Approaching the ring wearing an African mask, barefoot with nothing but war paint and a loincloth on with a spear and shield in tow, the Ugandan "headhunter" Kamala was an imposing presence in the ring. But outside of it, the real-life James Harris couldn’t be a more gentle and kind soul.
Kamala – The Ugandan Giant
In an interview made before his passing, James Harris opened up about his Kamala character’s history.
"I had started doing [the Kamala character] in England. When I came back to the United States, Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett came up with the name ‘Kimala.’
"The first two or three times, Lawler painted my face, but I did it myself from then on. Lawler had asked me at first if I was embarrassed [to play the character]. I told him, ‘No, let’s get in the ring!’ I liked it. It was really easy.
"Back then, most people believed in it. I used to hear fans in the crowd telling me to go back to Uganda! I think that ninety percent of the people liked it, but there were some who were against a big black man acting so stupid and having a white manager. It didn’t bother me at all because I knew it was all just acting.
"[When I didn’t have make-up on], most people didn’t know it was me. I was in a bar a couple of times, but I was not the type to go to bars and hang out with the wrestlers. When I was living in Louisiana, I lived in an apartment building among many wrestling fans, and they didn’t know the whole time I was there – and I was there a year and a half.
"Usually, in a restaurant [when touring], it would just be me and whoever my managers were. They would do the checking in of the motel for me. We never did stay in the same motel as the other wrestlers unless we couldn’t help it.
The Hardships Kamala Faced in WWE
Kamala would also go on to talk about the unfortunate hardships he faced while working in the WWE.
"When I was in WWE, I didn’t make any money. I can remember sometimes; it was me, Kimchee, and my manager Dr. Harvey Whippleman. All three of us would get a room together. [WWE] paid for our flight, but we always had to get our own rooms. After renting a car and being the third man and renting a room, I would sleep in the rental car and not stay in the room so I could save money. I begged them not to let the boys know that. I wanted to save as much money as I could to send back home.
"I have no beef with Vince. Vince always was nice and kind to me. But in terms of the pay-offs, I think the WWE was disgusting."
Did you know? WWE paid Undertaker $500,000 for his match against Kamala at SummerSlam 1992, while Kamala only made $10,000.
"Steve Lombardi was in with the office and has been there some twenty years. He was running around and went into the room where Pat Patterson was. Patterson had left and left his briefcase. He (Lombardi) was scrambling through his books, and he saw what I made, and he was exactly right. He saw what the Undertaker made, and he said the Undertaker made a half million. I couldn’t prove it, but he hit it right on the head with what I made, so I believe him about the Undertaker. You know, I’m not knocking the Undertaker. He’s a gentleman, and I like him. He’s a super nice man. I think he deserved every dime he got, but what about me?
"We would get to the arena before anybody. I would find myself a decent dressing room to do my face paint. When some of Vince’s agents get there, they would ask me to leave that room. They would say, ‘We need this dressing room for Hulk Hogan. We need it for Andre the Giant. We need it for Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. You find somewhere else to get dressed.’
"After they did me like that a few times, we would go out of the building, Kimchee and I, and look for old curtains or tarps and find strings and tie something up like a tent and make me a place where I would have some privacy. A place where I could get dressed and put my paint on.
"Sometimes Hogan or someone would come looking for me, or whoever I was wrestling that night so we could go over the finish. When Hogan would see me in this little tent, he would laugh, but he didn’t know the deal. He didn’t know what the agents had done.
"Hogan treated me very well. I made a lot of money for him. I used to feel so bad when Hogan used to come to where I am, and when he saw me, he would say, ‘There goes my money…’
"It would put a smile on my face because he was so friendly, but Hogan wasn’t the pay-off man. He didn’t know how I was being treated."
Kamala and His Health Battles Later in Life
In recent years, James "Kamala" Harris faced multiple health issues.
On November 7, 2011, Harris had his left leg amputated below the knee due to high blood pressure and diabetes complications.
In April 2012, his right leg was also amputated below the knee.
On November 19, 2017, Harris underwent "life-saving" emergency surgery to clear fluid from around his heart and lungs and went on life support following the procedure due to complications.
While being able to breathe on his own after this procedure, he faced a daily health battle, but he kept a positive mindset throughout.
In an interview with Bleacher Report, Harris admitted that he relied on his disability check, sold handmade wooden chairs to make ends meet, and wrote a book about his life entitled Kamala Speaks: The Official Autobiography of WWE Wrestler James "Kamala" Harris. This is a highly recommended read and can be purchased at KamalaSpeaks.com.
On August 5, Kamala tested positive for COVID-19. His wife confirmed he was admitted to the hospital on the same day. She speculated that he likely contracted it from one of his numerous weekly visits to the dialysis center. While he seemed fine and in good spirits in the morning, sadly, he would pass away on the afternoon of August 9, 2020, after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was 70 years old at the time of his death.
A GoFundMe has been set up to help Kamala’s wife, Emmer Jean, with funeral expenses and other costs. She’s been a true warrior the past ten years, quitting her job to serve as his primary caretaker after he lost his legs. Please consider donating by clicking here.
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