Most people remember James “Kamala” Harris for his elaborate African-themed costume, mask, and body paint. But behind all that gimmickry was a working man who grew up the son of sharecroppers in Mississippi, a man who labored on farms, rooftops, behind the wheel of a truck, and, most famously, in the wrestling ring. He depended on his body to pay his bills, yet was rarely paid what he was worth. And in his later years, this massive, powerful body betrayed him, with diabetes costing him both legs by 2012, and a respiratory infection leading to cardiac arrest and death on Sunday at age 70.
Kamala’s performances as the “Ugandan Giant” lit up main event marquees throughout the 1980s, but he weathered life’s trials and tribulations as an African American man. He faced extreme poverty from the start. In his autobiography, Kamala Speaks, he recounts growing up in a small shack on a cotton plantation. His father, Jesse Harris, was killed after winning the pot in a dice game. Police in Mississippi did nothing, and the murder was unsolved. “A black man’s life in this time wasn’t worth the hassle,” Kamala wrote. “A Black death didn’t matter … at this time, and it was even more unimportant when all the parties involved were Black.”
Kamala and his five siblings relocated to another town in Mississippi after his mother remarried. The whole family worked to farm a small patch of land, and there Kamala encountered his first challenges with payouts. “The man with the money was always a white man, who would pay the bills up front” for the family and then pay out any earnings above those expenses at the end of harvest season. That meant Harris and his family were usually paid little to nothing. “Farmers were like wrestling promoters,” Kamala wrote. “They never seemed to make any money they could spread around, no matter how much they made.”
When he started playing football in the eighth and ninth grade, he excelled, earning the nickname “Sugar Bear,” a moniker he would carry through to the early part of his wrestling career. But off the field, when it came to fighting, he always lost, because he thought fighting back would make him seem like a bully. Unless, that is, he lost his temper, at which point he would throttle whoever was annoying him, something that would remain constant throughout his career. “You didn’t want to make him mad,” remembers Koko B. Ware, who wrestled and shared hotel rooms with Kamala during their time in the WWE. “He was a really powerful guy.”
Kamala ran with a tough crowd during his high school years, and fell into petty thievery. After he broke into a house and stole $10 in cash, a white police officer urged him to leave town: “I don’t know if he would have done it himself, but people were predicting I was the next Black to mysteriously disappear.”
Faced with that threat, Kamala left high school in 1968 and made his way to Lake Worth, Florida, where he picked fruits and vegetables for a modest hourly wage, rather than the measly seasonal payoff his sharecropper parents received. He showed initiative and wound up in the packing facility, where he served as the muscle, lifting the heaviest crates, and also filled in as a delivery driver when needed, a skill that would come in handy later in life. He hadn’t watched wrestling before, but began attending promoter Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling From Florida shows, where he observed the likes of African American star Thunderbolt Patterson, whose oratory abilities drew fans to the arenas, and a young Dusty Rhodes, whose memorable delivery borrowed heavily from African American jive talk. Although Kamala’s character would never speak at all, he absorbed plenty from studying these performances.
After earning enough money to buy a car, a coworker explained he could use it to find new job opportunities outside of fruit picking and packing. He moved into construction work, and then into roofing. He relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan, to live with his sister in 1970. Her boyfriend worked as a truck driver, and taught Kamala about that trade, but he also did something that changed Kamala’s life forever: He showed Kamala where Bobo Brazil lived.
Bobo Brazil, a 6-foot-6 bruiser famed for his “coco butt” headbutt, was among the most famous Black wrestlers in the world in 1970, main-eventing or co-main-eventing shows at the largest arenas. He also happened to be a native of Benton Harbor. Kamala’s sister’s boyfriend knew Kamala enjoyed the wrestling he saw in Florida, and took Kamala to meet the superstar. Bobo’s wife directed the pair to “Tiny” Tim Hampton, another gigantic Black wrestler at 6-foot-5, who took a shine to Kamala and convinced Bobo to help train him.
Kamala was the perfect project for these two men, who taught him the classic “big man” style of the era, but didn’t “smarten him up” to wrestling matches being predetermined. In his younger days, the future “Ugandan Giant,” like other novice grapplers, entered the ring thinking he was in a real fight. But even though he could handle the bumps and falls of training with two of his era’s top big men, he hated how cold Michigan was. That led him down first to Arkansas, and then to Memphis, where he learned from veteran wrestler Mario Galento the skills that helped define his later career. “He taught me how to sell a move to make the fans really believe that something hurt when it didn’t,” he wrote. “And he taught me how to be vicious in the ring and look mean when I needed to.” Galento also showed Kamala why it was better to work as the bad guy, since it meant he could control the match and slowly fire up the crowd for the good guy’s comeback, and Kamala rarely if ever worked as a “face.”
Kamala came into his own in 1978 as a big brawler in Mississippi under the tutelage of Frankie “The Great Mephisto” Cain, who told him to reuse the “Sugar Bear” nickname from his football days. B. Brian Blair, veteran wrestler and president of wrestling’s Cauliflower Alley Club, remembers wrestling Harris in a match in Leroy McGuirk’s Tri-State Wrestling territory. “We wrestled in front of a sold-out house in Springfield, Missouri, in 1979,” Blair tells me. “I was so impressed that a man that big could hit a dropkick. And he looked so mean in there, like he could tear someone’s head off if they even looked crossways at him.”
In 1982, the part of Kamala’s career most of us know about really began. In spite of his work in territories and around the world—he had wrestled in Mexico, England, and Germany—he wasn’t making enough money, the leitmotif of his career, and he was nursing a foot injury, another recurring theme. Now back in the U.S. and living in Memphis, he decided to go down to the Mid-South Coliseum to see if a friend of his could get him a look from local promoter Jerry Jarrett and local legend Jerry “the King” Lawler.
Lawler’s feud with comedian Andy Kauffman, profitable and entertaining as it was, had run its course, and the star needed a new opponent. He had actually employed Kamala before, in opening matches, but didn’t recognize him and asked if he was a wrestler. After initially sending Kamala on his way, Lawler called him back and told him he wanted him to perform as a monster, not a wrestler.
Lawler, a skilled artist, envisioned Kamala as a headhunting cannibal. According to Kamala, the inspiration came from an illustration of “a frightened guy and a girl all surrounded by cannibals” by Frank Frazetta, best known for drawing barbarians and busty maidens. Lawler sketched some face and body paint patterns for Kamala, an innovation that Kamala believes made him the first domestic wrestler to paint his face on a recurring basis, well before the Road Warriors, Powers of Pain, Missing Link, Sting, or the Ultimate Warrior.
Kamala says Lawler worried that the big wrestler would be offended by the gimmick, given that he was Black. But Kamala saw it differently: The paint would hide his face and make him believable. He would be able to conceal himself behind the paint and convey the image of a cannibal in front of the audience. Kamala had himself experimented with various “African savage” gimmicks in England at the urging of Frankie Cain, but he didn’t buy in completely until Lawler’s pitch in 1982. The pair went to Jarrett’s farm and a star was not only born but drawn on Kamala’s chest, with a moon over his stomach. A leopard-skin cloth was tied around his waist, one of Jarrett’s wife’s hoop earrings pressed into his nose, and a huge tribal mask and spear from one of Jarrett’s African wrestling tours were added to complete the package.
“I howled, I slapped my belly, I became the monster,” he wrote. “This wild Ugandan animal was a very different beast than the Sugar Bear.” He didn’t see it as “selling out his race,” since he “would not be poking fun of African ancestors. … This was acting, ‘being something you were not.’”
Lawler put Kamala over in a big way, not just letting the “Ugandan Giant” brutalize him with chops but actually cut him open, before letting Kamala win the Southern Heavyweight Championship that was practically “the King’s” personal property. “I rubbed the blood all over my face and mouth and made it look like I was eating flesh,” Kamala wrote. “I rubbed my tummy and people screamed.”
Kamala was given a masked handler dressed in safari clothes, later known as “Friday” or “Kim Chee” (and played by several different wrestlers), who would rough up his monstrous charge during the matches to make him angrier. Lawler had to appear on the card or at the arena every night because he was still doing Kamala’s body paint himself. As they built toward their blow-off match, Kamala realized how Lawler was profiting from the gimmick. In retrospect, the Kamala gimmick is plainly offensive—it was questionable at the time, and frankly that was part of the point. Although not racist himself, he wrote, Lawler “knew just how to tap the racist background of Memphis fans to sell more tickets.” And Kamala wanted to make money too, so he would give his blessing to jokes like being bribed with watermelons. At one point, Lawler even threatened to “wet [Kamala’s] big lips and stick him to that wall over there.” “Racist humor didn’t bother me,” Kamala explained, but “racist promoters who wanted to pay you less because you were Black” did.
After finally losing to Lawler, Kamala wound up in a silly feud with Stan “Ploughboy” Frazier, a behemoth white man who would square off against “Kimala” as “Kimala II,” (the alternate spelling was used for the bulk of Kamala’s early career) a white Ugandan cannibal and a gimmick that called to mind the massive white bruiser One Man Gang’s subsequent transformation in WWE to the soul-dancing “Akeem, the African Dream.”
From there, he went to work for “Cowboy” Bill Watts in Mid-South Wrestling, during which time he began working with manager Skandor Akbar, a Texas-born ex-wrestler who portrayed a rich Middle Eastern sheik. Watts enjoyed his greatest success through the use of Black talent. He developed the careers of top Black baby faces like the Junkyard Dog in Mid-South, and later ensured that former Florida State All-American football player Ron Simmons became the first Black man to win the WCW World Title. And Kamala, playing the part of a cannibalistic African heel, earned his biggest paydays under Watts as well. His run in Mid-South—which saw him working against many top talents in Jim Duggan, Ted DiBiase, and Steve “Dr. Death” Williams—enabled him to buy his mother a house and put aside some money of his own.
During his time in Mid-South, Kamala wrestled a few matches with Andre the Giant, developing some memorable heat with the even-larger big man. During their first match, Andre the Giant suffocated the “Ugandan Giant” after he messed up a spot. So Kamala, who had long ago learned how to handle himself, had this then-girlfriend sew a pocket inside the black wrestling trunks he wore under his leopard-skin wrap, in which he hid a tiny 22-caliber pistol, which he later replaced with a pocket knife he would keep there for another 15 years, even after Andre died. In his second match with Andre the Giant, Kamala messed up another spot and the Giant hit the ground—something that wasn’t ever supposed to happen—and he called Kamala a racial slur. After hearing that, Kamala wrote that he “backed [Andre] into the turnbuckle and beat the giant hotel shit out of him,” then hurried out of the arena after their match to avoid a confrontation with Andre in the locker room. The day after that, when they were sharing a locker room in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Kamala pulled his .357 magnum out of his gym bag, put it in his pocket, and approached Andre. He put his left hand in the Giant’s face and told him never to call him that name again. After noticing the gun, Andre confessed that “I don’t t’ink, sometimes,” to which Kamala responded, “Well, motherfucker, you better get to thinking from now on.” The remainder of the matches they wrestled, like Kamala’s matches with the similarly chagrined “Ploughboy” Frazier, went smoothly.
Watts didn’t want to “burn out” Kamala, so he got him booked in Fritz Von Erich’s territory in 1983 to allow some time away from the Mid-South crowds. There he got to work with old friend Skandor Akbar and his masked handler Friday, among others, and helped draw record crowds to the Dallas Sportatorium. He also changed his face-painting style around this time, noting that he never liked the fact that “I was a creative guy, but didn’t have much of a hand in my own gimmick.” He also changed the spelling from Kimala to Kamala, a switch that remained permanent aside from the many typos in magazines and on programs.
Kamala was headlining in monster stables, and Dallas was his biggest bad-guy team-up yet. He partnered with the villains in Akbar’s “Devastation Inc.” stable and then with the various bad guys managed by “H&H Limited,” a pairing of managers Gary Hart and Arman Hussian. Kamala had known Hussian for some time, and took a page from his book: The veteran Hussian always maintained, until his dying day, that he was from Sudan, despite being from the U.S. Kenny Casanova, the coauthor of Kamala’s autobiography, says Kamala “protected the character so much that after shows he went straight back to the hotel. … He didn’t go out with the boys, he stayed in his room eating takeout, and nobody ever saw the ‘Ugandan Giant’ doing stuff like you and me.”
Kamala’s exit from the Dallas territory came down to simple economics, like so many of his later moves. During one of his last weeks with Fritz Von Erich’s promotion, he learned that the two popular white female valets, Precious and Sunshine, were paid $4,000 each for one match. Kamala earned $4,000 for the entire week, for seven shows—$550 a match. He left the territory without notice.
Kamala joined the WWF for the first time in 1984. Vincent K. McMahon, a.k.a “Vince Jr.,” was taking the company nationwide, and cartoonish, larger-than-life gimmicks like Kamala’s cannibalistic savage factored into that plan in a big way. For a taping of McMahon’s late-night talk show-styled Tuesday Night Titans, Kamala filmed a vignette eating a live chicken, putting it up to his mouth just before the camera cut to another scene of him with feathers all over his face. During this run, he feuded with Andre the Giant, disappointing the boys in the back because he and Andre had gentle, safe matches, rather than ones in which “Andre would often beat the piss out of some opponents … [because] he was drunk.” After selling out arenas around the circuit, Andre pinned Kamala in a steel cage with one of his many signature moves: He sat on Kamala’s chest.
Even with such high-profile billing, he believed the WWE was underpaying him, after travel and other expenses were accounted for. The 1984 expansion saw McMahon leveraged to the hilt, and many wrestlers weren’t getting as much as they had expected. And so Kamala hit the road yet again, with no notice, running through both Jim Crockett Promotions and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association in 1985. He got good payoffs at first, but they always dwindled. And the attempted hail-mary collaboration between JCP and the AWA, first at the so-called SuperClash at Comiskey Park, when Kamala went against 5-foot-9, 400-plus-pound “Crusher” Blackwell in a bodyslam match and then at 1986’s WrestleRock ’86 event in a losing title challenge against AWA champ Sgt. Slaughter, came to naught.
1986, though, was Kamala’s greatest year. Kamala received a call from Andre, letting him know that Vince McMahon would be bringing him back to wrestle Hulk Hogan. Thanks in large part to Hogan’s efforts, the WWF was a good deal more profitable than it had been two years earlier. They didn’t headline a pay-per-view, but their feud lasted several months and drew well, culminating in a steel cage blow-off match at Maple Leaf Gardens. “Hogan would have wrestled Kamala forever if he could have,” says Koko B. Ware, who had joined the WWE in 1986 as well and accompanied the “Ugandan Giant” on the road. “Hogan didn’t want to get hurt in the ring, and Kamala was a night off. He was gentle and easy to work with.”
Hogan also tried to give Kamala some bargaining advice, telling Kamala before one of his matches to look at the size of the crowd and to make sure Vince McMahon paid him appropriately. “Get your money because I’m getting mine,” Kamala wrote that Hogan told him. Kamala requested a meeting with McMahon, at which McMahon made Kamala wait while taking a phone call and eating tuna. After Kamala had laid out the reasons for why he should be paid more, McMahon told him to leave the promotion if he found another company willing to pay him that.
Kamala, who has always been forthcoming about finances in a sport in which many past stars tend to exaggerate their earnings, noted how unfair the structure was. At his peak, he would get $5,000 for wrestling Hogan in Madison Square Garden, $4,000 for doing the same in Philadelphia, $2,500 in DC, and then $200 or $300 a night on other evenings for defeating enhancement wrestlers. But once Hogan moved out of the picture, those major paydays dwindled, and he was earning $2,500 a week, then $1,500. The WWE traveled a lot in those days, and expenses were on him, so at $1,500 he was close to losing money. By the end, he wrote, “I started sleeping in the rental car just to save money.” He didn’t wrestle at one of the first three WrestleMania events, but did receive a tiny “standby” payment for waiting in the back at WrestleMania III, the most lucrative gate in the company’s history.
After leaving the WWE in 1987, he took some independent bookings before returning for a run in Jerry Lawler’s Memphis-based United States Wrestling Association promotion, which ran major shows in both Memphis and Dallas, where it now occupied the space once filled by Fritz Von Erich’s territory. There, Lawler and Kamala re-created their earlier feud, also involving Kamala’s traveling partner Koko B. Ware, by now his best friend in the business. He also seethed with rage at the thought of Vince McMahon never properly paying him royalties on the memorable 1987 LJN action figure line, for which his likeness had been used.
“James didn’t like to be messed over by promoters,” Koko B. Ware tells me. “He was always arguing about how unfair it was that he was paid one amount to be in a match, and the other guy was getting a different amount. Why did they get different amounts if they were in the same match? When you think about it, he was right. He believed in fairness.”
By 1992, Kamala’s Memphis run had wound down and he was driving a truck part time, one of many skills—like farm labor and construction work—he turned to during leaner times. Returning from one of his runs, he received an answering-machine message from Vince McMahon, beckoning him back to the WWE. He reckoned that the return would at least carry with it a few months of big payoffs, and perhaps even a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Working with manager Harvey Wippleman and, under the mask as his handler, sometime–”Brooklyn Brawler” Steve Lombardi, he worked some early matches against the Ultimate Warrior. Unlike some others, Kamala had a good experience with the Warrior, who let him ride with him in WWE-subsidized limousines and cabs and encouraged him to ask for more money.
The highlight of Kamala’s 1992 run was a big SummerSlam pay-per-view match at Wembley Stadium in London against the Undertaker, a three-minute disqualification loss that served as the second-to-last match on the card. Kamala reported being paid $13,000 for this event, which grossed tens of millions. The Undertaker, he learned from Steve Lombardi, had apparently received half a million dollars. “Being a Black man that grew up when I did, maybe I look at the world differently,” he wrote. “My mind kept going back to the ‘men are equal, but some men are more equal than others’ mindset.” Was it, he asked after evaluating other reasons like merchandise sales and not playing politics, “because I was Black?” He also thought about how, to the best of his recollection during all of his stints in the WWE, the company would buy occasional first-class plane tickets for white wrestlers but never for him, despite his height and ample girth.
Kamala’s third run in the WWE came to a close in 1993 with a good-guy turn that eventually led to him jobbing to most of the up-and-coming wrestlers. But it also coincided with a series of misfortunes that would dog him in later years: His sister Hester and niece Shandra were killed by Hester’s husband George, who then attempted to kill himself. By 1994, Harris was back behind the wheel of his truck, putting his commercial driver’s license to use, and even made a delivery to Madison Square Garden, during which he had a brief interaction with Vince McMahon while the forklift removed six pallets off his truck. Even as McMahon patted him on the shoulder, he didn’t recognize Harris.
He got a final major run in WCW as part of “Taskmaster” Kevin Sullivan’s Dungeon of Doom stable, alongside former Hulk Hogan friends and enemies such as the Zodiac (Ed Leslie, who wrestled as Brutus Beefcake in the WWF) and the Shark (John Tenta, who feuded with Hogan as Earthquake). Sullivan’s specialty was freakish stables, and he knew what Kamala brought to the table. Kamala knew what WCW brought to the table as well: $500 per appearance, though he got bumped up to $800 to wrestle Hulk Hogan at Clash of Champions XXXI. Kamala talked Bischoff into raising his regular rate to $800 after that, but he got fewer dates, and he refused to let Hogan intercede on his behalf. Sullivan told Kamala in later years that if he had lingered in the WCW for a bit longer, he might have landed a sweetheart guaranteed deal. Kamala didn’t; he went back to the truck.
In his receding years, Kamala made nostalgia appearances for the WWE, and the company gave him a “Legends Deal” that paid him money up front that he never recouped from royalties on merchandising like subsequently released action figures.
Worse still, his health deteriorated markedly in the late 2000s. He had always wrestled barefoot, and began experiencing intense pain in his feet. He kept developing sores and blisters on his feet, leading to amputations first of his toes, then his left foot, and finally, in 2011, his left leg. Before he could come to terms with that loss, his right leg developed similar symptoms, and, in 2012, after six total operations, he lost the right leg too. A man who once hadn’t been able to stop working, and who valued being able to stroll around his small rural property, was now unable to walk.
“When I saw how he was stuck with the manual wheelchair they gave him, how it kept him from getting around as much as he’d like, I bought him a power wheelchair,” Koko B. Ware tells me. “He was my brother, and I was blessed to be able to do that for him. But things kept getting worse for him. He had kidney issues and started up with dialysis, he had a heart issue and they gave him a pacemaker. He kept fighting. We thought we were going to lose him this past December, but he kept going.”
During this time, the bills piled up, and Kamala tried to work on ways to pay them off. Like other wrestlers, he wrote a book. Fans chipped in what they could by way of donations. And, when Kamala was faced with issues related to back taxes and mortgage payments, the Cauliflower Alley Club, the fraternal organization for ex-wrestlers, raised money to pay off his mortgage and resolve his tax issues. “He was so grateful for that,” Blair says. “He was such a positive person. I was just looking through hundreds of text messages he has sent me, and he always found a way to express his appreciation for the help he received.”
Kamala’s end, Koko B. Ware tells me, occurred amid the isolating conditions mandated by hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. “He had a sick spell come on, and his wife took him to the emergency room, and then she was separated from him, talking to the doctor just through a cell phone. That kind of thing worries the devil out of you. She’s out in the lobby, waiting for hours, and then she thinks she’s just going to call James. But the doctor calls her, and says they’ve done all they can do. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s heartbreaking, how that happened.”
“He worked his whole life,” Ware continues. “Everything was about doing the work. He learned how to apply his own paint until he had it just perfect. He tried to be real safe in the ring. He always wanted to take care of his money, didn’t party or mess around. He was just real good to everybody, always upbeat, even when life wasn’t real good to him.”
Kamala, in other words, was a special kind of trailblazer: He came from nothing, from the absolute bottom in the American South of the 1950s, and he always stood on his own two feet, even long after he couldn’t stand anymore.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.