From Wrestling Legend to Double Amputee, Kamala Keeps Fighting

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 19, 2014

Bleacher Report

SENATOBIA, Miss. — The day after they cut off his leg, James Harris' screams echoed through the halls of Baptist Memorial Hospital.

Doctors upped the dosage on his anesthetics, and Harris' wife, Emmer, tried to calm him by clutching his hand. Nothing worked. Throughout the day and into the night, Harris wailed in agony as nurses stood at his bedside, pleading with him to stop.

"You can't keep yelling like that," one of them said. "There are other people in this hospital, too."

Harris' voice quivered.

"Those other people," he sobbed, "aren't hurting like me."

For anyone who followed his 30-year career as a professional wrestler, the sight of Harris so helpless and afraid would've been jarring.

Billed as a cannibalistic headhunter from the African jungles, Kamala "The Ugandan Giant" was one of the industry's most terrifying heels during the 1980s and '90s.

Children often scattered or hid behind their parents as the 6'7", 380-pound grappler—clutching a spear and wearing nothing but white face paint and a leopard-skin loincloth—sauntered barefoot down the aisles of legendary wrestling venues such as Madison Square Garden as tribal music boomed over the sound system.

Believed to be unable to speak English, Kamala (who was actually a truck driver from Mississippi) was usually flanked by a masked handler named "Kim Chee," with whom he communicated through yelps and grunts.

"He was the kind of guy you had nightmares about," longtime wrestling commentator Jim Ross says. "But out of the ring, you couldn't find a more beautiful person."

Wrestling matches may be scripted, but much of the physicality is real. Still, the sting that followed a chair shot from Hulk Hogan or a head-butt from Andre the Giant was nothing compared to the pain Harris felt as he lay in that hospital bed back in the fall of 2011, when diabetes forced doctors to amputate his left leg.

Harris endured the trauma again the following spring, as the disease claimed his right leg, too.

"I'm never going to walk again," Harris says more than two years later. "It's just something I have to accept."

Crammed into an electric wheelchair outside of his home in Senatobia, Mississippi—not far from the fields where he grew up picking cotton—Harris gets emotional as he relives the hell of losing his limbs.

The physical discomfort may be gone, but his new life is a continuous struggle.

Whether it was dealing with the murder of his sister and the loss of his son to AIDS, or fending for himself in a corporate world with a ninth-grade education, Harris has always been defined by his ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

But never has he encountered a challenge as daunting as this.

While former main event opponents such as Hogan and The Undertaker enjoy their lives as millionaires, Harris rifles through the mail each day for his monthly disability check.

The air conditioner is out in his $39,000 home, and Harris can't afford to get it fixed. The same goes for the transmission in his truck, which means Harris' wife—who was recently laid off from the job she held for 28 years—can't drive him into town to attend church or eat dinner.

"When you're on fixed income, it's hard to save money for your vehicle," says Harris, who, until his recent hospitalization, hadn't left his house in more than two months.

Instead, the 64-year-old Harris spends his mornings and afternoons in his garage, waving at the people who drive by and honk. He builds wooden chairs by hand, branding each with his "Kamala" signature before selling them online for $150.

Harris was giddy when someone ordered four of them this fall, but after he spent two weeks constructing the chairs, the man decided he didn't want them anymore.

"Now," Harris says, "I demand half the cash up front."

Around 6 p.m. each night, usually after dinner, Harris wheels into his bedroom, lifts his shirt and hooks up to a dialysis machine. For the next eight hours, excess fluid and waste flows through a tube that snakes from a hole in Harris' stomach, across the room and into a commode.

It's a lonely existence, especially after a traveling carnival of a career that took him everywhere from Africa to London to Puerto Rico to Dubai—not to mention nearly all 50 states. Still, Harris is determined to not let it get the best of him.

Harris smiles.

 "Life," he says, "is worth living."


Bleacher Report

When Jerry Lawler spotted James Harris in the bowels of Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, the legendary wrestler did a double-take. It was a Monday evening in May 1982, about an hour before the matches began, and Harris was at the arena to visit a friend.

Lawler, the co-owner of Memphis Wrestling, took one look at the 6'7", 380-pounder and saw dollar signs.

"I was shocked by his size," Lawler says. "I just thought, 'My gosh, there's got to be something we can do with this guy.'"

Then 32, Harris had yet to experience significant success in the ring. He'd spent the previous four years bouncing from Michigan to Arkansas to England to Kenya. As "Sugar Bear" Harris, he'd never been more than a midcarder and was struggling to find his niche.

Frustrated and nursing an injured ankle, Harris had returned to his hometown of Senatobia (about 40 minutes south of Memphis) to plot his next move. Little did he know that his encounter with Lawler would change his career.

"How'd you like to make more money than you ever have in your life?" Lawler asked Harris. 

Jason Deadrich/"Kamala Speaks'' autobiography

Two days later, Lawler summoned Harris to the Nashville home of his business partner, Jerry Jarrett. They told Harris they wanted him to portray an African headhunter named Kamala. The character was based on Idi Amin, the former president of Uganda who was rumored to be a cannibal.

A promotional video was filmed of Harris emerging from a wooded area in Jarrett's backyard. With tribal beads around his neck and a silver hoop earring dangling from his nose, Harris carried a spear that had hung as a decorative piece above Jarrett's mantel. As Harris stared into the camera, steam rose from a nearby swamp.

"They threw dry ice into the water to create the smoke," Harris says. "I get tickled every time I think about it."

The video aired on Memphis television stations that weekend. The following Monday, Mid-South Coliseum was filled to capacity to watch Kamala debut against Lawler, who was also the area's top in-ring star.

Copying a design he'd seen in a painting by artist Frank Frazetta, Lawler painted Harris' face in the locker room shortly before their match. When finished, he turned the mirror toward his new protege and asked him if he was embarrassed.

"I told him, 'I'm not embarrassed to do nothing,'" Harris says now. "I was happy. I'd always wanted something like that. It gave me an identity.

"When I was walking to the ring that night, the police had to hold everyone back. Everyone wanted to get a look at me or take a picture. It gave me goose bumps. Lawler acted like he was scared to death of me. I was trying to keep from laughing. He was the one that created me."

After the match, Harris and Lawler saw each other in the dressing room and hugged. They knew what happened moments earlier was the beginning of something special.

"That was the birth of Kamala," Harris says. "I guess you could say I was born twice."


Jerry Lawler
Jerry LawlerRICK SCUTERI/Associated Press

As a child growing up in Coldwater, Mississippi, Harris never had dreams of becoming a wrestler. He said his father, who owned a furniture store, was killed during a dice game when Harris was four, so much of his youth was spent working as a sharecropper alongside his mother and siblings, picking cotton and chopping corn to help keep the family afloat.

So poor was the Harris family that, when they couldn't afford groceries, the local butcher gave them old bones that would've otherwise been tossed into the trash.

"There was still a little bit of meat on them," Harris says, "but they had a terrible smell. Usually it went away after Momma cooked them. Sometimes that's all we had to eat."

Shortly after he started the ninth grade, Harris said he dropped out of school and began dabbling in petty crime. Stealing, breaking and entering...whatever he could do to obtain more money for his family. Eventually, he began driving trucks and picking fruit for a living.

Harris had reached his late 20s before he discovered his calling in the squared circle. Unable to find a job while living with his sister in Benton Harbor, Michigan, he started training with Bobo Brazil and "Tiny" Tim Hampton, a pair of African-American grapplers who were local heroes.

Harris had always enjoyed watching wrestling on television, but he never realized the matches were scripted.

"They told me that wrestling wasn't real," Harris says, "the day before I got into the ring."

For the next four years, he worked as "Sugar Bear" Harris and "The Mississippi Mauler" in places such as Mexico and the United Kingdom.

James Harris as Sugar Bear.
James Harris as Sugar Bear.Bleacher Report

But it wasn't until that chance meeting with Lawler in 1982—when he transformed into Kamala—that Harris' career truly began to blossom.

The gimmick was perfect for Harris, whose technical wrestling skills weren't nearly as good as those of his colleagues. Billed as a cannibal from the jungle, Kamala wasn't expected to use traditional wrestling moves. Instead of wrist locks, armbars and suplexes, Lawler told Harris to chop him across the chest, rake his eyes and bite him.

The fans ate it up.

Another of Harris' weaknesses was giving interviews. But because his character didn't know English, the on-air speaking duties were now handled by his manager, who varied with each territory.

All Harris had to do was stand in the background and look uncivilized and deranged, a persona he mastered. Lawler remembers Harris walking down the aisle before their very first match, staring into the crowd and appearing bewildered by his surroundings.

"I was proud of him," Lawler says, "because he made the character so believable. It may have been my idea, but he developed his own nuances that took the gimmick to another level."

After feuding with Lawler in Memphis, Harris moved to Louisiana and then Dallas.

He said it wasn't uncommon to work six nights a week, sometimes twice a day. Almost always placed in the main event, Harris brought in as much as $600 per match, a far cry from the $50 he was often paid as a midcarder.

"He may not have been the best technical wrestler," Ross says, "but he had phenomenal agility. When a wrestler would come off the ropes, he could leapfrog over him. At the time, I had never seen anyone that big do that. In fact, I've never seen it since.

"One can only imagine what would've happened if James had been in a really good high school football program. There's no doubt in my mind he could've become an outstanding NFL lineman. The footwork and athleticism he possessed...for someone that size, he was way ahead of his time." 


Andrea Kellaway/"Kamala Speaks'' autobiography

About the only wrestler more imposing than Kamala was 7'4", 520-pound behemoth Andre the Giant.

"He was the only guy I knew I couldn't whip," Harris says with a chuckle.

The first time they wrestled in 1983, there was a mix-up in the ring and Harris said Andre called him a "dumb SOB." Harris responded by backing Andre into the corner and hammering him with real, "stiff" punches that busted his lip. The following night, he said he pulled a .357 Magnum on Andre in the dressing room and told him never to disrespect him again.

Andre threw up his hands and apologized. Still, to protect himself, Harris said he began carrying a smaller gun to the ring with him each time they wrestled. He hid the weapon in a pouch inside his loincloth, a secret he kept from even his closest friends.

The disagreement with Andre—whom he once body-slammed—was one of the only times Harris was involved in locker room controversy. No matter what territory he was visiting, Harris was always well liked among his colleagues.

"Sometimes," former wrestler Ted DiBiase says, "the guys that look the meanest in the ring are actually nicer than anyone outside of it. That was the case with Kamala. He didn't have a mean bone in his body. He was impossible not to like."

Once he left the arena, Harris usually kept to himself. Much of his free time was spent in his apartment, cooking catfish and hush puppies, or at home watching television.

Jim Cornette/"Kamala Speaks'' autobiography

The night he wrestled Hulk Hogan in the main event at Madison Square Garden, Jim Harris applied his Kamala makeup in a janitor's closet.

Harris had arrived at the arena early that evening so he could paint his face and torso in the comfort of a dressing room. But he said he was kicked out so the area could be used by one of the company's other top-level wrestlers.

"It happened all the time," Harris says. "They'd tell me, 'We need this room for Hogan or Jake "The Snake" Roberts or Randy Savage. (My manager) would have to go find curtains and string to tie them up in a corner of the concourse so I could get dressed.

"That's the way I lived in the World Wrestling Federation. In the ring, I was a superstar. In the locker room, I was nothing."

Harris never envisioned it being that way when WWF chairman Vince McMahon asked him to join the roster in 1984. While Kamala had become a big attraction in certain territories, he knew working for a company whose programming was seen all across the world would make him a global star.

"'If you don't think you're making enough money,'" Harris said McMahon told him, "'you're always welcome to leave. But I don't think you'll find any place where you can make more money than you'll make here.'"

Harris certainly did his part.

David Simpson/"Kamala Speaks'' autobiography


His feud with Jake Roberts was one of the most memorable storylines in the WWF in the 1980s, as Kamala was terrified of the live snake that Roberts carried to the ring. He also had a series of high-profile "casket matches" against The Undertaker in 1992, including one in front of 80,355 fans at London's Wembley Stadium that ended with him being trapped inside of a coffin.

"He was one of those guys who literally drew money everywhere he went," WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley says.

The pinnacle of Kamala's career, however, came during his six-month program in 1986 with the biggest star in wrestling history: Hulk Hogan. It was well known within the industry that Kamala was one of Hogan's favorite opponents.

"Hulk Hogan wrestled Kamala for six months because Hulk Hogan doesn't like to get hurt," former WWF star KoKo B. Ware says. "'Be easy on me and we'll rock and roll all night. But if you hurt me, if you hit me a little too hard...I don't want to draw money like that.'

"Hogan wanted the easy money, and wrestling Kamala was like wrestling a baby. He'd give you those chops or give you that splash and you wouldn't even feel it. Hogan was like, 'Man, I want you every night, brother.'"

Harris says he'll never forget the conversation he had with Hogan after one of their matches.

"I hope you're getting your money," he told Harris, "because I'm getting mine. You're putting asses in the seats."

Jake Roberts
Jake RobertsJonathan Bachman/Associated Press

Harris wasn't delusional enough to think he should be paid as much as Hogan, Roberts or The Undertaker, who were bigger draws. Still, he said he was told by other wrestlers that the earnings of his main event opponents were about 80 to 90 percent higher than his own.

There is speculation within the industry, however, that Harris' colleagues were playing a joke on Harris when they provided him with those figures because they knew it would rile him up.

"I'm not saying he's lying, but that's hard to believe," says Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. "Some companies paid main eventers equal, some didn't. But for there to be that big of a disparity wouldn't make any sense."

Even some of Harris' closest friends question his claim that his yearly earnings with WWF topped out at around $60,000. One former wrestler, who asked not to be identified, said he knows for a fact that Harris received weekly checks for $10,000-$15,000 during the first month of his run with Hogan.

"The WWF was good to him in a lot of ways," Ware says. "They were good to me, too. We made a good living, but that doesn't mean we got rich. You've got to make big money to save money, and it's not fair when the person you're wrestling makes twice as much as you.

"Kamala made a lot of money for other people. He helped put guys in big mansions, but he doesn't have anything to show for it. When we got into this business, we thought it was going to turn into a gold mine, that we'd be taken care of the rest of our lives. It turns out that way for some, but not for everybody."


The Undertaker
The UndertakerPaul Abell/Associated Press

Harris was never shy about expressing his displeasure about how he was treated in the WWF. But now he admits he was partly to blame.

He says his biggest mistake was leaving the company unannounced in 1987, after his programs with Hogan and Roberts. McMahon, after all, had devoted a lot of time and resources toward building up the Kamala character during prime television slots. Even though he was unhappy with his pay, Harris said he should've handled the departure differently.

"I can understand now why Vince would've been upset," he says.

Harris also regrets not finding someone to look out for his financial best interests, someone to speak with McMahon on his behalf when he had questions or concerns about the pay structure.

He says his lack of a formal education put him in a vulnerable position and wonders if his "low vocabulary" caused McMahon to view him as a "poor old boy from down south in Mississippi."

"If I had been a better talker, if I'd have known how to negotiate, that probably would've helped me," Harris says.

The WWF brought Harris back in 1992, but he said it was still a struggle. The company makes most wrestlers pay their own hotel and rental car fees. There were nights when Harris would sleep in his vehicle so he wouldn't have to shell out money for a room.

Jim Hellwig, the WWF champion at the time as "The Ultimate Warrior," felt so bad for Harris that he often let Harris ride with him in the limousine the company provided for him during his title reign. On one occasion, he even let Harris stay in his ritzy hotel room.

"It was somewhere really nice, like a Hilton or a Hyatt," Harris says. "That bed was so comfortable, I never wanted to leave."

In July 1993, two weeks after his sister and his niece were murdered by his sister's husband, the WWF released Harris. The creative team had turned his character into a babyface, a good guy. The once-vicious cannibal was now viewed by fans as a comedic character, a lovable teddy bear. It didn't take long for the act to wear thin.

Asked to comment on its relationship with Harris, WWE released this statement:

"During his time at WWE and the other organizations he performed for, Jim Harris's larger-than-life character, Kamala, resonated with fans around the world. Jim had several stints with WWE, where he was given every opportunity to succeed, often being paired with such legends as Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker.

"Ultimately, Jim was the one who made the decisions to leave WWE. WWE appreciates the contributions he made to our organization, and we send him our best wishes as he continues to fight health challenges."

Frustrated as he became at times, Harris realizes he never would've achieved national fame if not for WWE. He says he hopes his relationship with the organization moving forward is a positive one.

"A lot of the things I've said about the WWE...I don't mean them," Harris says. "I'm proud to say I worked there. I just always hoped that one day Vince would accept me like he did some of the other wrestlers.

"I wish things would've been better."


Scott Simpson/"Kamala Speaks'' autobiography

James Harris slid out of bed in September 2011, looked down at his left foot and knew this was the day his doctor had warned him about.

Harris' big toe was puffy and swollen, and fluid was leaking from the crevice between the nail and the skin. Within 24 hours, his other four toes were bulging with liquid, too.

Diagnosed with diabetes in 1992, Harris' physicians had been urging him to begin dialysis treatment for nearly 20 years. He didn't heed the advice, choosing instead to carry on with his life as if the disease wasn't present within him.

Following his release from WWF in 1993, Harris spent two years driving 18-wheelers for a truck company and mowing lawns around his neighborhood during his free time.

In 1995, he joined Hogan and some of his other former colleagues in Ted Turner's Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling, but his stay there lasted less than a year.

After that, he earned most of his money at autograph shows or on the independent wrestling circuit. Some nights he wrestled for a few hundred bucks in high school gyms before crowds of fewer than 100 people.

Harris' mother, Betsy Lee Mosley—who never knew wrestling wasn't real—passed away in 1998. And Harris was at his 35-year-old son's bedside in Atlanta when he died of AIDS in 2005.

Bleacher Report

No matter what was going on in his personal life, Harris went nearly 20 years without paying attention to his health. Poor eating habits pushed him past the 400-pound mark around 2002, when a simple walk from the parking lot to his doctor's office caused him to become short of breath.

"She told me, 'If you don't go on dialysis soon, you're going to start losing body parts,'" Harris says. "I wish I would've listened."

A few days after noticing the leakage in his foot in 2011, Harris went to the doctor and had three of his toes removed. Encouraged that he was still able to walk somewhat normally, Harris finally agreed to begin dialysis treatment.

But when it came to his legs, it was too late.

Within a month of his first surgery, Harris returned to the hospital to have his entire foot amputated. So painful was the recovery process that he went back a few days later and asked the doctor to remove the rest of his leg above the knee.

The following spring, Harris endured the same three-surgery process in losing his right leg.

"I could hardly stomach it," he says.

Medicaid paid for a $6,000 pair of prosthetic legs for Harris, but because of his size, doctors struggled to attach them to his stumps. Instead of clinging to false hope that he'd walk again, Harris began adjusting to life as a double-amputee.

At times, his situation was difficult to accept.

"I didn't even want to look down at first," Harris says. "But when I came home (from the hospital), I would look down, and I'd cry a little. I'd think, 'I'm not normal, am I? I'm not normal anymore. People are going to treat me like I'm not normal.' But I made it through. I made it through.

"I still have crying spells, but they're not as bad as they used to be."


Bleacher Report

Harris wakes up each morning around 5:30 a.m. and takes a shower while his wife lays his clothes out on the bed. He said he doesn't need any help bathing or getting dressed.

Just last week, as he wheeled into his garage, Harris noticed a rattlesnake slithering near a piece of cardboard. He grabbed a hammer, turned it upside down and used duct tape to attach it to the end of a wooden rod. His wheelchair parked next to the reptile, Harris pounded away until it was dead. As he tells the story, Harris points to a nearby table and laughs.

"My wife climbed up there and screamed the whole time," he says.

When he's not building chairs, Harris spends a lot of time on Facebook interacting with the 1,000-plus fans who e-mailed him after his surgeries. An amateur musician, he's also recorded a CD—and he's less than a month away from releasing his autobiography, Kamala Speaks.

Some of Harris' favorite moments are when Ware—who lives in Memphis—calls or stops by for a visit. Ware raised money for Harris at local wrestling shows following his amputations and bought him his first electric wheelchair. Wrestling fans have also set up a website to support following his recent hospitalization.

"It's heartbreaking to see him like this," Ware says. "It's just not the same. I keep telling him, 'Get close to God. Turn your old life over to Him and build a new one. There's another life after wrestling. That's what we have to live for now.

"'God isn't finished with you yet.'" 


Bleacher Report

The last time James Harris appeared on national television as Kamala was in 2006, when the WWE invited the 56-year-old back to wrestle one match against an up-and-coming star named Umaga.

For Harris, the best part of the night didn't occur in the ring. It happened in the locker room.

As soon as he walked through the doors, Harris said young wrestlers—guys he'd never heard of or met—sprung from their seats to shake his hand. A few of them asked Harris for his autograph, and once he applied his face paint, nearly everyone wanted to get their picture taken with Kamala.

"I remember you from years ago," Harris says one wrestler told him. "I loved what you did in the ring. It taught me a lot."

Harris couldn't have felt any more proud.

"For the first time, I felt like I'd accomplished something in my career," Harris says. "It made me feel appreciated."

The question now is whether McMahon will do the same by inducting Kamala into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Anywhere from five to seven new members are enshrined each spring. Nearly all of the main event opponents Kamala faced during his time with the company have already been inducted: Hogan, Roberts, Andre, Junkyard Dog, Ultimate Warrior, George "The Animal" Steele and Ware.

"He'd be a welcome addition," says Ross, a Hall of Famer who is no longer with the company. "He had a very distinguished career in a lot of different areas. No matter where he was, he always worked against the top guys and he always drew money. So, yes, he deserves it. And a lot of people would love to see it, because he was such a nice guy and so popular in the locker room."

Harris used to tell friends he didn't care about the Hall of Fame, but now he's changed his tune.

"If they call," he says, "I'm coming."

No matter what happens, Harris says he won't complain.

He's no longer interested in dwelling on things that went wrong in the past—or in letting his current situation spoil what may lie in the future. Losing his limbs may have taken away his ability to walk, but it didn't rob him of who he is.

It didn't take away his spirit.

"Don't feel sorry for me," Harris says. "If you want to, encourage me. Embrace me. I'm going to be all right—just like I've always been."

Harris smiles and winks.

"I'm still Kamala," he says.

Following the publication of this story, a website was set up for fans wishing to show their support for Kamala with words of encouragement or monetary donations.

Jason King primarily covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

Some photos used and altered for this video are from Flickr users DianesDigitals, Megan Elice Meadows, Walter Lim and Creative Commons. Visit kamalaspeaks.com for James Harris' autobiography.


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