Kamala (James Harris), one of pro wrestling’s greatest characters, died on 8/9/20 after suffering a heat attack related to COVID-19. He was 70.
His wife told Bleacher Report that he tested positive for the virus on 8/5/20 and he was hospitalized from it. He had several major health problems for over a decade which were caused by diabetes. In late 2011, one of his legs was amputated and then his other leg was removed several months later.
Harris began his pro wrestling career in 1978 while working as a truck driver. He wrestled under variations of his real name throughout the southern USA pro wrestling territories like NWA Tri-State for Leroy McGuirk and Bill Watts. While wrestling on tour in Europe in the early 1980s, he was under a new name, “The Mississippi Mauler”. His character gimmick was a wild man brawler.
When he returned to the United States, Memphis pro wrestling promoters Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jerry Jarrett came up with the “Kimala” name and gimmick for him to debut in that territory. The character’s history was that he was supposed to be the former bodyguard of Uganda president Idi Amin turned into a savage “mercenary for hire”.
A very creative video introduction package was filmed on Jerry Jarrett’s farm to make it look like it was actually the jungles of Uganda. It aired on CWA television weeks before his debut in front of fans in order to build up the character as a major “primitive and destructive force” on the horizon for fans and the baby face pro wrestlers to have to contend with.
As time went by, the spelling of his name was changed to Kamala.
Kimala debuted in the CWA in 1982 managed by J.J. Dillon. Dillon claimed to have found him while doing business in Uganda and he brought him to America in hopes that he would destroy Jerry Lawler in the ring once and for all. He won the AWA Southern Title from Lawler in June 1982 while managed by Jimmy Hart.
Kamala would also always be accompanied to the ring by a mysterious masked man named “Friday” who was played by various wrestlers over the years. Friday was billed as his trainer and “handler”, but his role was to be another heel at ringside to interfere in matches to try to help him win.
From 1983 to 1984, Kamala wrestled for Mid-South Wrestling and World Class Championship Wrestling in Texas. The introduction videos would air in those territories before his live debut to make him come off like a huge deal and a “must see” attraction. He feuded with the Von Erichs, Andre the Giant, and Junkyard Dog. He was managed by General Skandor Akbar as part of his Devastation, Inc. heel stable.
Kamala was one of a few people in the history of pro wrestling to bodyslam Andre the Giant well before the WWF’s revisionist history claimed Hulk Hogan was the first to do it at WrestleMania 3.
He made his first appearance in the World Wrestling Federation in 1984 managed by Freddy Blassie and he was once again accompanied by Friday as his handler. He squashed talent enhancement wrestlers, legends, and mid card wrestlers to move up to big feuds with Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. In October 1984, he had the famous steel cage match in Toronto against Andre which saw Andre give him a top rope splash and walk out the cage door for the win.
He left the WWF in December 1984 and bounced around to the AWA, NWA, and internationally in 1985 and early 1986. He feuded with AWA World Champion Rick Martel and Sgt. Slaughter and was again managed by Akbar.
Kamala would return to the WWF in the summer of 1986. This time he was managed by The Wizard (aka King Curtis) and a new handler by the name of Kim Chee with the same masked gimmick as Friday before him. He was booked the same way as in 1984, by making his way up the ladder squashing preliminarily talent before getting title matches against Hulk Hogan. His previous time with the company was never acknowledged.
His nickname was changed for a time to “The Uganda Headhunter.” Sports Review Wrestling caused a stir with parents and conservative groups who weren’t fans of pro wrestling to begin with. The magazine released a photo shopped issue cover with Hulk Hogan’s head on Kamala’s spear to make it look like he was a real headhunter who killed Hogan. People thought the image was too graphic for children to see in stores.
In 1987, the WWF did a storyline where The Wizard made a deal with Mr. Fuji to get the rights to manage Kamala as a way of eventually writing The Wizard out of the company.
Kamala would leave the WWF again in late 1987 over pay issues. He returned to Memphis and World Class in the late 1980s.
In 1991 and 1992, he got a huge push in the USWA and again feuded with Jerry Lawler. He won the USWA Unified World Title on four different occasions (twice over Lawler, and twice over Koko B. Ware). He also appeared in Mexico’s EMLL (now CMLL) and All-Japan Pro Wrestling in the early 1990s.
Kamala came back to the WWF in the summer of 1992. He started out as the usual monster heel wrestler with Harvey Wippleman as his new manager and Kim Chee at his side like always. He feuded with The Undertaker and wasn’t successful in their series of matches.
Months later, the decision was made to turn him baby face. There was an angle where Wippleman and Kim Chee were mistreating him like he was a “useless dumb animal.” Wippleman’s rival manager Slick would intervene and lead WWF TV taping crowds to chant “You Are A Man” at him to break him away from the heels controlling him. It was aimed at children and played for Vince McMahon’s comedy sense of humor. Videos would air with Slick trying to “humanize” Kamala.
He would leave the WWF yet again in late 1993. He went back to being a truck driver but would make occasional appearances working for USWA and other indie groups for extra income.
When WCW tried to recreate the classic WWF era at the start of the Monday Night Wars in 1995, Kamala was brought in as part of Kevin Sullivan’s “Dungeon of Doom” stable to face Hulk Hogan. Hogan got him the job and considered him a friend. WCW was criticized at the time for trying to copy the best of the WWF’s glory years and many of the “Dungeon of Doom” characters were viewed as outdated and unrealistic as pro wrestling was entering into a new generation.
He briefly returned to USWA in 1996 and pretty much retired for a few years afterwards. The WWF would bring him back a few times in the 2000s for guest appearances played for comedy. He wrestled for indie groups during the 2000s and officially retired in 2010 because of his health problems.
Over the past decade, Harris was an outspoken critic of the WWF/WWE. He said they treated him poorly while he worked there. He said he never made a lot of money with them despite Kamala being such a famous character.
Harris said he would come to shows early to get his makeup and gear ready. He claimed the road agents would bully him to move out of spaces that they said were reserved for Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage and other top stars. He said he would often have to change in parking lots.
He said Steve Lombardi (who was Kim Chee under the mask and a WWF road agent), once told him that he found financial records of wrestlers’ pay which showed The Undertaker made $500,000 for SummerSlam 1992 while Kamala was only paid $13,000 for the match.
Harris said he felt Vince McMahon always looked down on him for growing up poor and dropping out of school after 9th grade.
Kamala made a lasting legacy well before Harris’ death yesterday. There were several other promoters and wrestlers inspired to do the same type of gimmick, including Kamala II (aka Uncle Elmer) and The Botswana Beast.
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