James Harris, who wrestled as Ugandan warrior Kamala, dies at 70

WASHINGTON — James Harris, a 6-foot-7-inch, 380-pound, Mississippi-born sharecropper and truck driver who later terrorized professional wrestling opponents as a Ugandan tribal warrior known as Kamala, has died at 70.

His death was confirmed in a statement by World Wrestling Entertainment. Kenny Casanova, who co-wrote Harris’s autobiography, wrote on Facebook that ‘‘it was Corona that took him,’’ apparently referring to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Mr. Harris had suffered many health reversals in recent years and had both legs amputated because of diabetes complications.


In the ring, the imposing Mr. Harris stomped about barefoot, sported a loincloth, slapped his belly and carried a spear. As part of his role, he would beat up opponents long after the match ended, as his handler, a masked man named Kim Chee, tried to keep him in line.

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While the character was often seen as trafficking in racist stereotypes, Mr. Harris said he enjoyed the role and being an entertainer. He had been mentored by promoter Jerry Lawler, who invented the Kamala character. ‘‘He put the paint and stuff on me and they put the little skirt on me,’’ Mr. Harris told a Memphis TV station in 2012. ‘‘I like doing that kind of stuff.’’

His 30-year career peaked during the 1980s with what then was known as the World Wrestling Federation, as Mr. Harris wrestled marquee names such as Hulk Hogan, Jake ‘‘The Snake’’ Roberts, and the Ultimate Warrior.

As Kamala, Mr. Harris spoke in grunts and purportedly was unable to speak English. In reality, he was a ninth-grade dropout from the Jim Crow South who made ends meet by picking cotton, driving trucks and — he said — committing petty crimes. When he was 25, he moved to Benton Harbor, Mich., where he had family. Wrestling became a last resort when he could not find a job.

First wrestling under names including Sugar Bear Harris and the Mississippi Mauler, Mr. Harris had a chance meeting with Lawler, the promoter of the Continental Wrestling Association, in 1982.


Impressed by Mr. Harris’s size, Lawler pitched him his eventual character’s prototype: Kimala, a caricature of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Lawler filmed a commercial of Mr. Harris storming out of a jungle — with Lawler’s untamed backyard substituting as the African bush — and aired it on Memphis TV to instant success. The character soon became known as Kamala.

‘‘Lawler asked me if I was going to be ashamed to do it, but I’m not ashamed to do stuff like that,’’ Mr. Harris told in 2006 when asked whether the role was offensive or degrading.

Mr. Harris compensated for his lack of traditional grappling skills with his extreme agility for a man of his size, plus wild-man showmanship.