty Goldman–aka Scott Colton, aka Colt Cabana, aka Officer Colt Cabana, aka Matt Classic.

Colt Cabana

Cabana’s career as a “Superstar” had barely even begun, but the WWE had already made the ambitious young grappler a loser on at least two levels: The entertainment company behemoth had scripted him to lose his few matches, and it also made him a loser because it had no idea what to do with him. WWE’s treatment of him reflected that fatal lack of understanding. It did not understand Cabana’s gifts and appeal, which would become increasingly apparent to everyone other than WWE kingpin Vince McMahon in subsequent years.

Being fired was a powerful motivator for Cabana, who says of his relationship with WWE, “I almost see it as friendly competition, except they don’t know they’re competing against me. It’s not just WWE, it’s anyone who looked at me or my body of work and laughed at the idea that I could make money or be successful in wrestling. For years my motivation was to show them how good I was doing, so they’d ask me back and admit they were wrong.”

And that’s where things get interesting.

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Soon after Cabana’s WWE career ended, the wrestler found himself sampling life’s temptations that were off the table: Specifically, he indulged in entire large pizzas and nondiet sodas. When that got old, Cabana started to listen to a bunch of podcasts, and set about re-creating himself professionally in the unsparing shadow of his failure as a WWE wrestler.

The first step? Transforming a negative into a positive by turning his stint in the WWE into a self-deprecating joke. Looking back on this time, Cabana remembers, “I used comedy as a defense mechanism. I had one of the worst WWE runs ever. The same thing has happened to others, and those wrestlers disappear from the scene.”

For Cabana, that wasn’t an option.

“I hit it head on. One of the first things I did was go on a standup comedy tour with [wrestler] Mick Foley, where a lot of my act was making fun of how bad the character Scotty Goldman was, and how awful I was in the WWE.”

Photo: Flickr user John Jewell

The wrestler found inspiration in the professional reinvention of another man who flamed out dramatically after considerable early promise: Marc Maron, whose WTF podcast helped inspire Cabana to create The Art of Wrestling, his very own “life podcast” delving into the lives, careers, and philosophies of professional wrestlers with the depth Maron’s podcast explores the world of comedians.

The podcast was a slow-growing success. When Cabana began, podcasting was still a sparsely populated Wild West, especially where wrestling was concerned. So Cabana was able to work out the kinks and develop his voice under the radar. In those early days, Cabana could never have imagined that one of his future problems would be an episode of being too popular.

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But today, The Art Of Wrestling regularly averages about 75,000 downloads per episode, with episodes featuring more prominent wrestlers often eclipsing six-figure downloads and, in one case, reaching into the millions of listeners.

Instead of being a baby-oiled cog in McMahon’s giant machine, Cabana angled to become a one-man industry whose career combined the old and new in fascinating, innovative ways. As a true independent, Cabana takes the DIY aesthetic to near pathological extremes. He doesn’t just volunteer to autograph pretty much everything he sells that can be autographed–from an impressive assortment of T-shirts and hoodies to posters to headbands, buttons, DVDs, and cards–he says on his website that he also packages and ships every order himself.

According to Cabana, a third of his income comes from performing, a third from podcasting, and a third from merchandise sales. Cabana began aggressively pushing his merchandise himself because he had to: In 2003, the $50 to $100 Cabana might make for a match wasn’t going to pay the bills or support even his modest lifestyle, but selling merchandise had the potential to make his wrestling dream a commercially viable reality. Even today, when Cabana wrestles around the world and has hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and podcast fans, he remains committed to an aggressively DIY aesthetic.

“I’m my own everything,” Cabana says. “Agent, manager, booker, promoter, everything. I rush home from a tour of Japan to sit and fulfill orders. I’ve built this thing all up myself that I just don’t want anyone else messing with. It might be the downfall of everything, but when I get something done, I feel productive, and I feel like I’m earning every single dollar I make.”

Escaping WWE’s control gave Cabana the freedom to re-create his career however he saw fit. He has partnered with standup comedian Marty DeRosa for a series of projects including Worst Promo Ever, a web series that spoofs wrestling promotions while simultaneously promoting the wrestler’s actual dates around the country and the globe. Cabana and DeRosa work well together: a wrestler geekily obsessed with comedy and a talented standup comedian obsessed with wrestling.

Thanks in no small part to Cabana, this is an interesting cultural moment for the marriage of comedy and wrestling. One of the summer’s most talked about comic performances was delivered by John Cena in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. Meanwhile, lifelong wrestling fan Jon Stewart recently made headlines by hosting WWE’s Summer Slam, even indulging in a villainous “heel turn” against hero Cena.

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“I’ve learned more from Colt than I have from most comedians I’ve worked with,” DeRosa says. “First and foremost, I learned about what it truly means to hustle. I don’t know anyone that works harder than Colt. It really makes you look in the mirror and say to yourself that you can and should be doing more. It’s contagious.”

Cabana and DeRosa have also worked together on the web sketch comedy series Creative Has Nothing For You and on 5 Dollar Wrestling, which brings Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s cheeky commentary treatment to the world of wrestling.

Maron has opened other doors for Cabana. After appearing on WTF, Cabana performed on IFC’s Maron along with close friend CM Punk, who came up with Cabana and became one of WWE’s biggest and most controversial stars. He has continually spoken out about what he sees as the dysfunction, sycophancy, and cowardice plaguing the WWE–and he’s done it on WWE broadcasts, nonetheless, in a move reminiscent of the times David Letterman harangued his own network for perceived failings.

Punk now plays a big role in Cabana’s story. He was a guest on The Art of Wrestling after being fired from the WWE–on his wedding day.

With nothing left to lose, Punk doused his world with kerosene and proceeded to burn every conceivable bridge by laying bare all his problems with the WWE. Punk held nothing back, even revealing the worst-kept secret in media: Professional wrestling is fake.

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The Punk episode proved so popular that The Art Of Wrestling’s servers weren’t able to handle the demand. It’s been listened to more than 3 million times.

But the podcast, as popular as it was, also generated problems for Cabana.

Of his podcast’s most popular episode, Cabana concedes, “Honestly, it might have hurt more than it helped. The initial platform crashed, and I lost all my subscribers and had to regain them all. People still tweet me and ask why I stopped podcasting. When you hear [Marc] Maron thanking me on his podcast with Obama, it’s because him and [WTF producer] Brendan [McDonald] reached out to me to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to them.”

It’s a sign of the times: A neurotic comedian was consulting with a professional wrestler on how best to handle the technical demands of broadcasting a one-on-one conversation he was conducting with the president of the United States.

Cabana links worlds. He’s a bridge between WWE and independents. He’s a gateway into wrestling for comedy fans who might have heard him on WTF or Sklarbro Country or seen him on Maron and are intrigued by his larger-than-life personality, even if they have been conditioned to see wrestling as a pastime of the unwashed masses. Wrestling is at the core of Cabana’s career, but part of his success lies in his ability to make wrestling accessible to a wide range of audiences.

Similarly, Cabana serves as a conduit between the insane world of Insane Clown Posse, the infamous, malevolent clown-themed Detroit horrorcore music duo notorious for the decadence of its yearly Gathering of the Juggalos Festival, where Cabana regularly performs, and the rest of the galaxy.

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“I got to know them and see how they started this empire without anyone,” Cabana says of his union with the self-styled “world’s most hated band.” “They didn’t need a machine to help them, they just became their own machine. I knew I wanted to be my own machine. So much of that was influenced by ICP.”

It’s easy to see why Cabana is such a beloved figure. He has the rare quality of being at once incredibly savvy in how he handles his career while at the same time being wholly sincere. He takes what he’s doing seriously, whether it’s the audio quality on his podcast or catering his performance to a specific audience, all while not taking himself too seriously. Cabana’s boyishly exuberant persona is a perpetual reminder that wrestling–and show business–is supposed to be fun.

Until his body gives up, Cabana will continue to wrestle, whether it’s at the Gathering of the Juggalos, a match in a town that’s barely on the map, or halfway around the world. He’s a social media and podcasting juggernaut with over 200,000 Twitter followers who also happens to honor the traditions of wrestling, plying his curious trade one show at a time for the love of the art form–and making some cash in the process.

Cabana realizes how remarkable his still-young journey has been.

“I’ve wrestled at a fat camp, I’ve wrestled on dirt roads in India, I’ve wrestled for the Inuits. I come from a well-off Jewish suburb in Chicago, and these experiences are ones I cherish. It’s opened my eyes to the real world, and I will always be grateful for that.”

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