Few performers are more synonymous with independent professional wrestling than Colt Cabana. Fewer still are more innovative. The 36-year-old Chicago native was among the first wrestlers to develop a blueprint for making the independent hustle into a viable business. Later, he was on the forefront of the podcast boom that's seen names like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Chris Jericho and Ric Flair follow suit. Along the way, he's made three documentaries about professional wrestling.
But perhaps his greatest contribution is stylistic. For the better part of the last 15 years, Cabana has dedicated his career to marrying grappling with comedy, and growing comedy wrestling from a niche into a staple on the American independent circuit. He recently released Wrestling Road Diaries 3: Funny Equals Money, in which Cabana traveled the country with two other prominent comedy wrestlers – Japan's Kikutaro and Scotland's Grado – to discuss the growth of comedy wrestling.
VICE Sports spoke to Cabana about the genre, his influences, performance psychology and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE Sports: Comedy wrestling in its current form has really taken off in the last several years. Who were your influences when you began to practice this style and what influences were there to draw on?
Colt Cabana: Years ago, Kikutaro and Kushinbo Kamen, there's clips of them doing slow motion wrestling in 1999. Almost to an extent, Osaka Pro Wrestling was one of the originators of having this weird comedy style of wrestling. All these offshoots that came out of All Japan and New Japan when they started breaking away—groups like Michinoku Pro and Osaka Pro, where Kikutaro came from. That was one of my first experiences of really seeing something different like that, very early for me in wrestling.
That wasn't really for me at the time, but when it really started clicking for me is when I went over to England in 2004 and I lived there for three months. I started watching a lot of the old British tapes. At the time, there wasn't really any YouTube or anything. I'm always very loud about two guys who I consider my biggest influences – one guy named Les Kellett and one guy named Catweazle. To sum it up a little bit, the British style of wrestling in the 60s and 70s was very serious, and these guys were comedy wrestlers. But they were doing it in the style of serious wrestling and people still believed they were wrestling. There was something about the way they did it where they were still taken seriously within the context of wrestling. Every match you watched of them, they were getting these huge applause breaks for laughs and jokes within their wrestling matches.
You've said it before yourself: 17-year-old Colt Cabana, when he was dreaming of becoming a pro wrestler, did not imagine this being his path.
Not at all (laughs)
So you saw these guys and appreciated what they did, but when did you make the connection that their style of wrestling can—and should—become something for you to emulate instead of just appreciating as a fan?
I would say that my wrestling skills had gotten me to Ring of Honor when it kind of started, and Ring of Honor at that time was based off [of featuring] the very top independent top unsigned wrestlers. [CM] Punk and I were kind of chosen as the Midwest guys. So my wrestling itself stood out and you see very quickly in a lot of those early Ring of Honor shows that I realized, in order to stand out with all of these guys, I need to do something different. That's when I started putting a lot of personality and character into it. So I would add humor and character and personality, but it wasn't until I really started studying these guys that I almost made the full switch into that kind of persona or genre of what you see in the documentary.
You're born and raised in Chicago, one of the great American cities for comedy. And I know you love standup. Did that have an influence on your in-ring work, too?
There was a point where I was pretty obsessed with comedy and I hadn't really equated equated it to wrestling. This is probably the early 2000s. But I just loved it, right? The first time I ever saw Demetri Martin's half hour on Comedy Central Presents. He had the easel and he would do drawing jokes and he would do guitar jokes—he would add so many different elements. That was kind of the first time where I was like, 'He's a performer and he's taking the idea of standup comedy, and he's taking that wherever he wants to that he thinks is funny. But it's still within the guise of comedy.' That's when I kind of realized that, as a wrestler, I'll be in wrestling but I can do whatever I want and it will still be within the guise of professional wrestling. That's when I kind of started of realizing the similarities between standup comedians and just artists in general to professional wrestlers. When I started studying—not even studying, but finding these different people like Flight of the Conchords, Howard Kremer, Demetri Martin, these personalities who would take standup in different directions. It kind of made me a little more free as a wrestler when I realized that.
There's such a huge potential overlap between physical comedy and professional wrestling. There are so many ways, once you started expanding your mind to the possibilities the way you did, it seems like it could be endless.
Endless, and I didn't think that way until these influences kind of hit me. I agree—once I started expanding my mind, you're able to play with it in so many ways in so different directions. Now, 10 years, 12 years, 15 years later, we see all these weird Lucha VaVoom shows and Chikara, just all these things that are playing with the genre of pro wrestling in totally different ways.
There are a lot of different ways to deploy comedy within a match. You, in the documentary, said you gravitate toward shorter bits. What would be an example of one of those?
I do this one where I do an arm ringer, and he does an arm ringer, and then we just start trading arm ringers really fast. I have this way of doing it where I can get the people to 'Boo' and 'Yay' – Boo!– Yay!– Boo!– Yay! – and then I'll flip him at the very end. It's kind of setup and then right to the punch line. That's kind of an example of a thirty second, one minute thing. If it works, it works; great, and I still have the crowd and we can move onto the next thing. If it doesn't, fine, we'll move onto the next thing and I haven't drawn something out for seven minutes.
If you're trying to tease out the pro wrestling version of 'The Aristocrats' and it falls totally flat, the match is over.
We've wasted all that time, yeah.
How much of what you do are set pieces like that versus being able to read and react off the crowd, and improvising accordingly?
I'd say I'm 50-50. I have my bits and I'll kind of tell my opponent, 'This is something I like to do. This is something I'll do' and maybe even put it in an order. But I always know I get some of my best stuff from improv, so I always want to have that window open and I make sure to tell my opponent, 'Hey, this isn't a script we're nailed to. I want to make sure we're able to move around. It's a lesson I learned for myself because I was having more fun and doing more memorable stuff from the moments that weren't called beforehand than the ones that were. I always make sure to keep it as part of the plan that I want to go outside of the box. I think I say in the movie that the fans give us presents—I want to make sure I see a situation that's happening and address it, and make sure I don't ignore it... I look at the crowd almost like a fourth member—me, my opponent, the referee is the third and then the crowd is almost like a fourth participant out there.
Cabana in his younger days. WikiMedia Commons
There seems to be this tension that comes with the audience, in that you want them to be vocal participants but not so vocal that they go into business for themselves. What is the right balance and what is the role of the audience in the performance?
Ideally, it's 'cheer for the good guy and boo the bad guy.' I think that's what we, as performers, want and I think it's the same thing as the director making a movie. You make those moments where you want somebody to cry and you're directing them to laugh or you're directing them to feel vulnerable or scared. Nobody wants the director, if they're doing a horrifying moment where it's supposed to be scary, to see someone laughing. As wrestlers, we're also producing our own match and directing our own match. Obviously, we're trying to invoke them to cheer when they're supposed to cheer and boo when they're supposed to boo and laugh when they're supposed to laugh and feel sympathy when they need sympathy and horror when there's horror. That kind of stuff. It's the same idea.
Crowds have certainly evolved over the years, though. 15 to 20 years ago, it was a lot easier to get those crowds to cheer on the side of the moral divide you intend them to. Now, you have guys like John Cena, who gets booed as a face.
I think there's a point where it became a bit challenging but I think now, at least for the shows I enjoy doing and the demographic I like, I think it's easier because... everybody knows what it is. The fans and the demographic I like playing to, it's almost like they know their role. 40 years ago, people were like 'I'm here to check out and let my emotions flow, I had a hard day at work, I just want to check out.' Now, they come here and they go 'I want to check myself out and play a role. I'm here to boo the baddies and cheer the goodies.' As opposed to when they thought this was all real, 40 or 50 years ago. It's started to go to that point the last five years, and that's kind of almost what I'd attribute to the quote– unquote 'Independent wrestling boom.' We're not treating the fans like they're assholes anymore. We're happy to let them play their role and we let them know that we need them in order to be in the show.
Is that the most difficult part of being in the ring, constantly working off of and engaging the crowd mid–match?
I mean, it's all difficult (laughs)
Oh, of course. But it seems like it's one level just being in the ring with your opponent. Then, especially for you, since so much of what you do plays off the audience, staying cognizant of them and reacting as the match is going on is another level of performance.
Yes, and if I'm coaching or doing seminars, I tell people that you need to be at the point where you're using your face, you're using your moves, you're listening to the crowd and you're one step ahead. It takes years to do that. Luckily, at this stage of my career, I'm comfortable with that and I can do that. But it's very difficult, of course, and it can't be taught. It's only from experience. It's not hard for me only because I've been at the job for a long time.
How long did it take for you to develop that comfort level? And how deep into your career were you when you grasped that it was getting easier?
It comes in stages. I think 10 years in, I was like 'Well, I've got it all figured out.' Then, 15 years in, it was '10 years in, I don't know if I had it all. but now I do.' Three years later, it's at a different point. For me, I always knew how important having a lot of matches and wrestling a lot was, and that's why I've always tried to keep the busiest schedule possible. I've always tried to take international tours. And I've always tried to have as much work as possible, because it's Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours or whatever. You need to put in the time to get it done. It just doesn't happen by watching tape or training. It needs to be done on the job and that's kind of where it comes from.
You've said you enjoy being, in a sense, the wrestling gateway drug. Somebody goes to their first show, they're going to find you accessible and fun, and that leads them to want to learn more about pro wrestling.
Accessible, yes, but also different. The fan's friend, who doesn't know anything about wrestling, will only know about WWE and I like to think, when they see me, they say, 'This is nothing like WWE,' because maybe that's what has turned them off for years. I've showed them a different side of wrestling: my world, the independent world, the underground world that's so different. That's what I think the indie scene not only has to capitalize on but champion, that we are the complete alternative. Not like the alternative if you can't get a ticket to WWE. The idea that this is a weird of wrestling, it's very weird, it's very fringe and you can be that person who has always heard about weird underground stuff and just never knew about it—well, here, we're inviting you and you can be a part of it. In 10 years, those guys that you thought were amazing will be big, huge stars. I like to think that I'm able to show that side right away to a new fan, so as the fans who come to these shows for 10 years are a little bit jaded or maybe I'm not the flavor of the month in their eyes, I've been on the indie scene for so long, I have to tell myself to stop worrying about getting the smart, smart, smart fans and make sure I get the new fans to help this world.
You started doing this in 2004. Now, there's an entire genre of comedy wrestlers here in the United States. When did you start seeing the ecosystem grow into an actual scene versus something only a handful of people were doing here?
I would say in the last five years or so. I think as people start sharing GIFs and start sharing information on the Internet... a lot of the time will be a funny moment. I think maybe wrestlers or maybe people now see this as a value, that, hey, if we do something weird or funny or silly, maybe it will get picked up by the bigger sphere of wrestling Twitter or wrestling Instagram or whatever. I think that may have had a lot to do with the movement that way. Because on the other side of it, some of the other things that go viral as gifs or memes, there's the comedy stuff, there's the hardcore stuff and there's the unbelievable, acrobatic kind of stuff. [High flyers] like Ricochet, [Will] Ospreay, [Matt] Sydal, they're so talented, not everybody can do that; there's only a handful of people who can do that or look at that and say, 'I can do that.' The hardcore stuff, a lot of people are like, 'I have no interest in that.' Sometimes the comedy stuff, I think the people get it in their head like 'Maybe that is something I can possibly go towards.'
As someone who has been on the forefront of comedy wrestling, what do you think the future of it is?
I think the wrestling fans will always support it. There will always be an audience for it. But my personal challenge or struggle, as it would be, would really get the comedy world to understand and accept what we're doing as just as much a part of the genre as any other type of comedy. I think with the right backing or the right person or the right company, that's why it's always so DIY and independent—we're always doing it ourselves. I don't doubt that if an IFC or a Comedy Central or an FX or whatever—if the right person got behind the right thing and presented it the right way to not even try to get wrestling fans but cater to comedy fans, I could see it becoming a thing in the pop culture zeitgeist to where it's not even pro wrestling, but its own wrestling. I think a company like Lucha VaVoom has been trying to do it for years and we see how popular it is. They sell out eight shows a year, two thousand people every show at the Mayan, hipster heaven—there's people from all walks of life. Sometimes I think if that got the right look, it would be a presentation of wrestling on television or the internet or whatever in a completely different light.
So the battle isn't whether wrestling can accept comedy, but whether comedy can accept wrestling.
Yes, and I think when people who love comedy see it— I do the Fringe Festival every year in August, and I'll bring the comedians to the shows and they fall in love. I've been doing it four years and more and more people are coming to these shows. But if it wasn't for me, they weren't going to come to these shows and know about this weird world and this weird wrestling show that was going on. It's almost like we need 10,000 mes to tell 10,000 people in the comedy world
But within wrestling, where can it go? I think you're definitely right that it will always have a place on the card, but it almost feels like there's been a glass ceiling. The comedy match is there, but only in a certain role and only with so many stakes.
I go back and forth on it. I do think we use comedy as a tool to gain sympathy and to be loved by the crowd. You can use that love and transfer it to kind of main event matches. It's almost like the comedy match has the place on the card and it is where it is and I agree, that's where it is. But you can use that to get a guy over, and then shift him to maybe some of the bigger matches. I've done main event matches and I change my to the situation accordingly... but it's not my favorite. I like doing comedy wrestling, and I do think you can use it as a vehicle to help people become stars within a company, and then maybe shift them over to the spotlight. Now, can you do a comedy match in the main of a big Pay Per View? I don't know. I would love that and maybe in a perfect promoting situation you could, but I do think it kind of has to be a higher stakes match and you don't do as much comedy.
Well, to that point, I was in Dallas at the show when you returned to Ring of Honor, and what struck me was your promo essentially being about how you were more than just the funny guy. The program was great, but do you think there can be a time where a wrestler like you can play the funny guy while working the main event?
It's the ultimate puzzle. When I came back to ROH, I didn't do comedy [for a while] because I knew my place was in this kind of high– profile thing with Jay Lethal that didn't call for it. In a perfect world, I would have been cracking jokes the whole time.