WWE is saddened to learn that James Harris, known to WWE fans as Kamala, has passed away at age 70.
Under the frightening face paint of Kamala, the 6-foot-7, 380-pound Harris battled the greatest Superstars in sports-entertainment history, including Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and Andre the Giant.
He terrorized opponents and thrilled audiences in Mid-South, World Class Championship Wrestling, WCW and WWE until 2006. WWE extends its condolences to Harris’ family, friends and fans.
If WWE put online such a short summary of Kamala’s career, it’s because the wrestler worked in so many different places and countries his WWF years represent only a brief moment in a 30+ year career. Nicknamed “The Ugandan Giant”, Kamala portrayed a fearsome and simpleminded Ugandan who wrestled barefoot in war paint and a loincloth and approached the ring wearing an African mask and carrying a spear and shield. James Harris was, in fact, a boy from Mississipi, forced to move to Florida and then Michigan where he met, at 25, wrestler Bobo Brazil. Harris then began training as a wrestler, under Brazil’s friend, “Tiny” Tim Hampton. He moved to Arkansas to continue training.
Harris debuted in 1978 under the ring name “Sugar Bear” Harris. He spent most of his early career in the Southern United States, also using the ring names “Ugly Bear” Harris and “Big” Jim Harris. His first manager was Percy Pringle, better known as Paul Bearer. He won his first championship in NWA Tri-State in 1979, teaming with Oki Shikina to win the NWA Tri-State Tag Team Championship. In 1980, Harris joined Southeastern Championship Wrestling as “Bad News” Harris, winning the NWA Southeastern Heavyweight Championship in 1980.
In 1981, Harris travelled to Europe for seasoning. Following a stint in Germany, he travelled to the United Kingdom, where he wrestled for Joint Promotions as “The Mississippi Mauler”, a character with some similarities to his future Kamala character. In June 1981, he competed in a tournament for the vacant WWA World Heavyweight Championship, losing to Wayne Bridges in the final in Wembley Arena in London.
Harris returned to Senatobia in the United States in 1982 after sustaining a broken ankle. While nearby Memphis, Tennessee, Harris met Continental Wrestling Association promoter Jerry Lawler, who offered him a job. Harris, Lawler and Jerry Jarrett developed a new character for Harris, “Kimala” (later adjusted to “Kamala”), drawing upon ideas for a character originally developed for Harris by The Great Mephisto. The character was a vicious Ugandan headhunter with face and body paint copied from a Frank Frazetta painting. His backstory was that he was a former bodyguard of deposed President of Uganda Idi Amin who had been discovered by J.J. Dillon during an excursion to Africa.
A promotional vignette aired on WMC-TV featuring a spear-wielding Kamala seemingly emerging from a steamy African jungle; the vignette was actually filmed on Jarrett’s farm in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with the steam effect created using dry ice. To establish Kamala as a monstrous character, Jarrett instructed him to wrestle in a brawling style with chops and biting. To preserve kayfabe, Harris wore robes and refused to speak English while in public in Memphis.
Kimala made his debut in the CWA in May 1982 with Dillon as his manager, losing to Lawler by disqualification in a match that sold out the Mid-South Coliseum. In June, he defeated Lawler for the AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship, which he held until August that year. Toward the end of the year, he feuded with the imposter “Kamala II.” In late 1982, Kamala began wrestling for Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling promotion. He was managed by Skandor Akbar and Friday, forming part of Akbar’s villainous Devastation, Inc. stable. In April 1983, he wrestled André the Giant in a highly promoted bout at the Louisiana Superdome. During 1983, he faced The Junkyard Dog in a series of “battle of the monsters” matches.
In March 1983, Kamala debuted in the Dallas, Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion. In October of that year, he challenged Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, losing by disqualification. In the same month, he began a lengthy feud with the Von Erich family, repeatedly facing brothers David, Kerry, and Kevin. In May 1984, he faced The Great Kabuki at the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, a tribute to David, who had died suddenly in February. Kamala continued to appear regularly with WCCW until late-1985.
At the instigation of André the Giant, Kamala debuted in WWF in July 1984. He was managed by Freddie Blassie and a masked “handler” in safari clothing known as “Friday.” In a memorable segment on the television program Tuesday Night Titans, Kamala seemingly devoured a live chicken (with a cutaway shot of feathers flying out of his mouth shown to create the illusion). In August 1984 Kamala challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, wrestling him to a double count-out. In October 1984, he began a series of matches against André the Giant, among them a steel cage match which he lost after André twice sat on his chest. Kamala’s final appearance was in a battle royal in November 1984.
Before coming back to WWF in 1986-1987, Kamala would go on to appear with multiple promotions throughout the United States and Canada. He would defeat Sgt. Slaughter in a “Ugandan Death Match” in April 1985 but lost to in a “Boot Camp” steel cage match in June. He would also wrestle for Jim Crockett Promotions and make his first tour of Japan with All Japan Pro Wrestling. Wrestling as “Giant Kamala”, he formed a tag team with fellow gaijin King Cobra. He made a second tour in February 1986 as “Kimala”. He would also work in the Montreal, Quebec, Canada-based International Wrestling promotion.
In his second run with WWF, he was managed by The Wizard and the masked “handler” Kim Chee. From November 1986 to February 1987, Kamala faced Hulk Hogan in a series of matches for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. In February 1987, Kamala formed a tag team with the “Wild Samoan” Sika. In the same month, he began a feud with Jake Roberts, during which Roberts repeatedly exploited Kamala’s purported fear of snakes. In April 1987, The Wizard sold Kamala’s managerial contract to Mr. Fuji but Kamala abruptly left the WWF in September 1987 over frustrations about his pay.
Kamala returned to World Class Championship Wrestling where he feuded with Kevin Von Erich, Kerry Von Erich and Michael Hayes before the promotion shut down in 1989, and he returned to All Japan with Abdullah the Butcher. From 1990 to 1991 he worked for Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre in Mexico. He lost to Mil Mascaras in a cage match on March 17, 1991. Then he returned to Japan, working for All Japan, W*ING and Super World of Sports into 1992. He then debuted for the Memphis-based United States Wrestling Association (USWA) in 1990, feuding with Jerry Lawler, and winning the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship four times.
Kamala made his second return to WWF on May 9, 1992, with Kim Chee and Harvey Wippleman acting as his managers. In June 1992, he unsuccessfully challenged Randy Savage for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Throughout mid-1992, he wrestled primarily in house shows, with his regular opponents including The Undertaker, Bret Hart, The Texas Tornado, and The Ultimate Warrior. Kamala lost to The Undertaker by disqualification at SummerSlam in August 1992. In November 1992, Kamala lost to The Undertaker at Survivor Series in the first-ever televised casket match.
In January 1993, Kim Chee and Wippleman began mistreating Kamala, leading him to break away from them and align himself with Reverend Slick. Slick set out to “humanize” Kamala, leading to a series of skits in which he introduced him to activities such as ten-pin bowling. Kamala feuded with Kim Chee throughout early 1993. In March 1993, he began a series of matches with Bam Bam Bigelow. He competed primarily at house shows until being released by the WWF that July. After leaving the WWF once more, Harris stepped back from professional wrestling.
At Hulk Hogan’s suggestion, Kamala joined WCW in 1995. He was introduced as part of Kevin Sullivan’s Dungeon of Doom stable, whose goal was to end Hogan’s career. In his first WCW pay-per-view appearance, he defeated “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan at Bash at the Beach. He lost a singles match to Hogan at Clash of the Champions XXXI. He was part of the “Dungeon of Doom” team at Fall Brawl, which lost to Hogan’s team, “The Hulkamaniacs”.
From 1996, he would return to USWA, make some sporadic appearances in WWE from 2004 to 2006, appear at Ring of Honor and TNA. From 1993, Harris wrote, performed, and produced his own music. He wrote over 100 songs. Some discuss his frustration with the working conditions he experienced in the wrestling industry, most notably the low pay. He released his debut album, The Best of Kamala Vol 1, through his official website.
On November 7, 2011, Harris had his left leg amputated below the knee due to complications of high blood pressure and diabetes, a condition he had since 1992, which forced him to retire because he did not accept dialysis treatment. In April 2012, his right leg was also amputated below the knee and a campaign was launched seeking donations to cover his financial needs In 2015, Harris completed his autobiography along with one of his wrestling managers, Kenny Casanova, to help him offset medical costs. Earlier this month, he started to experience complications from his diabetes. He died yesterday complications from diabetes brought on by COVID-19.
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