News broke last Sunday night (9th August 2020) of the passing of James “Kamala” Harris. An iconic face of a different era in wrestling and a big part of the ’80s pop cultural boom for the sport.
Harris had a long and varied career that spanned multiple promotions and decades, tangling with legends like Jerry Lawler, Mick Foley, The Undertaker, Bruiser Brody and even Daniel Bryan. His character of a (Frank Frazetta-inspired) face-painted monstrous warrior from the wilds of Uganda (Harris was actually American) was a gimmick of its time but this character, that he made his own, thrived thanks to Harris’ sheer commitment to playing the part.
As Kamala, Harris was always over, be it as a feared villain or lovable babyface, he made it work and his dedication was such that he performed in a way that his matches made sense for the role he played, as such they were not technical clinics, and yet Harris was a very underrated athlete with some uncanny speed and agility for a man his size. From the highly controversial and attention grabbing “Kamala eats a live chicken” segment on WWE Tuesday Night Titans, to his feud playing the fearsome enemy of some of the biggest stars in the ‘80s, to his teaming with manager Slick as he finally turned on his abusive manager Kim Chee (defeating him soundly at the March To WrestleMania IX show), Kamala was an instantly recognisable face in this industry.
A character beloved by millions, and through all the health trials of his later life, everyone always had a good word for the man behind the face paint. So in tribute to this larger than life wrestling star, who this writer has loved since he was a kid and thought for years should be in the Hall of Fame, here are Kamala’s 16 Greatest matches!
The Gimmick Battle Royal (WWE WrestleMania 17, 2001)
Though ridiculously short (it runs less than 4 minutes and the entrances lasted longer than the actual match!), I have always had a soft spot for the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania 17. Done nowadays WWE would likely make this a bit of a cruel joke but back in 2001, they packed out the ring with some Hall of Fame names (The Iron Shiek, Sgt. Slaughter, Nikolai Volkoff, Michael Hayes, Hillbilly Jim and many more!) and Kamala was one of the favourites to win. And while he got his licks in, eliminating his own manager Kim Chee, the ultimate victory went to The Iron Shiek, in a nostalgic blast. This match also served as Kamala’s sole WrestleMania match in his career (he was supposed to face Bam Bam Bigelow back in 1993 at WrestleMania IX but the match sadly got cut due to time constraints). He may not have got the win (damn!) but Kamala did get a hidden gem of a segment on the show, with Commissioner William Regal, as he invaded his office and started dancing on his desk, leading to one of the greatest lines ever uttered by Regal, “He wants me to what? He wants me to rub the moons on his belly! Are you bloody mad?!”.
vs. Chief Jay Strongbow (WWE On MSG Network, August 25th, 1984)
One of many legends Kamala destroyed on his path towards a WWE Championship rivalry with Hulk Hogan was the iconic veteran Chief Jay Strongbow, who in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden was not prepared for the force of nature that was Kamala. Despite his resilience, Strongbow was taken out in quick fashion by Kamala before a shocked buzzing crowd, as Kamala scored the victory with the big splash and left the legend lying in his dominant wake.
vs. Pat Patterson (WWE On MSG Network, September 22nd, 1984)
Always one to make an entrance, Kamala created a real aura among the crowd as he entered with his weapon apparel and fearsome wooden face mask and in this match against legend Pat Patterson, he left another impression. Leaving Patterson no time to even take off his jacket, before he was pounding him with overhand chops. Patterson never got into this one, thanks to his unpredictable opponent and was left with the breath taken out of him by a big splash, as Kamala pinned another big name in the game.
War Games Match (WCW Fall Brawl, September 17th, 1995)
Kamala’s 1995 tenure with WCW was sadly rather short but he was introduced as a part of Kevin Sullivan’s (aka, The Taskmaster) monstrous Dungeon of Doom stable and at the time became a big part of the group, who were dead set on ending Hogan’s career. Kamala even got a singles PPV victory over Hacksaw Jim Duggan at WCW Bash at the Beach and took part in a Dungeon of Doom gloriously silly segment at Clash of Champions XXXI. However, it all led to a War Games match in the main event of WCW Fall Brawl, as The Dungeon of Doom (Kamala, The Zodiac, The Shark and Meng) took on The Hulkamaniacs (Hogan, Randy Savage, Lex Luger and Sting), with Hogan’s team getting the victory.
vs. Yokozuna (WWE Monday Night Raw, May 17th, 1993)
Yokozuna burst onto the scene with a vengeance back in 1993, having one hell of an impressive rookie year (winning the Rumble, main eventing WrestleMania IX, winning the WWE Championship twice and defeating Hulk Hogan at King of The Ring. One of his big TV wins came in this kaiju film come to life on Raw, as Kamala challenged the super heavyweight. A short battle but a fun big man encounter that made for a spectacular TV image. Kamala tried to topple the behemoth but ended up on the losing end of the bout, as he was flattened by the future Hall of Famer but on this night Kamala really put Yokozuna over as unstoppable, as he headed towards his rematch with Hogan.
vs. Rick Martel (ESPN Championship Wrestling, October 22nd, 1985)
This AWA World Heavyweight Championship match between Rick Martel and Kamala was, as expected, anarchic. As Kamala at times dominated Martel, he eventually fought back into things. Pec locks, brawling and ultimately a mayhem of a finish that saw both men needing to be separated by their fellow wrestlers, this one was a lot of fun and the crowd was in an absolute frenzy for it!!
vs. Shawn Michaels (WWE Monday Night Raw, June 21st, 1993)
Kamala challenged the brash and arrogant (both on and off screen at this point) Shawn Michaels (accompanied by Diesel) for his WWE Intercontinental Championship here and gave HBK all he could handle. It’s fun seeing Kamala send Michaels flying with an array of chops and throws but ultimately the dirty Heartbreak Kid would get the win, thanks to some assistance from his towering bodyguard. A fun, forgotten, IC Title match, which was not exactly a stone cold classic but one of those matches that it’s quite cool to say went down.
vs. George “The Animal” Steele (WWE Old School, November 24, 1986)
This was essentially a mirrored clash, as the Ugandan headhunter Kamala faced off against George “The Animal” Steele. A gimmick match more than anything, which saw both play their part perfectly, as Kamala was phased by his unusual opponent but got the upper hand thanks to interference by managers The Wizard and Kim Chee, allowing Kamala to leave Steele floored with a number of big splashes. Steele really put over Kamala here too, insisting to WWE officials he be taken out on a stretcher to sell the ferocious beatdown further. Two class acts in the business doing battle in a short, fun and unusual encounter.
vs. Sgt. Slaughter - Ugandan Death Match (NWA/AWA Pro Wrestling USA, April 19th, 1985)
Sgt. Slaughter and Kamala had a good rivalry, which stretched across multiple promotions, as they traded victories, with “Sarge” getting a win in his specialty “Boot Camp” match at one point. But, in a “Ugandan Death Match”, Kamala would get the win over his patriotic rival. Admittedly this isn’t the bloody and extreme match you are thinking it could be going in. However it is an out and out brawl between two veteran stars, one that makes for some fun old school wrestling action.
vs. Jake “The Snake” Roberts (WWE Saturday Nights Main Event, April 28th, 1987)
As Jesse Ventura said on commentary, “a great victory for Kamala here”. As silly as the thought was of a warrior of the wilds being afraid of snakes, they played it out for the benefit of Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ gimmick. Kamala and Jake had a few run-ins before and a bit of a rivalry (Kamala and Kim Chee even appeared on his talk show “The Snake Pit”) but this is probably their best remembered bout, as Jake had control early on before interference by Kim Chee (later revealed to be Jake’s rival The Honky Tonk Man in disguise) led Kamala to an impressive win.
vs. Randy Orton (WWE Smackdown, August 9th, 2005)
As Randy Orton was set to do battle again with The Undertaker at SummerSlam, after failing to end Taker’s WrestleMania undefeated streak months prior at WrestleMania 21, Smackdown General Manager Theodore R. Long informed Randy he’d be in action on this night against a classic Undertaker opponent. Unbelievably it ended up being against Kamala, who came out with Kim Chee. Some younger fans were probably very confused but fans were genuinely shocked to see The Ugandan Giant back in action in a pleasant surprise of a bout, which saw Kamala look great (his facial expressions were marvellous and his iconic belly slap was as fun as ever) and he took the young man to the woodshed for a while here, getting a couple of close calls, before Orton regained the match, took out Kim Chee and laid out Kamala with an RKO. However, the contest ended abruptly without a winner, as The Undertaker made his spooky presence felt and Kamala mysteriously vanished in the misty fog that enveloped the ring. It would not be his last match on WWE TV though, that came in 2006, where Kamala was decisively defeated on Raw by the late great Umaga.
vs. The Great Kabuki (World Class Championship Wrestling, May 26th, 1984)
Seeing Kamala and The Great Kabuki go at it was somewhat of an event. Two huge forces laying into each other in a match that saw similar characters clash and the results were pure chaos. Even the managers got their tempers flaring in this one, as each titan refused to back down. Like a Godzilla film, this was a clash of the monsters, that went as wild as you would expect. No clear winner is often a disappointment but with this one, it was the only possible result.
vs. Andre the Giant - Steel Cage Match (WWE TV Taping, October 21st, 1984)
Andre The Giant and Kamala had a big rivalry in more ways than one, that crossed promotions and lasted a couple of years, and Kamala - years prior to the much heralded Hulk Hogan match at WrestleMania 3 - even slammed Andre in Mid-South Wrestling in 1983 (one of the first to do so to my knowledge) and got a DQ victory (rare) over the big man at one point. Seeing these two living god-like figures clash was really something for audiences back then and things many times descended into pure chaos. But one of their most notable confrontations came in the confines of a steel cage in front of an in awe capacity Maple Leaf Gardens crowd, where Kamala even busted open the Giant. It was a clubbing big man battle that was a spectacle to witness, especially the ending which saw Andre come off the top rope onto Kamala for the huge win.
vs. Jerry Lawler (Continental Wrestling Association, June 7th, 1982)
The Kamala characters was put over something big in Memphis and this AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship match saw Kamala not only defeat promotion mega star Jerry “The King” Lawler but win the championship in doing so. It was a historic feat for what would become Harris’ enduring character and really kicked into gear the rivalry The King and Kamala would have, which has been renewed many times. As one of the people behind Harris’ gimmick, Lawler has constantly worked hard to put over Kamala as much as he could and both he and Harris had a great respect for one another and it created some memorable matches together. Kamala won many titles in other promotions, most memorably being a 4 time USWA Unified Heavyweight champion, across late 1991 - early 1992, where he traded title bout wins and losses with both Lawler and future Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware. However this was the character’s first career big title win.
vs. Hulk Hogan (WWE On NESN, December 6th, 1986)
Kamala was arguably at his very peak when he had his WWE Championship feud with Hogan in 1986-87. He even got a countout victory over The Hulkster (beating WWE’s Golden Boy Hogan in any capacity was rare) in January of 1987. The two battled for weeks (having no disqualification and cage matches together at points), with Kamala taking it to Hulkamania but Hogan conquering his new monstrous foe on most of the occasions. Their first big match came on WWE On NESN as, naturally, Hogan retained his gold but not before being in a bit of a battle, where Hulk was a bloody mess. The crowd were genuinely caught off guard by acts like Kamala sucking Hogan’s blood off his fingers and some of his unexpected agile displays (at points in this rivalry, Kamala would often catch the crowd off guard by spontaneously leaping over Hogan’s head as he ran off the ropes). Ultimately though, on this night, Hogan hulked up, hit the leg drop and handed Kamala his first pinfall loss since returning to WWE in earlier in ‘86.
vs. Undertaker - Coffin Match (Survivor Series 1992)
Despite his many accomplishments, Harris’ work with The Undertaker is arguably what most people recognise him and the character for. After meeting in Wembley Arena at Summerslam that year, The Undertaker and Kamala did not get their score settled, as the Ugandan Giant laid out The Deadman but couldn’t keep him down for long. In the months after, Undertaker exposed Kamala’s fear of coffins, in what would lead to a staple gimmick match’s creation, in the inaugural casket match (named here the “coffin match”) at Survivor Series. Kamala’s fear of coffins was sold to perfection by Harris (so much so, it has since been a story technique WWE has repeated with Taker opponents like Yokozuna and Heidenreich) and the match itself was highly enjoyable and superior to their previous bout. Kamala took it to Undertaker and at one point seemed to have him on the ropes (or rather the mat) but ultimately failed to face his fears, and it was his undoing, after being knocked cold with the urn, pinned (as per the rules back when this match was first held) and placed in the dreaded - specialised - casket.
Well that’s our list, are there any of Kamala’s matches we have forgotten? Let us know in the comments below. RIP the mighty James “Kamala” Harris.