Remembering Kamala: A Wrestling Monster with the Heart of a Legend

I started watching wrestling in November of 1987. It was really popular among many of the boys going to my school, but my parents kind of pushed back on me watching it. After I got several wrestling action figures from friends on my birthday of that year, I convinced my mom to allow me to watch it at least once so I could see some of my toys in action. Little did my mom know that the first episode would get me hooked and I'd watch wrestling on a weekly basis for the next decade and a half.

I became obsessed with wrestling. I would loyally watch the WWF every Saturday, and sometimes even watch other wrestling promotions if WWF wasn't on (in Ontario you would also get AWA, Jim Crockett Promotions that would later become WCW, Stampede Wrestling, All-Star Wrestling in Vancouver and maybe a few others). I'd buy the wrestling magazines, but also read any back issues that I could find. I would rent wrestling tapes that were both current and older. I wanted to know what happened in wrestling before I started watching it and that allowed me to discover many wrestlers that weren't on WWF TV at the time.

Kamala had left the WWF about a month before I started watching it. But at the time Hostess potato chips has WWF stickers that came with their snack bags, and since the stickers were selected and printed in the spring, one of the stickers had Kamala on it. So, even though I had never seen him wrestle, I was very aware of Kamala and I was absolutely fascinated by him.

In 2020, and to be fair even in the 1980s it SHOULD have been the case, a black man depicting a savage cannibal from deepest, darkest Africa is problematic. As a kid who always had a loved monsters, there was something fascinating about this behemoth who came to the ring wearing a giant monstrous mask and armed with a spear and shield, and who had white war-paint on his face and a half moon and stars painted on his body. He looked ferocious and terrifying, and I remember asking my friends, who had been watching WWF before me, what Kamala was like. Every one of them agreed that he was one of the scariest wrestlers they'd ever seen and almost no one could beat him. I was told he would slap his belly as a pre-match ritual, which was a sign his opponent was about to get demolished. They'd tell me about how this 400 pounder would jump off the top rope with a splash to defeat his opponent and the opponent would always go out on a stretcher after. I kept hoping that someday this monster of a man would return to the WWF.

I've since watched his matches from that time period in the WWF, and the top rope splash is impressive, and they did a great job of creating this aura of an unbeatable menace. In the WWF at the time, it was about larger than life personalities and also about creating these unbeatable monsters that needed to be slayed by the hero, Hulk Hogan. WWF had one of the best over-the-top monsters at the time in Kamala.

Kamala was a huge draw in the 1980s and was always a headliner wherever he worked. His most notable runs in the 1980s, besides the WWF ,were Bill Watt's Mid South Wrestling, Continental Wrestling Association in the Tennessee area and the Texas based World Class Championship Wrestling (he challenged for each promotions top titles in all those areas). 

The man behind the face paint was James Harris and he got his start in professional wrestling as 'Sugar Bear' Harris and The Mississippi Mauler where he wrestled mostly in territories in the southern States. His big break was when Jerry Lawler brought him to the CWA and came up with the idea of him being a savage Ugandan headhunter that was once the bodyguard for deposed Ugandan president Idi Amin (who less historical folks that still loves movies may know from the biopic The Last King of Scotland where Forrest Whitaker played him). They shot a series of vignettes that introduced the Kamala character by showing him emerging from the mists in an African jungle and hunting various prey with his giant spear, which was actuality filmed in CWA owner Jerry Jarrett's farm.

The intimidating monster of a man instantly took off in CWA where he headlined many times with top draw and hometown hero Lawler. He would then be Kamala for the rest of his wrestling career that would last for three decades and in the 1980s he came into almost every promotion as a headliner where he would challenge the top babyfaces and be the monster heel that needed to conquered. He even won a few titles along the way, so that the hero would need to come back from the defeat with the support of the fans.

He had three major runs in the WWF (now WWE), but his most significant one went from September 1986 to October 1987. He debuted on WWF Superstar of Wrestling in September 1987 managed by the Wizard (King Curtis Iakeau) who was a retired wrestler that had his own reputation as a monster heel and as well, Kamal was escorted by his masked 'handler' Kim Chee. He had several major house show main events with then WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan, who was indisputably the biggest wrestling star in North America at the time (some can argue he is the biggest ever). The main events were some of the biggest drawing gates of the year and they broke some record in some arenas, so Kamala was clearly an opponent audiences wanted to see challenge Hogan and they saw him as a threat that could take the title.

The impressive thing about Kamala drawing so well against Hogan is that there was no angle or storyline shot on the main TV shows that set-up the series of  matches. They just ran local insert interviews to hype up the main event, and then usually had a disputed finish to set-up a rematch in that arena for the next month (house shows were the lifeblood back then, and they often returned to the big arenas on an almost monthly basis). 

Hulk Hogan's biggest match of 1987 was obviously against Andre the Giant at the legendary Wrestlemania 3 where they sold-out Pontiac Silverdome. Andre was in bad shape at the time and after that match, he did not wrestle again until the first Survivor Series that November. The WWF may have dropped the ball in making even more money by doing an angle on TV after Wrestlemania where Kamala laid out Hogan with the dreaded top rope splash to set-up a series of matches over the summer to keep up the crowd after the super successful Wrestlemania 3.

Instead, Kamala wasn't even on the Wrestlemania 3 card after proving to be a main event draw against Hogan. There are reports at the time he was originally scheduled to wrestling 'Hacksaw' Jim Duggan, but Duggan had not debuted yet when they announced the full card. Back then, they liked having the full Pay-Per-View cards set weeks in advanced to hype them up properly, and the belief was that the match would be hard to market to their fans if they did not even know who Duggan was yet, so it was scrapped before ever being announced on TV. Kamala was then stuck in a tag team with The Wild Samoan Sika where they were managed by Mr. Fuji until  Kamala quit over pay and being told he was going to lose on Saturday Night's Main Event to Hulk Hogan (my guess, is he saw the writing on the wall and knew a loss to Hogan on national TV signaled the end of any possible main event push going forward).

I finally got to see Kamala in 1992 when we he returned to the WWF along with his handler Kim Chee and this time managed by Harvey Whippleman. The character this time had been modified a bit where he no longer defeated his opponents with a top rope splash, and he has suddenly forgot how to pin opponents properly despite him having no problem doing it in the 1980s, even during his previous WWF run. He was a bit more of a goofball this time around maybe to appeal more to kids (rather than frighten them), but Kamala proved that he was just as capable at being comic relief as he was at being threatening, and often he could do both on the same night. His feud with the Undertaker at the time was memorable not only for him being a monster out to destroy the Undertaker, but also for his over-the-top fearful reactions to whenever a coffin was brought to the ring that made him jump around the ring in a comedic fashion.

They tried to turn Kamala into a lovable simpleton babyface after his feud with the Undertaker and it never really worked. I wouldn't say it was the fault of Kamala as he threw himself fully into this new character. He then left the national spotlight for a few years before going to WCW in 1995 to be a monster heel again as part of the Dungeon of Doom, a cartoonish stable of giant monster wrestlers seeking to destroy Hulk Hogan. It also didn't really work, but I was happy to see Kamala again, even if it was an attempt to relive the glory days of the 1980s.

I saw a segment from 1987 where then manager The Wizard declared that Kamala was a cast-off from his own people, which I think was an attempt to avoid the gimmick being seen as a racist caricature. I can still understand if people were bothered by it, but wrestling also has a history of demented and crazy characters. Kamala was supposed to be seen more like an anomaly of the human race who was this insane monster of a man much like white characters George 'The Animal' Steele and The Berzerker. They were the fringes of society that can only function properly if they were tearing someone apart in the wrestling ring.

James Harris was an imposing figure with lots of charisma and surprising agility for his size. He was never going to pull off the classic pure wrestling match, but he was great at the big monster brawl style match. He knew how to embody unique character and I don't think there were many other wrestlers that could have done it as well. The proof of that is there were many Kamala clones over the years, and even a Kamala II, but most of them never got to the main event level or are even remembered today. 

I'll always have a soft spot for the Kamala character. I loved monsters as a kid, and my favourite part of the Star Wars series when I was younger was at Jabba the Hutt's palace, because it was full of unique and freaky creatures. I'm also drawn to things that are bizarre and a bit frightening. Kamala pulled off being a real-life monster in the world of wrestling. There are only a few monster-like wrestlers that were more successful like Mankind and The Undertaker, but any wrestling fan would also agree that I just mentioned two of the most legendary wrestlers and gimmicks. Kamala was in that type of company.

Everything I read points to James Harris, being a humble, compassionate and kind man. He also seemed proud of the character and legacy he created. Every wrestler seemed to like him, and his passing brought on an outpouring of affection from many in the industry. He was a legend both in the ring and out. I will definitely miss him, and I'll do a sincere slap of my belly as tribute.

RIP Kamala May 28, 1950 -August 9, 2020