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The grappler

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 Wicker Park 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."

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