In 2015, independent wrestler Scott Colton (a.k.a. Colt Cabana) will celebrate his 16th year in the wacky world of professional wrestling. He's competed in every corner of the globe, from Japan to India, held myriad titles including the prestigious NWA World Heavyweight Championship and worked, in some capacity, for every promotion of note over the last decade.
But while the likes of Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Cesaro – his comrades of the squared circle for many years – have risen up the ranks of the industry, Colton's time with wrestling's biggest promotion came and went in a flash. So how has his career not only survived, but flourished, since a failed run in WWE?
"I'm a fighter," he says. "I'm a wrestler."
Born in Deerfield, Illinois in 1980, Colton caught the wrestling bug from his father. As a four year old, he watched Andre the Giant get his hair cut during an episode of WWF Championship Wrestling, and remembers growing up during pro wrestling's Golden Age, when larger-than-life characters like Hulk Hogan were lifting the sport to new heights. The loud combination of cartoony characters and high-impact action struck a chord with the young Colton, and he was hooked.
"As I became an adolescent, a lot of the boys who loved wrestling started being told it was stupid and nerdy, and started moving onto girls and stuff," he laughs. "But to me, I always kept that love of wrestling; that appreciation for it."
Colton stuck to his guns. Even at a young age, he would read into the behind-the-scenes workings of a business still operating under the guise of kayfabe, when wrestling's secrets were unknown to the outside world. His inspiration for wanting to get in the ring himself was simple: "If you were a wrestler you were the coolest, and I wasn't a wrestler, so [they] were way cooler than me."
Though he was determined to begin grappling straight out of high school, Colton instead attended college at the behest of his parents, playing football at Western Michigan University ("I thought it'd look good on my resume," he says). After returning home for the summer, he began training at the school formerly known as the Steel Domain in Chicago, under the tutelage of trainers Ace Steel and Danny Dominion. Only in their mid-twenties at the time, Steel and Dominion were a stark contrast to the usual crop of grizzled veterans training the next generation of hopefuls, and their lessons resonated with the idealistic Colton.
"They were big, they were tanned, they were muscular and young, but still knowledgeable," Colton remembers. "I would hear stories about old guys taking people's money or not caring and just sitting around the ring, but I saw that these guys were very hands-on. They were always in the ring because they were still young and hungry. They were great."
And then Colt Cabana was born. Under his new persona, Colton began barnstorming indie events across the country with friend Phillip "CM Punk" Brooks, driving from Detroit to Milwaukee to Minnesota one weekend, Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Louisville the next ("We were young, hungry, stupid and ready to go," Colton laughs). They made waves together in Ring of Honor, first as opponents and then as members of the Second City Saints stable, alongside former mentor Steel. The promotion's wrestling-first focus helped them hone their craft, but the sizeable chip on their shoulders didn't hurt either.
"It was all East Coast and West Coast guys; there weren't any from the Midwest, and we thought it was our job to represent. Both of us learned so much about how to be a wrestler on a bigger platform," Colton says. "We had great matches; we were drawing an audience and making new fans without any heavy promotion and without any real money behind the project. It was just pure passion, blood, sweat and tears. The 'product' was the art of wrestling.
"I loved it. As a kid I fantasized about doing these long trips and sleeping in my car, getting paid nothing. That's all part of being a wrestler," he continues. "A lot of people fantasize about giant arenas and having sex with groupies, but for me, my fantasy was going to these small, dingy places, wrestling for 20 bucks and a hot dog."
In 2005, Punk signed a development deal with Vince McMahon's WWE, and soon after Colton followed in his footsteps. He was assigned to the promotion's developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling, won the Television Championship and was trained by vets like Billy Kidman, Steve Keirn and Tom Prichard. With his unique and varied skill set – Colton was the rare wrestler capable of going 60 minutes for a World Title, bringing the house down with comedy antics or taking it to the extreme in Dog-Collar matches – his future appeared bright. Colton was eventually moved up to the main roster as part of the WWE's SmackDown brand, and there, his problems began.
"I just felt I was thought of as a first-year rookie, which is hard to do as a professional; to go into an environment where you're not treated at a level you think you should be, or at the level you've been treated at going in," Colton says. "I learned so much stuff but there's a little bit of me that will always have a chip on my shoulder from being treated as a young boy when I don't think I was."
Although he had been working as Colt Cabana in OVW, his move to the main roster meant adopting a new persona. Enter Scotty Goldman, a name assigned to him just an hour before his debut on an episode SmackDown where he lost a match in two minutes. At the time, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill were on the rise and proving to be box-office draws, so Colton pitched the idea of making Goldman a nebbishy comedian, but WWE creative didn't run with it. He was released in February 2009, just six months after he debuted.
"It was a big wake-up call to what I'm doing now. Nobody cares as much about you as yourself," Colton says. "I was hoping that somebody was going to be like, 'Scotty Goldman, let's take him to the moon,' but nobody really did. I realized why it's important to be your own boss: you can never fire yourself."
Colton also realized that there was plenty of work for wrestlers outside the WWE sphere, and drawing on his experiences working matches in England's Frontier Wrestling Alliance with CM Punk, he turned his attention back to the indie circuit – he still averages 200 days on the road each year. He also began carving out a sizable niche for himself in the fanatical Internet wrestling community thanks to his podcast The Art of Wrestling, which frequently features wrestling's biggest stars shooting wise about backstage dealings (case in point: his legendary 2014 chat with his good pal, and former WWE mainstay, CM Punk), and his wrestling-based comedy show Five Dollar Wrestling.
Six years after the failed Scotty Goldman experiment, Colton is a bigger star than ever.
"I remember being in England with Punk, thinking 'This would never have happened if it wasn't for the Internet,'" Colton says. "Some guys in England saw my tape from Louisville, Kentucky and we were able to get a trip over the ocean to a different country…My character is a hybrid of so much over the years, and it's still growing, but it has a lot to do with having fun in the ring. I know the importance of comedy in wrestling."
After 16 years on the road, Colton also knows the importance of staying relevant in a business where stars come and go. With his passion, dedication and smarts, he has created a self-sustaining brand without wrestling's giant in his corner. He may not be headlining WrestleMania, but he's still on a journey; still in the trenches on wrestling's front lines. The WWE may not have wanted him, but fans around the world do. And with them in his corner, Colton says his adventure is just beginning.
"I won't let the wrestling industry tell me I'm a failure," he says.