Breaking Kayfabe with Kamala
Jim Harris: The man behind the Ugandan Giant
By STEPHEN LAROCHE -- SLAM! Wrestling
Kamala approaches the ring in March 1993 in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. -- Mark O'Neill, Toronto Sun files
When long-time wrestling fans hear the name Kamala, it often conjures up images of the wild, untamed savage who terrorized his opponents in and out of wrestling rings throughout the world.
However, the man behind the makeup couldn't be more different from the character he portrayed for nearly 20 years.
James Harris, born May 28, 1950 in Senatobia, Mississippi, has kept a relatively low profile in the wrestling world since his last major run with World Championship Wrestling in 1995 as part of the Faces of Fear. Since then, he has worked with independent federations sporadically.
"1993 was the last time I worked with the WWF," Harris told SLAM! Wrestling. "I came home and went back to doing what I did before I started wrestling, which was driving trucks. That's when my good friend [Hulk] Hogan gave me a call and asked if I wanted to come into WCW. I went down for three months, and they didn't give me a contract or anything, and I wanted to start a deal. That was in 1995. That was the last time I worked until April 1 at Wrestlemania
Harris realizes it has been a long time since most fans have seen him in the ring, and explained his decision to appear in the gimmick battle royal.
Kamala and Kim Chee in 1986.
"I know it was a big span there," he said. "Howard Finkel, one of the agents for the WWF, called and asked if I was interested. I said 'why not, I'll give it a try.' It was just for the one-time shot, though."
Interestingly enough, Harris never appeared at a Wrestlemania event during his three stints with the company. He was to appear at Wrestlemania IX against Bam Bam Bigelow, but the match was cancelled prior to the show.
"As long as I worked with the WWF, I was never in a Wrestlemania. I don't know how to describe it. I was glad to be a part of it for once, even though it's after I'm over the hill," he joked. "I was glad to be a part of it and glad they thought enough of me to ask me to be a part of it."
DEBUTED IN 1978
Harris' wrestling career began in 1978 when he made his ring debut in Greenwood, Mississippi. He wrestled throughout the south under a variety of aliases, most notably as Sugar Bear Harris. In the early stages of his career, he briefly held the the Tri-State version of NWA United States Tag Team Title with Oki Shikina in October 1979. Additionally, Harris was set up with his first of many managers, Percy Pringle, better known today as Paul Bearer. With little experience under his belt, he decided that in order to further his career he would wrestle in Europe.
"During that time I really didn't have a name and it was hard to get in anywhere," he explained. "I was in Germany one year, and the English promoter was there and he was interested in me coming to England the next year."
While wrestling in England in 1981, Harris began developping a new character -- the Mississippi Mauler. This persona planted the seeds for later things, he explained.
"I only did that when I was living in London. A lot of people don't know I was painting my face and stuff like that before I came back to the United States. I have pictures of that, too. It was painted just a little different from the way the Kamala image is."
Upon returning to the United States, Harris soon found himself looking for work in the wrestling business once again. As fate would have it, a trip to the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis would change the path of his wrestling career forever.
"When I first came to Memphis after I moved back from England, I went to see a friend of mine about getting some wrestling tights and things from him because my gear hadn't arrived," he said. "When I walked in, Jerry Lawler and the other wrestlers saw me, but they didn't remember me. I wrestled there before, but I had a hat on my head as Sugar Bear Harris. They asked me if I was looking for a job, and I said no. So they asked, 'do you want to work?' and I said yes, but my ankle was broken but it was healing real well. He (Lawler) said, 'well, I tell you what, why don't you give me your phone number and go back home and don't let the fans see you.' It was a real bad house out there that night, really bad. I went back home that night, it was a Monday night, and on that Wednesday they called me to put this Kamala gimmick together. They had live TV in Memphis then, so they showed I was going to wrestle Lawler, with that broken ankle, that Monday night and the house was sold out. When they showed that little gimmick of me in the jungle, it was sold out."
The video promoting Harris' new character was shot in Lawler's backyard. Billed as Kamala the Ugandan Giant, a former bodyguard of Idi Amin, the character played into the American public's distrust of the Ugandan dictator.
"They had never seen anything like that before," he said. "I think I was one of the first to paint my face except Kabuki. They were just amazed by something like me. They didn't know I was a homeboy from right here in Memphis. I've got family there, and they didn't even know it. It didn't take them long to figure out who it was."
The creation of the Kamala character cannot be credited to one person, Harris explained:
"Jerry Lawler helped," he said. "Who really came up with was myself and a guy who's no longer in the business, he used to wrestle as the Great Mephisto. When I was in England, I used to call him and tell him I was going to Africa, which I did go quite a few times, and he told me to get a gimmick and come back to the States and make a whole lot of money. So Lawler and I both came up with Kamala."
After several epic battles with Lawler and briefly holding the Southern Heavyweight Title, Harris began moving around to several different territories with his "handler" Friday, originally portrayed by Buddy Wayne.
"I can't remember whose idea it was at the time, but it was because of my size and they were going with bigger guys at the time," Wayne told SLAM! Wrestling. "They basically had no use for me and they came up with the idea."
Wayne recalled the impact Kamala had on wrestling fans during the three years they worked together throughout the South and how he felt about the character.
"At the time, you never saw anything like it. With the video of him coming out of the jungle, they were ahead of their time back then. At first I thought it was kind of goofy, I mean, who's going to believe this. He was in character so well that for some reason you started to believe it. At first I was very apprehensive, but I needed to keep working"
While in the role of Friday, Wayne had a bit of a scare during one of Harris' matches with Lawler.
"Lawler threw fire one time and it hit me in the face. He threw it at Kamala, and he ducked. I had the mask on, but you could feel the flames burning and it singed my eyebrows."
Wayne, who described Harris as professional, well-liked and a hard worker, gave his impressions of his traveling partner.
"He was very laid back, very easy-going. Kind of like a country boy," he said. "That's how he came across to me. He had a good business head."
One of the strangest feuds in wrestling history also occurred during Harris' time in Memphis. To shake things up, longtime wrestler Stan "Plowboy" Frazier (later known as the WWF's Uncle Elmer) was put in makeup, called himself Kamala II and attacked him after a match. The 600-pounder came into the ring and delivered a crushing legdrop, and in the process, turning Kamala into a babyface for a brief period.
Harris also began to live his public life as Kamala to keep up the image of the character to the fans.
"I worked my gimmick," he said. "People never did see me without my gimmick on. When I walked through the streets every day I wore a long green dress-like thing. I always had my manager with me and I wouldn't speak English to anybody. It was a hard gimmick, but it was a good gimmick."
After working in Memphis, Harris began shuffling between territories in order to keep the gimmick fresh. He seemed to enjoy his time in Mid-South the most as wrestling was beginning to pick up interest on a national level.
"I went to Bill Watts' territory, that was the best territory I had ever been in, including the WWF," he said. "I made the most money with Mid-South. I know that's kind of hard to believe, but that's the way it was."
With his 6'7" frame, it was only a matter of time before Harris would take on the biggest of them all, Andre the Giant
"I was working with the Dog, the Junk Yard Dog
, and we worked a little gimmick where I beat him. Bill Watts was a smart promoter. After I beat all the guys, then they would bring in Andre the Giant."
Harris recalled his matches with Andre, and said there were initially some problems between the two of them in the ring.
"It just drew," he said. "Everywhere was sold out. Everywhere. My first match with Andre the Giant was in 1983, and we got into a little fight the first match. I mean, a real fight! I drove him back into the corner, and I had his lip bleeding. I nailed him because he called me an S.O.B. And when I did that, he called me a dumb S.O.B. and I laid into him. People couldn't believe it. The fans didn't know what was going on."
Despite the brief conflict, the two began to work well together in the ring throughout the south and Andre invited Harris to New York to work with the World Wrestling Federation.
"After that, I had no more problems with Andre," said Harris. "He respected me, and I wrestled him in Mid-South. Then I went on to World Class out of Dallas with the Von Erichs and he came down and we did the same thing there. He said to me 'when you finish up, I want you to come to New York.' So Andre was responsible for me coming to New York. We did real good after that. Andre and I worked really well together."
Now with manager Fred Blassie, Kamala began to terrorize the WWF's top stars and ended his feud with Andre in a steel cage match. As the WWF was expanding its reach to the public, a talk show-styled program called Tuesday Night Titans, Kamala ate a live chicken on television. In actuality, the animal was not harmed due to creative video editing. Harris' wide-eyed stare at the camera with feathers in his beard combined with Vince McMahon's appalled reaction produced one of the most notable moments in WWF history.
Eddie Creatchman and Kamala.
"We did that in Baltimore because they had a thing called Tuesday Night Titans," he recalled. "They brought me up, and I didn't know what we were going to do. They had the chicken there and they told me they wanted to show on TV that I actually ate the chicken. But we made it look good."
After leaving the burgeoning New York territory, Harris appeared with a number of promotions throughout North America, including the Quebec-based IWA. Managed by Eddie 'The Brain' Creatchman
, Canadian fans were treated to numerous appearances by Kamala on television. Harris enjoyed his time in the Montreal area, and was unaware of his former manager's death.
"I really enjoyed that. I'm sorry to hear about that, too," he said. "I think I worked with him just the one time, I don't remember who I wrestled against, but I remember him."
"I used to love coming to Montreal. There's a place there, I can't remember the name, where I used to get smoked turkey and smoked duck. I used to get the whole duck. It was nice."
WORKING WITH HULK
However, the WWF would soon come calling again. This time, Harris was to be groomed for some of the biggest matches of his career against the then-unstoppable Hulk Hogan. He noted how much he enjoyed working with Hogan, and also how he was mistreated by the company.
"Hogan's a sweetheart," he said. "I never worked with many world champions, and he was the only guy that I felt comfortable working with. I could just do what I wanted. We'd still have good matches, I always wanted to have good matches, but he was the easiest guy to work with. More comfortable than Andre, even after he and I had our little run-in. I looked forward to working with him. I didn't make a lot of money, but the money was always there. Vince just wouldn't pay me. I almost needed a second job when I worked for Vince."
Hogan often spoke with Harris during their time working together during one of the biggest feuds of 1986. They had several big matches, including a steel cage bout at Maple Leaf Gardens.
"He used to call me off to the side and say 'look man, we put those butts on the seats.' He said 'get your money. Get your money because I'm getting mine,'" he said. "I went to Vince and had a meeting with him. Vince told me 'if you think you can get more money somewhere else, then you're welcome to go.' That's why I left so many times."
It was also during this run that a young wrestler billed as Jack Foley took on Kamala in a typical squash. Now better known as Mick Foley
, he did his first stretcher job in a match recently shown on the WWF Classics program in Britain.
After the program with Hogan, Harris was shuffled to the side and partnered with Sika, who were both managed by The Wizard (Curtis Iaukea). A short while later, Iaukea left and Mr. Fuji took over as manager. During the second run, Steve Lombardi took on the role as Kimchee, a role he has used ever since whenever necessary. They briefly feuded with Jim Powers and Paul Roma before Harris left once again. He noted that enjoyed working with Sika, and considers him a good friend.
"Sika and I were real good friends," he said. "He and his brother Afa and his other brother took me to the Samoan Islands. Oh man, we had a good time. They took care of me like a brother. I hear a lot from Afa, but I don't hear that much from Sika, but he tells me he's doing really good down in Florida."
SLAM! Wrestling recently spoke with Sika, who currently trains young wrestlers, to get his memories of working with Harris.
"Jim Harris is one of the best business people I've run into," he said. "We worked very hard for Vince. He's a good man, a good friend."
After working in Texas for World Class and feuding with the Von Erichs, Harris kept a relatively low profile in the wrestling world until 1992.
"I did a lot of independent shows and went overseas," he said. "It didn't really take a whole lot for me to live. I never had a house payment and I don't live a big, extravagant life. I don't live a high life. I'm just an old country boy and that's about it."
While working for the USWA in the early '90s, Harris feuded with Lawler and Koko B. Ware and held the promotion's championship on three occasions. It was also during this time that Harris considered suing for merchandising money he felt was owed to him by the WWF for items such as action figures using his image.
"Vince called me himself to come back in 1992," he said. "I know the reason for it. He never did say it, but it was because I had contacted a lawyer and was going to sue Vince for merchandising. From 1987, when the first doll was out, to 1992 when the second doll came out I might have made $30,000 out of all those years. After I had contacted the lawyer, wanted to see all the sales and proof. That's when Vince called me up and asked me about coming back to the WWF. After I went back, my lawyer called me and said 'I see you're back in the WWF, I guess you want to discontinue' and I said yeah, we might as well."
With the decision to return, Harris was thrust into a feud with the Ultimate Warrior.
"I really liked the start of it," he recalled. "I had a little run with the Ultimate Warrior. The Ultimate Warrior had limousines everywhere he went, and it was paid for by the WWF. Steve Lombardi, myself, and Harvey Whippleman had to split a rental car and a motel room. That's how bad it was. Even the Ultimate Warrior told me one time, and I don't know how he knew, he said 'Kamala, I know you aren't making much money. I just don't see how you can do it. Anytime we're booked against each other and we're on the same flight, just hop in the limousine with me. Hell, I don't have to pay for it, the WWF's paying for it. Just jump in with me.' I take my hat off to him."
After the Warrior's departure from the WWF, Harris began a program with one of wrestling's then-rising stars, the Undertaker. The response from fans was often lukewarm, and they fought in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium for the Summer Slam pay-per-view.
"That was my first big match against the Undertaker," he said. "It was alright. I had some pretty fair matches with the Undertaker, but we just didn't have matches like Hogan and I would have. The response wasn't as great."
While the event was successful, Harris believes he was not properly compensated for his participation.
"Another thing I heard was that it grossed 40-million dollars," he said. "The Undertaker made half-a-million dollars, I heard. I made $13,000. It was terrible. I never saw the Undertaker's cheque, and didn't dare ask him how much he made. One night I was in Nassau Coliseum, Steve Lombardi had went in the dressing room and Pat (Patterson
) had left his briefcase open. Steve was browsing through it and we saw the paybook. I know what I made, it said 'Kamala, James Harris, $13,000.' Then I saw 'Undertaker, Summer Slam, a half-million dollars.' It was a big difference, man. It was terrible"
The feud continued to simmer throughout the fall and culminated at Survivor Series with the first-ever casket match. Harris was more than apprehensive about the match.
"I'm afraid of dead people and I'm afraid of caskets," he said. "All of it was an act, but I'm really afraid of a casket. When we did the casket match, I was a little leery about going in it, but that was the plan and I went in anyway. If you notice, during that match I looked at it a lot myself. I didn't like it at all. But once I got in there, I was so tired and so hot I thought I was going to pass out. I just stayed as calm as I could and I was alright."
Kamala as a face working against Irwin R. Shyster (Mike Rotunda) in March 1993 in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. -- Mark O'Neill, Toronto Sun files
In the weeks following the match, an angle was played out where Kamala would be mistreated by Kimchee and manager Harvey Whippleman. Eventually, Kamala would turn on them and align himself with Reverend Slick (Kenneth Johnson) who would attempt to civilize the once-untamable Ugandan Giant. Kamala's ring mannerisms changed greatly, and this is especially evident on the commercial videotape "Invasion of the Bodyslammers" where he appears in a bizarre match with Doink the Clown, a battle royal and is taught how to bowl. Harris was displeased about the face turn, but realized he truly had no say in the matter if he wanted to continue working with the WWF.
"It was all done by Vince," he said. "Vince would call me and ask me what I'd like to change and what I'd like to do. The only thing you could say is 'yes, I'll do it,' because if you said no, then you're fired anyway. So we didn't have much of choice. I didn't like it at all, especially when they turned me babyface," he said. "I didn't like it but I couldn't leave because the little money I was making, Vince was taking 15 per cent of it out. He told me if I happened to leave before the contract was up, my money was gone. I don't know if they did that to anybody else back then or not."
Despite the mistreatment by the WWF, Harris does not have any regrets.
"No, as far as being a part of the biggest organization in the world, I'm proud to tell people I worked for the WWF," he said. "The only regrets I have is that I didn't get paid. Most of the guys I worked with throughout my run with the WWF are all wealthy guys. They're all good guys, they're doing good. I'm the only one who had to file bankruptcy. I have a home, my home is paid for, I did pay cash for it but it didn't come through the WWF. It came through Bill Watts. I ended up having to drive a truck and all that kind of stuff. I've never been a drunk or a drug user or have any bad habits, so I didn't throw any money away. I just didn't make any."