Harris was born on May 28, 1950, in Senatobia, Mississippi. He grew up in Coldwater, Mississippi, where his family owned a furniture store. He has four sisters. When he was around four, his father was shot dead during a dice game, leaving the family impoverished. As a youth, Harris worked as a sharecropper to help support his family.
Harris left high school in the ninth grade and became a habitual burglar. In 1967, local police suggested he leave town. As Harris put it, "Back then if you didn't leave like they said, you would be found dead somewhere." He relocated to Florida, where he drove trucks and picked fruit. At age 25, he moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where he met wrestler Bobo Brazil. Harris then began training as a wrestler, under Brazil's friend, "Tiny" Tim Hampton. He moved to Arkansas to continue training and escape the snow in Michigan.
Professional wrestling career
Early career (1978–1982)
Harris debuted in 1978 under the ring name "Sugar Bear" Harris. He spent most of his early career in the Southern United States, also using the ring names "Ugly Bear" Harris and "Big" Jim Harris. His first manager was Percy Pringle. He won his first championship in NWA Tri-State in 1979, teaming with Oki Shikina to win the NWA Tri-State Tag Team Championship. In 1980, Harris joined Southeastern Championship Wrestling as "Bad News" Harris, winning the NWA Southeastern Heavyweight Championship in 1980.
In 1981, Harris traveled to Europe for seasoning. Following a stint in Germany, he traveled to the United Kingdom, where he wrestled for Joint Promotions as "The Mississippi Mauler", a character with some similarities to his future Kamala character. In June 1981, he competed in a tournament for the vacant WWA World Heavyweight Championship, losing to Wayne Bridges in the final in Wembley Stadium in London.
Continental Wrestling Association (1982)
Harris returned to Senatobia in the United States in 1982 after sustaining a broken ankle. While visiting his friend The Dream Machine at the Mid-South Coliseum in nearby Memphis, Tennessee to borrow ring attire, Harris met Continental Wrestling Association promoter Jerry Lawler, who offered him a job. Harris, Lawler and Jerry Jarrett developed a new character for Harris, "Kimala" (later adjusted to "Kamala"), drawing upon ideas for a character originally developed for Harris by The Great Mephisto. The character was a vicious Ugandan headhunter with face and body paint copied from a Frank Frazetta painting. His backstory was that he was a former bodyguard of deposed President of Uganda Idi Amin who had been discovered by J.J. Dillon during an excursion to Africa. A promotional vignette aired on WMC-TV featuring a spear-wielding Kamala seemingly emerging from a steamy African jungle; the vignette was actually filmed on Jarrett's farm in Hendersonville, Tennessee, with the steam effect created using dry ice. To establish Kamala as a monstrous character, Jarrett instructed him to wrestle in a brawling style with chops and biting. To preserve kayfabe, Harris wore robes and refused to speak English while in public in Memphis.
Kimala made his debut in the CWA in May 1985 with Dillon as his manager, losing to Lawler by disqualification in a match that sold out the Mid-South Coliseum. In June, he defeated Lawler for the AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship, which he held until August that year. Towards the end of the year, he feuded with the imposter "Kimala II"
Mid-South Wrestling (1982–1986)
In late-1982, Kamala began wrestling for Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling promotion. He was managed by Skandor Akbar and Friday (originally portrayed by Buddy Wayne, then by Frank Dalton), forming part of Akbar's villainous Devastation, Inc. stable. In April 1983, he wrestled André the Giant in a highly promoted bout at the Louisiana Superdome. In 1983, he faced The Junkyard Dog in a series of "battle of the monsters" matches.
World Class Championship Wrestling (1983–1985)
In March 1983, Kamala debuted in the Dallas, Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling promotion. In October of that year, he challenged Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, losing by disqualification. In the same month, he began a lengthy feud with the Von Erich family, repeatedly facing brothers David, Kerry, and Kevin. In May 1984, he faced The Great Kabuki at the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions, a tribute to David, who had died suddenly in February. Kamala continued to appear regularly with WCCW until late-1985.
World Wrestling Federation (1984)
At the instigation of André the Giant, Kamala debuted in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in July 1984. He was managed by Freddie Blassie and a masked "handler" in safari clothing known as "Friday" (played by a variety of people). In a memorable segment on the television program Tuesday Night Titans, Kamala seemingly devoured a live chicken (with a cutaway shot of feathers flying out of his mouth shown to create the illusion).
After defeating a series of opponents including B. Brian Blair, Salvatore Bellomo, and Chief Jay Strongbow, in August 1984 Kamala challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship, wrestling him to a double count-out. In October 1984, he began a series of matches against André the Giant, among them a Steel Cage match which he lost after André twice sat on his chest. Kamala's final appearance was in a Battle Royal in November 1984.
Various promotions (1984–1986)
After leaving the WWF in late-1984, Kamala went on to appear with multiple promotions throughout the United States and Canada.
Throughout 1985, Kamala wrestled for the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association. He was established as a "monster" by winning a series of handicap matches. He feuded with Sgt. Slaughter, who he defeated in a "Ugandan Death Match" in April 1985 but lost to in a "Boot Camp" steel cage match in June. At the SuperClash Supercard in September 1985, Kamala lost to Jerry Blackwell in a bodyslam challenge. Towards the end of the year, Kamala repeatedly challenged Rick Martel for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship but failed to win the championship.
In November 1985, Kamala made his first tour of Japan with All Japan Pro Wrestling. Wrestling as "Giant Kamala", he formed a tag team with fellow gaijin King Cobra. He made a second tour in February 1986 as "Kimala".
World Wrestling Federation (1986–1987)
From November 1986 to February 1987, Kamala faced Hulk Hogan in a series of matches for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, marking the pinnacle of his career.
In February 1987, Kamala formed a tag team with the "Wild Samoan" Sika. In the same month, he began a feud with Jake Roberts, during which Roberts repeatedly exploited Kamala's purported fear of snakes.
Kamala abruptly left the WWF once more in September 1987 over frustrations about his pay.
Various promotions (1988–1992)
World Wrestling Federation (1992–1993)
Kamala returned to the WWF in April 1992, with Kim Chee and Harvey Wippleman acting as his managers. In June 1992, he unsuccessfully challenged Randy Savage for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Throughout mid-1992, he wrestled primarily on house shows, with his regular opponents including The Undertaker, Bret Hart, The Texas Tornado, and The Ultimate Warrior.
Kamala lost to The Undertaker by disqualification at SummerSlam in August 1992. Kamala later claimed that he was paid $13,000 for the bout while The Undertaker was paid $500,000. Professional wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer questioned this claim, saying: "I'm not saying he's lying, but that's hard to believe [...] for there to be that big of a disparity wouldn't make any sense." In November 1992, Kamala lost to The Undertaker at Survivor Series in the first-ever televised casket match.
In January 1993, Kim Chee and Wippleman began mistreating Kamala, leading him to break away from them and align himself with Reverend Slick. Slick set out to "humanize" Kamala, leading to a series of skits in which he introduced him to activities such as ten-pin bowling. Kamala feuded with Kim Chee throughout early 1993. In March 1993, he began a series of matches with Bam Bam Bigelow. The two were scheduled to face one another at WrestleMania IX, but the match was canceled due to time constraints.
In May 1993, Kamala lost a King of the Ring tournament qualifying match via count-out to Mr. Hughes on an episode of WWF Wrestling Challenge. He went on to compete primarily at house shows until being released by the WWF that July.
In December 1993, Kamala was announced as a participant in the 1994 Royal Rumble Match. However, during the bout, the announcers noted that Virgil, as an alternate participant, had replaced him.
After leaving the WWF once more, Harris stepped back from professional wrestling. He began working as a truck driver using two semi-trailer trucks he had purchased following his series of matches with Hulk Hogan.
World Championship Wrestling (1995)
At Hulk Hogan's suggestion, Kamala joined World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in 1995. He was introduced as part of Kevin Sullivan's Dungeon of Doom stable, whose goal was to end Hogan's career. In his first WCW pay-per-view appearance, he defeated "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan at Bash at the Beach. He lost a singles match to Hogan at Clash of the Champions XXXI. He was part of the "Dungeon of Doom" team at Fall Brawl, which lost to Hogan's team, "The Hulkamaniacs".
Kamala participated in "The Gimmick Battle Royal" at WrestleMania X-Seven and was eliminated by Sgt. Slaughter. On July 26, 2004, he made a surprise return to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), participating in a Raw Diva Search segment on RAW, in which the female contestants were instructed to try to seduce him. Kamala faced Randy Orton on the August 11, 2005 edition of SmackDown! (accompanied by Kim Chee) but the match was interrupted by a message from The Undertaker to Orton and ended in a no contest. Kamala appeared at the 2005 Taboo Tuesday event, as one of the choices for Eugene's tag team partner. He lost the fan vote to Jimmy Snuka but came to the ring after the match to deliver a big splash to Tyson Tomko. On June 25, 2006, at Vengeance, he accompanied Eugene to the ring (along with Doink the Clown and Hacksaw Jim Duggan) to take on Umaga. Umaga quickly won the match, after which he attacked Eugene, Doink, and Duggan. Before Kamala and Umaga could fight, Umaga's manager, Armando Estrada, intervened. Kamala was defeated by Umaga in a match on the following night on Raw.
Independent circuit (2003–2010)
Kamala had a lengthy run on the independent circuit. In September 2006, he wrestled to a non-finish with Bryan Danielson, in a match for the ROH World Championship at a National Wrestling Alliance event in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Kamala appeared at Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Slammiversary pay-per-view in June 2008, as a guest at Jay Lethal and SoCal Val's storyline wedding. His last match was in 2010.
Harris was married to Sheila Stover from 1974 to 2005. After the couple divorced, Harris married Melissa Guzman. Harris lived with his niece Ashley in Senatobia, Mississippi until moving to Oxford, Mississippi.
In July 1993, Harris was called away from a WWF tour after an Oakland, California show when his youngest sister and her stepdaughter were shot to death. The killer attempted suicide, but only severely disfigured himself. After his WWF release that August, Harris pushed for the man's arrest and conviction. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in 2013. Harris went on to help raise his surviving niece.
Since 1993, he has been writing, performing, and producing his own music. He has written over 100 songs. Some discuss his frustration with the working conditions he experienced in the wrestling industry, most notably the low pay. He released his debut album, The Best of Kamala Vol 1, through his official website. The album features a ballad dedicated to the memory of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
In 2015, Harris completed his autobiography along with one of his wrestling managers, Kenny Casanova, to help him offset medical costs. Kamala Speaks was funded on Kickstarter and self-published in December 2014. It tells his life story, his wrestling career, and the loss of both of his legs to diabetes.
On November 7, 2011, Harris had his left leg amputated below the knee due to complications of high blood pressure and diabetes, a condition he has had since 1992, but not accepting dialysis treatment, forcing him to retire. In April 2012, his right leg was also amputated below the knee and a campaign was launched seeking donations to cover his financial needs. Harris told Bleacher Report in 2014 that he relies on a disability check, sells handmade wooden chairs, and recently wrote a book about his life.
In July 2016, Harris was named part of a class-action lawsuit filed against WWE which alleged that wrestlers incurred traumatic brain injuries during their tenure and that the company concealed the risks of injury. The suit was litigated by attorney Konstantine Kyros, who has been involved in a number of other lawsuits against WWE. The lawsuit was dismissed by the District of Connecticut judge Vanessa Lynne Bryant in September 2018.
On November 19, 2017, Harris underwent "life-saving" emergency surgery to clear fluid from around his heart and lungs at a hospital in Oxford, Mississippi. Following it, he was put on life support due to complications. The next day, his daughter said he showed signs of improvement but remained on life support. On November 22, it was reported that he was able to breathe on his own yet was unable to talk and remained under intensive care.
According to his wife, Harris tested positive for COVID-19 on August 5, 2020, and was hospitalized. He likely contracted it from one of his numerous weekly visits to the dialysis center. Because he had contracted the virus, he started to experience complications from his diabetes. He then went into cardiac arrest on August 9, 2020, before dying later that afternoon, at the age of 70.
- Signature moves
- "Bad News"
- "Sugar Bear"
- "The Ugandan Giant"
- "The Ugandan Headhunter"
- "Ugly Bear"
Championships and accomplishments
- GLWA Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- NWA United States Tag Team Championship (Tri-State version) (1 time) - with Oki Shikina
- PWI ranked him # 144 of the 500 best singles wrestlers of the "PWI Years" in 2003.
- SXW Hardcore Championship (1 time)
- TAS Six-Man Tag Team Championship (1 time)