It’s long been said that the people who make the meanest, nastiest, most terrifying heels in wrestling are the nicest people outside of the ring, and if that’s true, then James ‘Kamala’ Harris was a prime example of that.
Tributes coming in today from those who worked with him universally talk of a kind, generous man who was a pleasure to work with.
Harris had a bad start in life, losing his father when he was aged just four and turning to crime as a teenager. Relocating a few times to avoid arrest, a meeting with Bobo Brazil in Michigan led him to start training to be a wrestler.
After an unspectacular start in the southern states as Sugar Bear Harris, he ventured to the UK in 1981 to work for Joint Promotions, a conglomerate which presented multiple shows every day of the week, all around the country. It was here that he was presented as “The Mississippi Mauler” Big Jim Harris.
Billed at 6’6” and 25 stone, the Mauler was a fearsome, loud and arrogant American visitor who would take the unusual step of often grabbing the mic and cutting a promo before his matches, something rarely seen in Britain at the time.
From start to finish of his time in this country, Harris was presented as a main eventer, most notably fighting for the vacant WWA World Heavyweight title against Wayne Bridges at Wembley Arena. He returned home after breaking his ankle.
While I never had the pleasure of meeting or working with him, James Harris has a special place in my own personal wrestling history. On August 12th 1981, Joint Promotions held a live wrestling show at the Brighton Centre. Aged just five, I have hazy recollections of attending this show with my family in the summer holidays.
The main event pitted Big Daddy & Superstar Mal Sanders against King Kong Kirk and Harris. It was the first live show I’d ever been to, and I took home a poster of the event afterwards which adorned my bedroom wall for many years afterwards. I was immediately captured by the magic of the live wrestling experience, and nearly 40 years later, thanks to the work of Harris and his colleagues, I am still enraptured by wrestling to this day.
As his stay in the UK went on, Harris began experimenting with his look, and shortly before his departure, he appeared a couple of times on TV with white, tribal-looking facepaint on him.
When he returned home, he went to his native Mississippi where he met Jerry Lawler. Impressed by his size, Lawler offered him a job and along with his business partner, Jerry Jarrett, they transformed Big Jim Harris into Kamala (originally spelled Kimala), The Ugandan Headhunter.
Uganda was a country in the conscious minds of many after the bloodthirsty presidency of Idi Amin a few years earlier. Therefore, Kamala was billed as a former bodyguard of Amin’s who had been discovered by manager JJ Dillon on an excursion to Africa.
Retaining his white facepaint, he now added stars painted on his chest and a yellow half moon on his not-insignificant belly, and wrestled barefoot, wearing a leopard print loin cloth. An introductory vignette filmed in the jungles of Africa (that was really Jerry Jarrett’s farm) set the scene for his debut on Memphis TV.
After ruthlessly dispatching of hapless foes in a style that could never be described as technical, the big match of Kamala vs Jerry Lawler sold out the famous Mid South Coliseum.
Seeing the drawing power of this monstrous new character, Vince McMahon signed him to the WWF in 1984. What Kamala had done for Lawler, he could also do for Vince’s new World champion, Hulk Hogan.
Debuting on TV by seemingly eating a live chicken on air, he was managed by Freddie Blassie and had a masked handler called Friday, later changed to Kim-Chee and often played by Steve Lombardi.
Coming down to the ring to distinct music of African style tribal chanting and drums, carrying a spear, wearing his loincloth and being guided to the ring by his entourage, he was a unique and intimidating sight for a mid 1980s audience.
While such a gimmick would never see the light of day now, this was a different time, and Kamala was an instantly memorable and recognisable gimmick. But it wasn’t just the gimmick, but how Harris played it that made it a success.
He would use chops and strikes to look like an untrained savage rather than a pro wrestler. He would splash people but would then not know how to pin them. Often the opponent would be lying on their stomach, and Kim Chee would instruct him to roll them over, but Kamala would roll them over back to where they started, as he was unaware of how to pin people, or indeed what it meant, as he would often keep attacking them after the bell.
Occasionally, he would deliver his splash off the top rope, something rarely seen done by a man of his size at this time. But he would deliver the splash in an almost clumsy way, with his limbs flailing out, in keeping with his gimmick.
This was no frog splash or Bam Bam Bigelow style graceful dive. This was just Kamala hurling his bulk off somewhere high, on top of his prone opponent. It was little touches like this that helped Harris to make such a success of the gimmick.
He left the WWF in a dispute over pay but returned in 1992 to feud mainly with The Undertaker. This marked the second time I saw Jim Harris wrestle live, at SummerSlam 1992 at Wembley Stadium. The feud ended with a casket match at the Survivor Series that year and Kamala left the promotion again a few months later.
The Kamala gimmick was such a success that Harris was able to use it for the rest of his wrestling career, working for a huge variety of promotions all around the world, from CMLL in Mexico to All Japan Pro Wrestling to an independent tour of India. Every time, he worked as Kamala, standing out from the other wrestlers around him due to his unique gimmick and look.
He also appeared in WCW when the promotion was looking for large heels to take on Hulk Hogan. Kamala formed part of the less-than-fearsome Dungeon of Doom stable, facing Hogan in a singles match at Clash of the Champions XXXI and main eventing Fall Brawl 1995 in a War Games match.
While the whole Dungeon of Doom gimmick was far from successful, it only proved what a safe pair of hands Hogan felt Harris was.
The gimmick was so memorable that Kamala would be brought in for guest appearances in the WWE from time to time, including the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania 17 to occasional appearances on Raw to either put someone over or participate in a comedy skit.
One such skit with then-Commissioner William Regal took place at WM17 itself between matches, and remains one of my favourite skits of all time.
After ending his wrestling career (and in fact at times during it, when he was between contracts with the big companies), Harris supplemented his income with work as a truck driver. He lived a relatively peaceful life as most people failed to recognise the softly spoken, charming man as the savage Ugandan headhunter that they had seen on their TV screens for so many years.
He also had a wonderful, soulful singing voice and a quick search of “Kamala sings” will provide any curious readers with a glimpse of that side of him.
Harris ended his wrestling career in 2010, after suffering problems relating to diabetes, which resulted in him eventually having both legs amputated.
Very few wrestling characters are so enduring or memorable as Kamala. However, it was the way that it was played and portrayed by Jim Harris that made it truly magical.
From the five-year-old boy who fell in love with wrestling on the night he saw Big Jim Harris perform in the ring, may James ‘Kamala’ Harris rest in peace and his legacy never be forgotten.