Echoing throughout the wrestling venue were the methodic sounds of drums as fans wait in anticipation. A sense of wonder and fear weighed heavy. However, the feeling of curiosity took over as the crowd patiently waited for what was about to come next. All eyes from the audience stared in the direction to where the wrestlers entered to come to the ring.
When the curtain was pulled back from the entryway, an enormous imposing figure was revealed. From the deepest darkest jungles of Africa, the Ugandan Giant had arrived. Wearing his tribal mask and leopard patterned loincloth, while he held his battle spear in hand, Kamala was on the warpath. The two white stars and yellow half-moon painted on his torso caught the eye but were soon forgotten when Kamala lunged at unsuspecting bystanders.
Watching Kamala back in his prime fans can remember being mystified by his realism. Portraying his character, James Harris did it in such a way that some people believed he was a savage warrior. The senseless mumbling of his words seemed authentic, and his wild-eyed gaze was haunting.
“I played my part well, and I never broke kayfabe,” James Harris said. “I never let the people know that I could speak English, and because of that, I was a mystery.”
James had an impoverished upbringing, and as a youth, he stole food to eat. His bad habits caught up with him and after a stern warning, he left home in search of a better way of life. At the age of 25, James made his way to Michigan where he met wrestling legend, Bobo Brazil and that is when he started his training.
Before wrestling as Kamala, James tried out several names that did not stick with the six-foot-seven-inch man. Going by Sugar Bear, Big Jim Harris and Ugly Bear, and Bad News Harris were all short-lived after he made his debut in 1978 in the Gulf Coast region of the United States. In those days wrestling was a full-time job and shows took place daily. Managing James in those early days was none other than, Percy Pringle (Paul Bearer).
In 1982, James met Jerry Lawler and that is when he was turned into a savage headhunter. From that moment on the Ugandan Giant, had his place in the sport of wrestling. Kamala became an attraction that drew fans to see who he was going to squash and to see if anyone could beat him!
The mystery of Kamala is revealed in his 2015 auto-biography “Kamala Speaks.” Along with author Kenny Casanova, the essence of James as a man and Kamala as a wrestler is captured inside every story. Containing over 300 pages, the book describes his humble beginnings in Senatobia, Mississippi and it takes you to some of the biggest stages in wrestling.
Working with some of the biggest names of his day, James wrestled at main event status in almost every territory he worked at. Some of the opponents he shared the ring with were guys like Bruiser Brody, the Junkyard Dog, Butch Reed, and the Von Erichs.
“I was wrestling against Kerry when I first executed my leapfrog maneuver. He called that spot,” Harris added. “I worked with him and David a lot before he passed away. I liked the Von Erichs, they were good guys.”
However, he gets honest on why he left the World Class promotion right after the first Parade of Champions event in 1984. On May 6th, at Texas Stadium, Kamala and the Great Kabuki wrestled in a match that was supposed to kick off a huge rivalry between the two men. The booking office there was hoping it would draw interest and sell plenty of tickets. Unfortunately, that idea was short-lived. Shortly after that, James started working for Vince McMahon Jr. at the World Wrestling Federation.
Intriguing stories fill the book and it leaves the reader wanting to know what is on the next page. The stories are funny, sad, and shocking. In the ’80s, professional wrestling was at the height of its popularity. The strong following was due to the territorial system that provided great talent and accessibility, but it was mainly because of “Hulkamania.” Back then, Hulk Hogan was the biggest wrestling star and he drew people to be fans of wrestling with his charismatic persona.
Kamala’s autobiography takes you to his match with The Undertaker at the Wembley Stadium in London, England. It was in this particular match, that James didn’t feel he was compensated fairly. The book also shares a story of why James hid a handgun inside his wrestling trunks during a cage match with Andre the Giant. He also talks about his rocky relationship with Vince McMahon and his feelings on how he was treated while employed there.
“I wanted to put a book out because I wanted everyone to know the truth,” Harris stated. “I wanted the fans to know what went on behind the scenes in the wrestling business.”
Though wrestling in the WWF may not have been the high point of his career, James had the honor to step inside the ring on several different occasions with the World Heavyweight Champion, Hulk Hogan. Back then to get matches with the number one wrestler in the company, usually meant more exposure and possibly bigger paydays.
“I liked the matches I had with Hogan because we were open to each other’s ideas inside the ring,” Harris recalled. “I think that was what made him so easy to work with.”
Throughout the history of the sport, superstars have come and gone. Many wrestlers have left an impression on the fans, but nothing like Kamala the Ugandan Giant had done. As Kamala, James Harris blurred the lines and left many wondering if what they were watching was real or make-believe. There was a sense of fear in the wrestling venue when Kamala was on the card.
“I did my job and I did it well,” Harris continued. “When I was wrestling it was REAL!”