I remember him well as a kid. He scared the hell out of me. Before and after World Wrestling Federation events in the ’80s, I would always hang out behind the arena hoping to get an autograph or picture with my favorite TV pro wrestlers. Even though most knew pro wrestling wasn’t real competition, many of the wrestlers stayed in character when they’d head to their cars. Kamala (James Harris) was one of them.
The night that I had my close call with “The Ugandan Headhunter,” I was about 13 or 14 years old so my mother was the one who brought me. After sitting through 3 hours of grown men pretending to fight, she was probably more than ready to go home. She hated WWF (now WWE) wrestling. She’d already seen enough pro wrestling in her lifetime because it was my grandfather who got me hooked. And on this night, as always, her son had to wait for the wrestlers to come out to their rental cars to head to the next town. After my encounter with Kamala, I’m surprised I ever went anywhere near that parking lot again.
It was known (at least to me) by this point that wrestling wasn’t real so I had that teenage overabundance of confidence that I could just approach any of the wrestlers to get that photo. But on this night, that all changed. The whole ordeal happened in maybe 10 seconds, but almost 40 years later, it still is fresh in my mind.
There were probably about 20 or 30 other fans hoping to get a quick encounter with the wrestlers. You never knew who was going to walk out of that locker room door. It could be one of the good guys or bad guys. Ironically the bad guys were usually the nicer ones in real life. But not that night. All of a sudden the door bursted open – not gently – it was pushed hard to make an impression and it did. An enormous 6 foot 7 Kamala stormed out with a couple other guys. He walked FAST to his car in his back and forth left and right swagger. It wasn’t a walk. It was a war march. He had taken his paint off his face he wears to the ring, but he had a black sheet over his head which added to the fear factor.
I had seconds to decide if I wanted to approach him for that autograph. Did I really want one that badly? The decision was made for me by Kamala. He rudely brushed by my mother and I and in an instant, he was gone. People scrambled to get out of his way as if an explosion just went off. I’ll never forget it. It probably made me love wrestling that much more. I remember my mother was furious with Kamala and wanted to smack him for scaring her son.
Decades later, I’d heard that just like my mother, Kamala had to get his leg partially amputated due to diabetes complications. That menacing creature who scared the living snot out of me that night back in the ’80s did a series of interviews that are on YouTube. He appealed for financial help to cover his medical expenses. He was a warm, kind guy according to his peers. Turns out Kamala actually had local ties. He grew up in Florida. One of his first jobs before becoming a pro wrestling star was being a fruit picker.
I was saddened last night to hear the news he had passed. The word is he caught COVID-19 during a visit to a dialysis center and had a heart attack yesterday. My love to his wife, family and fans. Few wrestlers made such a powerful impression on TV but even fewer created such moments in person like Kamala did that night in Portland, Maine. Rest in peace Mr. Harris!
Some of my WWF parking lot encounters from the ’80s…
As I looked through old photos today to find a photo of Kamala from that night, I found these photos from my Kodak Disc (remember those?) photos from the parking lot behind the Cumberland County Civic Center World Wrestling Federation events back in the ’80s.