WWE Hall of Famer Jerry “The King” Lawler was on a recent episode of the Busted Open podcast to pay his tribute to Kamala (James Harris), who passed away at the age of 70. Many other wrestlers and promotions have paid their tribute to Kamala, and on Busted Open, Lawler reflected on whether he felt satisfied seeing Kamala make the move to the WWF after creating the Ugandan gimmick.
“Well yeah, every now and then you think about it and you do feel good about it. I always did especially about Kamala,” Lawler admitted. “I don’t know. Bully, I bet you’re probably the same way. When you’re in this business and you’re doing it day in and day out, you really don’t have that much time to stop and think about stuff like that.
“Especially back in the day when we were doing it and he was working every single night, once we started the gimmick, yeah, we were just happy that it was drawing you sellouts with James every week. And we were happy about that but I never stopped and thought, ‘Oh, look how good he’s doing with this or look how well this is helping him provide for his family.’ That’s just something you don’t really think about. I guess it sort of took it for granted.”
Lawler gave his thoughts on Kamala’s WWE (then WWF) run. He shared that he had a conversation with Harvey Wippleman about Kamala and the work that he did.
“You know what? Once again, I just got to go back to tell you how it was for us down in Tenessee,” Lawler prefaced. “We were so busy promoting our own territory, and when James left and went up to the WWE, it was like all of a sudden he was our competition. So, I didn’t really pay much attention to what happened with what was going on up there because we were on the road. We were booking our own territory, we were booking our TV’s and that sort of stuff.
“I mean, I did sort of watch him a little more closely than I did some of the guys. I was just talking to him a few minutes ago, Downtown Bruno, Harvey Wippleman. He got put with Kamala and he was his manager. And, of course, Steve Lombardi was the Kim Chee character, and so, I would talk to Downtown Bruno on a weekly basis. And we would sort of keep up with what was going on. I mean, yeah, he worked with Hulk Hogan, he worked with The Undertaker. I mean, he did the rounds with about everybody that was in the WWE at the time.”
“I sort of lost touch with him a little bit until after he had that run,” Lawler admitted. “One of the things, and that’s what Bruno and I were talking about, is James was kind of bitter towards the end. You know, had really, really bad health issues with diabetes. He lost both of his legs from diabetes and that sort of thing, and so, I know that in the past, he had some not very kind things to say about his stint there in the WWE. But it’s sort of disputed, because I was talking to Bruno about that.
“This is another thing you’ll know Bully, how some of the guys are. He never really took care of his money business all that closely, and he didn’t have a bank account. He handled everything in cash, and every week he would get his check. He would have Downtown Bruno go to the bank and cash his check for him, and one of the things that James said later was he didn’t make that much money. He didn’t make money in the WWE. He didn’t get paid as much when he was working with The Undertaker and when he was working with Hulk, or whatever. But Bruno said, ‘Man, I can’t tell you how many times I cashed a 15,000 or $13,000 check for him every single week. And, in that time, that was really good money.”
Kamala worked throughout many of the territories before joining WWF. Lawler explained the talent exchange between the territories, including Kamala going from USWA and Mid-South.
“We had a situation back then where we would kind of work with Bill Watts. And also, the guys, the Von Erich’s back in Texas, we would kind of trade talent back and forth because, you know, when we are running a weekly territory and guys would get burnt out pretty quickly,” Lawler explained. “So, that was the way I was able to stay on top for so long because we kept changing the talent. And so, I think that the first thing after we kind of had changed and run its course for us, I think he [James] went down to Bill Watts and worked down for Bill Watts, as did a lot of our talent.”
USWA helped create many legends in wrestling. Lawler talked about how lucky they were to have that much talent coming through the Memphis territory.
“I think that the majority of people that are true wrestling fans might appreciate the history of wrestling and everything. I think most of the people realize that in Memphis, we created a lot of really great talent down there,” Lawler said. “When you look around, and all around the country back in the day, there were 32 different territories in the country before cable TV came along. Everybody had their own little location. The promoters didn’t cross over each other’s boundaries, they didn’t step on each other’s toes, and, at that time, I mean, almost every territory was doing pretty much the same thing we were doing in Memphis – trying to stay afloat, trying to stay creative with new talent.
“But when you look back on us, for some reason, that’s what I really can’t explain, we were so lucky to have some of the greatest guys and some of the greatest talent either start or come through Memphis early in their careers. I don’t know if Memphis deserves the respect or whatever, but we were just really lucky to have all of these top guys.”
Lawler talked about The Undertaker in USWA, where he known as Mean Mark Callous. He reiterated how lucky they were to have so much talent come through Memphis.
“You know guys that went on, like The Undertaker, like Mean Mark comes in,” Lawler stated. “I’ll never forget. I was just watching the other day. A little situation we created in our Saturday Morning TV, where we had Dutch Mantel bring in Mark Callous. I’ll never forget giving him the interview before we went out. I said, ‘Look, we’re going to tell him you just got out of prison down in Georgia and that you’ve been in there for murder,’ and he said, ‘Should I say I was in it for murder?’ I said, ‘Well no, just tell Lance that you got into a fight in a parking lot with a couple of guys and now they’re pushing up daisies.’ And Mark looked at me and said, ‘Pushing up daisies? What does that mean?’ So anyway, that was the way we started this different talent. And, of course, then he went on to become The Undertaker. But we also had another guy that was right across, five miles away over across the Mississippi River in Sid Vicious.
“I put the Humongous Mask on the guy, and we created Humongous here because I was a big fan of movies, and fantasy movies, and stuff like that. So, we created Humongous, and the face-off between them that time was I brought out Humongous to face off against this Mean Mark, and of course then later on, up in the WWE a few years later, it was The Undertaker facing off with Sid Vicious. And we had done that years ago down in Memphis. So, we were just lucky to have some really great talent come through the air.”
If you use any quotes from this article, please credit Busted Open with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.
Mehdy Labriny contributed to this article.