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ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY KAMALA, JAMES HARRIS

By Mike Johnson on 2020-08-09 20:15:00

When I received the call that James Harris, known to wrestling fans around the world as Kamala (sometimes spelled as Kimala), passed away, I flashed back, to December 26th, 1986 at Madison Square Garden, the first-ever live professional wrestling show I ever attended, headlined by Kamala challenging then-WWF Champion Hulk Hogan. 

While I am sure going back to watch the match today with a different set of eyes would bring a completely different experience, in that moment, in Madison Square Garden, through my 12-year old eyes, it was magic.  I watched as Kamala mauled and beat down superhero Hulk Hogan, who sold, sold, sold like a star before I knew what that term even meant. 

Just minutes after MSG rocked to one of the loudest reactions I've ever experienced in life for Hogan's grand entrance, I heard the entire Garden let out a collective gasp as the Mighty Kamala splashed Hogan.  For one brief moment, even though I had already been indoctrinated into what pro wrestling truly was, there was a moment of belief that Hogan was about to lose the title and all was lost for fans around the world. 

Of course, The Hulkster kicked up and went on to retain (via DQ) but that moment has been seared in my brain forever as the moment where doubt was injected into the reality of what was real and what wasn't when it came to professional wrestling.  Those moments are what we all live for as professional wrestling fans, a reminder of what is so great about this unique world we've all chosen to fall in love with. 

Kamala was the linchpin of that moment for me, he was that great.   In recent years, I have written about how I felt he should have been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and I'll admit that part of my pushing for that was my own fear that James Harris' health was failing him and that he, of all people, deserved that moment on stage to tell his story and get the happy ending his career didn't really get.

Harris was always the foil, the villainous mad savage from deepest, darkest Africa who made Jerry Lawler and Hulk Hogan, among other stars, the superheroes that they were perceived to be in the eyes of their audiences.  You can't have Superman without Lex Luthor, except for whatever reason, perhaps the gimmick, perhaps the fact he didn't headline PPVs, James Harris was never placed on a pedestal like a Randy Savage or a Paul Orndorff of an Andre the Giant as one of the greatest heels of all time.

The reality is, however, that he was as good or better than any top heel you can name, but played his role within the parameters of his character.  Kamala wouldn't have done amazing promos.  Kamala wouldn't have done headlock takedowns and armbars.  He wouldn't have put on classic long matches.  That would have flown in the face of what made that character, the essence of Kamala, work.  What did make it work was all Harris - an athletic ability one wouldn't have expected seeing the barefoot, face and body painted warrior carrying a spear and wearing a tribal mask to the mask.  He brought chaos and brawling and a keep heel psychology that allowed him to play the heavy to set up for the hero's big comeback.

Harris, in his excellent autobiography Kamala Speaks, wrote about the frustrations of his career; the feelings that as a black man, he wasn't paid the same as the white stars he headlined against.  The loss of his sister who was murdered and that he wasn't there to be there for her.  The sadness that came when in his new role as a trucker, he had to drop off a shipment at Madison Square Garden and upon arriving, realized it was the same date as a WWE event.  He rushed to get in and out for fear of embarrassment of being seen by others from pro wrestling.  In the end, in his rush, he bumped into Vince McMahon...who didn't recognize Harris as someone who had once main evented the same building for him.  For Harris, that was even worse and it bothered him so much, he never let it go and put it in his book.

I can only hope that in his passing, Harris is seen in a new light by fans and that he starts to get some of recognition he's long deserved for being a star from Memphis to Mid-South to the WWF and beyond.  I have no doubts that one day, WWE will indeed honor him, but that moment where Harris could appear, proudly, before his family and talk his life and career, has now been lost.  That isn't a tragedy on the level of the loss of Harris' life, but I feel a great sadness that this moment will never come for his family, similar to how I feel about Ivan Koloff passing before WWE could have enshrined him in their Hall.  

In my mind, Harris deserved that moment and in my mind, it will always be a shame it didn't happen. 

Harris gave a lot more to professional wrestling than he was recognized for in life.  I can only hope in his death, that recognition finally comes.

My deepest condolences to his friends, family and fans.

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