Variety and independence a necessity for Colt Cabana

No matter the venue or assignment, it's all smiles from Colt Cabana. RING OF HONOR / James Musselwhite

Colt Cabana, a native of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, was driving around the community that he has become so closely identified with. As he moved past Elston and Western Avenues in downtown Chicago, he looked up and had almost forgot that he'd see his own face smiling back at him.

"I mean it's a little surreal. I've been on the billboards for about five years," Cabana told ESPN.com about his Pro Wrestling Tee advertisements throughout the Chicago area. "It's kind of funny. So many weird things I've done in wrestling and in the community of Chicago, I think it's just another fun addition to me in that world. I think it's kind of cool. It's always fun when [people] are like, 'I was just in Chicago, I saw you.' 'You did?' 'Yeah, on the highway.'"

You almost can't blame Cabana for forgetting. After all, there's not much he isn't doing these days.

Cabana is a comedian, podcaster, color commentator, and most recently an author on top of his full-time job as a professional wrestler. While Cabana has a passion for his many endeavors outside the ring, the only reason he pursues them is to help keep his lifelong dream alive.

"In 2003, when I stopped as a teaching assistant [and] I became a full-time pro wrestler, I realized that I couldn't just be a full-time pro wrestler by just making a wrestler's salary," Cabana said. "I needed to supplement it somehow and that was through merchandise and marketing."

Cabana quickly proved himself to be a marketing genius.

He started coming up with fresh merchandise concepts -- vibrant colors, catchy designs, variety of apparel, utilization of comedic elements -- stuff that was unheard of on the independent scene at the time. He was constantly pumping out new T-shirts and DVDs to make extra cash while also helping spread his name.

Just years into his professional career, Cabana was a standout in between the ropes in Ring of Honor's early days alongside prestigious talents such as CM Punk and Chris Hero (NXT's Kassius Ohno). Like Punk did before him and Hero would do after, Cabana decided to leave the independents to sign a developmental deal with WWE in 2007.

Not everything went as planned. Cabana would learn firsthand how WWE viewed independent wrestlers at the time.

"In that era, I was the Ring of Honor tag team champion one night, and then I was losing to Trevor Murdoch on Sunday Night Heat the next night," he said.

WWE looked at independent wrestling much differently in 2007 than it does in 2017.

These days, WWE can pluck talent such as Kevin Owens and Adam Cole from the indies and turn them into stars using more or less the same characters that made them so popular in the first place. But a decade ago, WWE was still relying on their own developmental systems to manufacture stars. Independent wrestlers were viewed as outsiders. That's until the WWE realized the best young talent were all coming from the indies.

"[Independent wrestling] was still looked down upon. It was kind of laughed about," Cabana said. "The WWE, or big time wrestling, didn't really see the independents as a place where talent was groomed. It saw it as a place where the misfits and the untalented went. I think that's what completely changed.

"Because of my era of wrestlers in the 2000s who have gone onto the success they've gone onto -- Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), Chris Hero, Spanky (The Brian Kendrick), Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens -- I think everyone in the wrestling community has realized it is a place where talented people come from, and there should be a spotlight on it because of that reason."

Cabana returned to the indies in 2009 after his WWE release. Just like in 2003, he was looking for ways to make money without the WWE machine.

"When I came back after I got released by the WWE, I was 30 years old and I was like, 'This is all I want to do, so I have to make sure I'm able to make a living,'" Cabana said. "That's when I even pushed harder using the internet and doing the podcast, putting out web series, and really making sure I wasn't lost in some shuffle. I found the key was I didn't want to be pushed out of professional wrestling because I wasn't on television."

Cabana was even more popular across the independents post-WWE than he was during his first go-round. Cabana's comedic in-ring style made his performances memorable to fans, but it was the success of his work outside the ring that made him a household name.

His podcast, "The Art of Wrestling," helped usher in a boom of wrestling podcasts that is still going strong. His relationship with Pro Wrestling Tees, which started in 2010 and led to the company opening a Chicago retail store in October because of demand, has inspired the Young Bucks and the Bullet Club, who have revolutionized the wrestling merchandise game.

Cabana understands better than anyone that in WWE, one man controls your destiny. With the independents, it is the fans that get to decide.

"If you're loved by the wrestling fans, it's because you gained their respect. It's not because of some 'push' from somebody," Cabana said. "The WWE's a different system. There's a roster. There's a team that says, 'We want this guy to be the next star, and we want this guy to be the next star.'

"You could just tell their thought process of who and how they want stars to be, whereas in my world, if the fans cheer for you and ask for you to come back, you come back. If they sit on their hands and start texting during your matches consistently, well then you know it's time to either reinvent or choose a different path."

The fans haven't stopped enjoying Cabana's matches, especially during his standout performance against fellow jokester Toru Yano at Chicago's Global Wars show in October, but that doesn't mean the veteran isn't trying to reinvent himself every day. Most recently he's doing it as a color commentator alongside ROH's lead play-by-play man Ian Riccaboni.

"Who would've thought me doing a podcast for the last seven-and-a-half years that I was kind of training for this role," Cabana said. "I think, not that people were surprised, but once I got in the booth they're like, 'Jesus, Colt's good at this,'"

Riccaboni, who has worked with a rotation of partners since Nigel McGuinness and Steve Corino left for WWE, may have finally found a long-term match.

"Working with Colt has been just an awesome experience for me, and I view him like a big brother," Riccaboni said. "In just under a year together, I've learned so much and have had a great time. We complement one another well and got on the same page quickly. He lets me try things out and is honest enough to tell me when something just didn't land or work the way I had hoped. I lean on him a bit because one of the things I think we both hope to do with ROH broadcasts is to make them as conversational and as welcoming as his podcast is."

Despite his success in the booth, Cabana isn't ready to stay there full-time. He doesn't want to "ever stop wrestling" and his unique approach in the ring lends well to longevity. Cabana looks at someone like Jerry Lawler who is still active on the independent scene in his late 60s and hopes one day be able to do the same. Right now, he's having too much fun to commit himself to any one organization or any one job.

Cabana is the renaissance man of independent wrestling, and he plans to keep it that way.

"I've turned down a couple full-time contracts from a couple different organizations with the idea that they wanted to nail me down and not allow me to wrestle everywhere and anywhere. For me, that's what independent wrestling is all about," Cabana said. "I just like the idea of having all these eggs in different baskets. When I was fired from WWE, I put all my eggs in the WWE basket and then when they fired me, it was just gone. When I did start over, that's when I realized I can't put myself in a place where if one person fires me or one person makes a decision then my career is done. That's where that mindset comes from. I don't want that to happen to me again."