Over this past weekend, Former WWE star Kamala (James Harris) passed away at age 70. Many wrestlers and promotions sent out tributes to Kamala, and on a recent episode of the Busted Open podcast, WWE Hall of Famer Jerry Lawler told a story about the time he first met Kamala.
“It was a Monday night at the Mid-South Coliseum back in the early ’80s, and as typical, how you know the guys do, you have curtain sellouts or whatever,” Lawler explained. “We were kind of watching the earlier matches through the back curtain there, and I’m standing there watching the earlier matches. And I get a tap on my shoulder, and I turn around and immediately look up because here’s this giant of a guy.
“And a really young guy, and it’s James Harris. His first words out of his mouth, he said, ‘Mr. Lawler, my name is Sugerbear Harris, and I’d like to wrestle for you guys.’ And I looked at him. I looked up and down and I don’t know what came into my mind other than the fact that I mean this guy looks like what we loved to have there in Memphis. I mean he just looks like a huge monster that we can definitely do something with right?”
Lawler explained that in the Memphis territory, characters were needed and created. He explained how Jerry Jarrett was best known for coming up with many of the different gimmicks in USWA.
“And so, I looked at him and said, ‘James, has anybody else seen you here tonight?’,” Lawler recalled. “He said, ‘No sir’, and I said ‘Alright here, I want you to leave right now. We’re going to call you, and tomorrow, we want you to meet with me and Jerry Jarrett at Nashville. And we’re going to come up with something for you,’ and so that’s the first meeting I had with him, and the next day, he drove up in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Jerry Jarrett’s house, and you know Bully about the way things were back in the day.”
“We were known down in Memphis for kind of creating different gimmicks. Jerry Jarrett would take responsibility. He took two guys that were just preliminary wrestlers so to speak just underneath guys in Stan Lane and Steve Keirn, and he dressed them up. He put Jackie Fargo, who would become the Fabulous Jackie Fargo, as like their manager and paraded them and them together and [called] them The Fabulous Ones. Those guys went on and did fantastic makes for money just with that. What we call a gimmick of course.”
Lawler admitted that he was jealous of Jarrett for the gimmicks that he created. He revealed that he helped Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton become The Rock ‘N’ Express.
“Then after that, I was a little bit jealous that Jerry created those so I’m going to try to one-up him,” Lawler said. “So I had looked around, and I see two young kids that were just on opening matches as well as Robert Gibson and Ricky Morton that I called them in my locker room. And I say, ‘Guys, I’ve gone out and bought a bunch of bandanas’ and things like that, and I said, ‘I want you to tie these around your feet and your arms’ and stuff like that and they said, ‘for what?’ And I said, ‘We’re going to send you out to the Kiss song, I Want To Rock And Roll All Night, and we’re going to call you The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express’. So, that was the things we were doing back then when trying to create new gimmicks.”
Lawler then used that to go into detail on where the “Ugandan Giant” gimmick came from. He said was inspired by Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda in the ’70s mostly for his alleged cannibalism. He went into detail to how he created the gimmick for Kamala and presented it to Jarrett.
“So, here’s the one thing a lot of people didn’t even, at least today, realized how this whole gimmick for James came about,” Lawler stated. “At that particular time, you’re always looking for something that topical, something that’s going on in the world today. At that particular time, the president of the country of Uganda, over in Africa, was a guy named Idi Amin. Does anybody remember that name? Idi Amin was the actual president of Uganda, and he was an admitted cannibal. I mean he had in the past been a cannibal, and he’s elected president of Uganda. And it was just like the natural pick to kind of capitalize on this story that was in the news.
“So, never forget. Got to Nashville and Jerry Jarrett had in his office, two things hanging in his wall. Jerry was a big hunter, and he had guns and deer heads and animal heads and taxidermy stuff hanging all over his office, and two things he had hanging there was this big African mask and a big African shield. And so I had seen this picture. I was also a fan of this artist named Frank Frazetta, and he did all of these fantastic covers of the paintings of these covers. And I remembered this painting that he did on a cover of a magazine where this girl was tied up, and she’s about to get burnt at the stake by a bunch of Natives. And they were all dressed with spears and the masks and that sort of things, and then there was this guy that was trying to save her and he was at this gun shooting and everything.
“So, I found that picture, and so I took the makeup off of one of those Natives in that picture. And I painted Kamala’s face with just white acrylic paint. I painted Kamala’s face to look like that native in that picture that I’ve seen, and we put this loincloth around him like a leopard looking loincloth thing around him. We went out back to Jerry’s house. He had a 100-acre ranch-like house, and he had a big pond back there. We went out there.
“We got some dry ice, threw some dry ice out into the pond. Also, this smoke starts coming up, and we told James, ‘we want you to walk out maybe 20 yards or 20 feet into the pond, then turn around and just look at the camera and start walking towards the camera.’ And so that’s how we made this video of James, and I also looked into the National Geographic magazine and the country of Uganda. And there’s a city there named Kamala. So that’s how we came up with the name Kamala, The Ugandan Giant. And so you know we made that video that day.”
Lawler said he showed that video to J.J. Dillon for the character to be somebody that could challenge the King of Memphis, Lawler himself. He said he told Kamala to not use wrestling moves and to stick with his character.
“We called up J.J. Dillon, who we wanted to bring James in as something totally unheard of, totally never seen before,” Lawler recalled. “So we called up J.J. Dillon, who was over in the Carolina’s, and J.J. sends us in an interview. And we just told him what to cut. He cut this interview saying that you know that he had been scouring the world looking for talent, looking for somebody that could get rid of the King of Memphis and that sort of thing, and he had come up with this giant, this Ugandan giant. And we showed that video of Kamala coming up out of that lake, and we had the interview from J.J. Dillon and completely sold out. The people never seen anything like it before and James was so great and the fact that I said I mean you know he understood what we had invasion for this gimmick.
“We said ‘James, don’t ever use a wrestling move. You’re not supposed to ever see a wrestling match, you’re not supposed to have ever seen a wrestling ring. You’re a cannibal from Uganda, and you just chop me and try to bite me in the match’, and that’s all he did, he was perfect and he slapped his stomach and he was a natural and it was awesome.”
According to Lawler, he believes Kamala liked the gimmick that he was given. He cites the fact that Kamala always stayed in character and never complained about his character or his positioning.
“I think he did,” Lawler said. “That’s just one of the things that I knew about him and you know he never complained at all, and like I said, he did it so perfectly. And he was not supposed to speak English or anything like that, and he always made sure that he stayed in character.
“And the whole time, whenever we were around the shows or anything like that and the funny thing for at least the first six months, every night, I would have to paint the makeup on him, and I would have to paint his face, the teeth filling that you have to put in the mouth and everything like that and it took him about six months before was comfortable to start doing it, the makeup himself, and I was finally glad that he did and that he did finally learned how to put the makeup himself. He was just perfect at it.”
Lawler talked about how the USWA was one of the last territories to remain running as the advent of cable TV came in with WWE and WCW. He talked about how there was a constant need to come up with new opponents for him, and Kamala was a big part of that.
“Well, that was something that we sort of had our territory down in Memphis built around and in retrospect, it was one of the things that made our territory being the last, longer than most other territories did after cable came in and WWE and WCW started taking up all the major talent,” Lawler explained. “What Jerry and I started doing out there was I, at that time, was in the top portion, and we had to create my opponents. And almost every week, people don’t realize back in the day, we were doing a live TV show every Saturday morning, 90 minutes long, and then live matches every Monday night, actually every night of the week, but every Monday night at the same city, in Memphis.
“And so, it was tough to come up with stuff, to keep coming up with new opponents for me. So, we created my own opponents by doing what we did like with James. All of a sudden, this guy shows up out of nowhere. First night in, he beats me and then we have the program of me trying to get revenge or get retribution or finally winning the title back or something like that and that would stretch on for weeks. That’s why we would look for somebody who was big, awesome looking guys that people would believe immediately could come in and knock off The King and then The King would have to go back and try to get the revenge or whatever.”
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.