But now James Harris, known to fans as the face-painted Ugandan tribal warrior Kamala, is struggling to make ends meet, living life in rural Mississippi as he deals with the ravages of diabetes that have left him a double-amputee who must survive on disability checks and dialysis, according to Bleacher Report.
Harris, who had both legs amputated in recent years, says he did not earn the big bucks of his star wrestling counterparts and is struggling, living in a $39,000 home with his wife, who just lost her job after 28 years, and without a vehicle after their truck’s transmission recently died.
The former sharecropper’s son, whose father was killed in a dice game when he was 4, worked the fields himself as a child alongside his mom as the family struggled to put food on the table. He later earned a living as a truck driver and enjoyed a low-level wrestling career in the 70s as a hulking, but mild-mannered fighter dubbed “Sugar Bear Harris.”
But things changed in 1982 when, at the behest of Jerry Lawler, a former wrestler who owned a promotional company, Memphis Wrestling, took one look at his imposing 6-foot-7 frame and helped to transform Harris into a star.
Harris flipped from a meek character to Kamala, a fearsome face-painted giant who never spoke English, but frightened opponents with his war-like appearance as a deranged, loin-cloth-wearing behemoth. He communicated through primal grunts and yelps, often flanked by his handler “Kim Chee,” who served as his liaison to the world.
“Sometimes, the guys that look the meanest in the ring are actually nicer than anyone outside of it. That was the case with Kamala. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” former wrestler Ted DiBiase told Bleacher Report.
In 1986, he had a strong run wrestling Hogan, who told Harris he hoped he was getting paid properly as professional wrestling gained popularity. Harris left wrestling temporarily in 1987 and then returned less successfully in 1992, often sleeping in his car to save money while on the road as other wrestlers earned big paychecks and he struggled to speak up for his share.
After his sister and niece were murdered in 1993, his career was nearly over, having learned of his diabetes diagnosis in 1992. After he left wrestling for good, his health declined as he gained weight, leading to the first leg amputation in 2011 and the second the next year.
Harris, who communicates with fans from his Facebook page, now builds wooden chairs from his wheelchair to try to make ends meet – but he needs help.