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You say, “Kamala;” I say, “Kimala…the Ugandan…GIANT!”

July 12th, 2011 7 comments

Jerry Jarrett pulls no punches in his new autobiography.

In Jerry Jarrett’s excellent new autobiography, The Best of Times, he admits that when Jim “Sugar Bear” Harris showed up backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum looking for work in January 1980, the owner of the Memphis wrestling territory didn’t quite know what to do with the oversized African-American wrestler. Harris had a menacing look and fantastic size–a legit 6-foot-5-inch frame with broad shoulders that put him well over 300 pounds–so Jarrett took a chance and booked the big Bear as a heel for the January 28 card at the Coliseum.

Harris had plenty of previous heel experience in other territories, working under the monikers “Big” Jim Harris, the Masked Superfly and the Mississippi Mauler (the latter of which, ironically, included his wearing tribal makeup for some reason). Harris had a rep of being a clumsy if not somewhat charismatic performer in the mold of a Rufus R. Jones past his prime. He certainly didn’t have the athleticism, physique and good looks of Rocky Johnson (father of the The Rock) nor did he have the philosophical promo skills of Ernie Ladd and Sonny King. Still, Harris had surprising agility for a big man, if anything.

Shortly after the Bear’s debut on the 28th, Jerry “the King” Lawler, Jarrett’s main attraction, suffered a broken leg in a “friendly” (if you consider Dick Butkus-like play “friendly”) football game at the hands of referee Jerry “the Crippler” Calhoun. With Jarrett reeling from the loss of Lawler and devising a plan to unleash Jimmy Hart as the area’s top new heel, nobody noticed just how bad Harris was stinking up the undercards.

Sugar daddy: Harris in the days before the Kimala (Kamala) gimmick.

A terrible Feb. 4, 1980, bout with Bill Dundee, an excellent worker and a Jarrett confidant, probably didn’t help Harris’ chances. In his new book, Jarrett said another wrestler reportedly told him that Harris was “phony in everything he does. His punches are terrible, and he acts like he is afraid he will hurt somebody when he locks up.” The promotion tried to hide Harris in tag matches after that, teaming him with veteran Ray Candy for a short-lived feud with Sonny King and “Shaft” (one of the area’s many supposed icons of pop culture over the years). After Harris showed no improvement, even surrounded by experienced talent, he was eventually let go.

Often in rasslin’ lore, they say timing is everything, e.g., Tommy Rich’s popularity spreading like wildfire on an ever-expanding national stage on WTBS in the late ’70s/early ’80s. (Incidentally, Jarrett has some nice memories of helping Tommy break into the business, which he covers in his book.)

Two years later, in 1982, Jarrett was thinking of a jungle savage character to introduce to the territory after seeing Ugandan tribesmen featured in the pages of National Geographic, along with the exploits of a Dr. Kimala, who was providing much-needed medical assistance for the people of Africa. For the role, Jarrett realized he’d not only need someone physically imposing but also an individual who appeared to have no idea how to wrestle. He instantly thought of Sugar Bear Harris.

Although Harris had gained even more girth since his initial Memphis days, especially around his Subaru-sized midsection, that made him tailor-made for the territory’s monster heels of the day and only benefitted him in his new role. (Whenever Kimala went on the offensive, he would repeatedly slap his own belly ceremoniously as if closing in on for the kill.) And if anybody could get Jarrett’s new character over, it was Lawler, who had an amazing gift of psychology and could sell an opponent’s offense so well that you’d swear the King was dead.

Extreme makeover: The new Kendo Nagasaki is born with J.J. Dillon at his side.

Around the same time, in addition to his prime headliner days at the time in Memphis, Lawler had been appearing in Florida, engaged in feud with J.J. Dillion, a charismatic manager who would eventually lead the Four Horsemen of the NWA.

In fact, in a rare title switch outside the territory, Lawler dropped the AWA Southern title in Florida to Dillon’s newest charge, Kendo Nagasaki (the former Mr. Sakarada who took the name of the famous British wrestling personality of the ’60s, mixed in with Kabuki’s gimmick). This set up a rematch at the Mid-South Coliseum, with Nagasaki dropping the belt back to Lawler on May 24, 1982, in front of nearly 8,000 fans.

Embarrassed and enraged that Nagasaki was the victim of home-cooked officiating on Lawler’s turf, Dillion taped a promo that aired on Memphis TV. The diabolical manager revealed that while while on safari in Uganda, he’d stumbled upon the most amazing creature  he’d ever seen.

Like a modern-day Carl Denham, J.J. crowed that he had captured this savage beast and was dispatching him to to Memphis–not to wrestle Lawler but to knock the King out of wrestling for good. (Dillon had amazing heat in Memphis before he even actually stepped foot in the Mid-South Coliseum, thanks to great promos like this he was sending in from the Sunshine State.)

What followed was the stuff of wrestling legend: As Nashville-based announcer Michael St. John did a priceless campy voice-over, Jim Harris–now known as Kimala…the Ugandan Giant–was seen “hunting” in the vast jungle of Jerry Jarrett’s backyard estate, wearing “animal hide” around his huge waistline and a tribal nose-ring, with tribal symbols on his chest and belly painted by Lawler’s artistic hands. Carrying a spear, this “jungle savage” confusingly looked at the camera crew following his every move, much like a documentary. Jarrett’s book further details this interesting video shoot and the story of Kimala’s quick rise to fame. I couldn’t locate the original video with Dillion’s intro but did find a copy of the Kimala debut footage, with Jimmy Hart introducing the Ugandan Giant to a nationwide audience on Championship Wrestling from Georgia in December 1984:

Although low budget by today’s standards (the kids from “Super 8” may have had higher production values), that Jarrett video helped Kimala get over in several territories, as it usually aired on TV proceeding the Ugandan Giant’s arrival arrival. Upon seeing the intro video on Memphis TV in 1982, I vividly recall turning to my friend, Greg, and saying, “Oh…my…God! Lawler’s gonna get KILLED Monday night!”

Harris played the gimmick to perfection, acting confused about the “rules” of professional wrestling (yeahyeah, I know); in fact, he didn’t even know how to pin his foe, often mistakenly covering his hapless opponent, who was lying prone belly-first on the the canvas without his shoulders firmly planted. The Ugandan Giant eventually learned to turn over his foe for the ref to make the three count. Kimala had guidance not from Dillion but his masked handler, nicknamed “The Beekeeper” (who was Buddy Wayne, and for one Saturday, even jobber Pat Hutchinson, under a hood).

Kimala as depicted by Mattel. (Jerry Jarrett's estate backyard simulated. AWA Southern title sold separately.)

At the WMC-TV studio, Kimala was at his best, staring into the camera in wonderment as the cameraman slowly backed away; the beast was seemingly in awe. Harris at times engaged the small studio crowd by charging their way with spear in hand, wearing his tribal headdress. (OK, so the gimmick was a tad racist in hindsight.) Still, it revitalized Sugar Bear’s career in ways he could never imagine–and drew Jarrett, Lawler and Harris a lot of money over in the summer of 1982. The fans often responded to a charging Kimala by screaming and running for cover; they believed in the gimmick. Today, Memphis–tomorrow the world.

Before he went on to national stardom, however, Kimala had to plunder and pillage the Tennessee territory. After quickly beating Lawler for the Southern title, he steamrolled over stars like Terry Taylor, Ron Bass, Bill Dundee and Steve Keirn. Much like the Road Warriors a year or so later, Kimala rarely sold his opponents’ offense and beat them decisively, usually drawing blood in the process…which he promptly licked off with delight. (The implied threat of cannibalism was definitely there in the early days of the gimmick–OK, so it was quite racist, but the business was different at the time, with nearly every stereotype played up the fullest.)

Because Dillion wasn’t about to leave Florida and Eddie Graham, eventually Hart “took over” Kimala’s contract. According to the Hart promo below, the basis for these shrewd negotiations apparently involved clauses for “watermelons and women!!” (R-A-C-I-S-T.)

Kimala was so hot that he sold out the Mid-South Coliseum for a match with Jimmy Valiant on Aug. 2, 1982–a bout that never took place because a sick “Handsome” passed out in a North Carolina airport earlier that day and missed his flight to Mempho. Instead, Lawler and Dundee beat Kimala and Dillion in a tag bout, with the manager doing a job, to keep the fans happy. Earlier that night, also to appease the sold-out crowd, Dutch Mantell attacked the Ugandan Giant with his prized bullwhip, Shoo-Baby. (In an interview I conducted with Dutch, he discusses a valuable lesson Jarrett taught him that night.)

The following Monday night of mayhem sold out again (the Coliseum’s only two weeks of straight sellouts in 1982) with Lawler putting his hair on the line against Kimala’s AWA Southern title. On his home court, the King triumphed, and Kimala’s reign of terror was over.

Soon afterward, the gimmick had run its course temporarily in Memphis with the introduction of “Kimala #2”: Plowboy Frazier painted like a fellow Ugandan tribesman. (Yep, it’s about as ridiculous as it sounds.) The evil Kimala was now a comedy figure, which would also eventually happen in the WWF after the unique terror of the gimmick had faded. Of course, the two belly-painted behemoths had a falling out and Kimala briefly turned babyface and eventually left the area following a loss to Hart and Kimala #2.

At that point, Kimala went on to achieve special-attraction status nationwide, in the same mold as Andre the Giant and Bruiser Brody, appearing on several big shows in Mid-South, World Class and Jim Crockett Promotions throughout the early ’80s. As in Memphis, the gimmick worked to perfection short-term, although somewhere along the way, in Mid-South most likely, the name morphed into “Kamala.” He now was a proven draw in several areas, especially when building up to big showdowns with the likes of Brody, where he wouldn’t be overexposed. Fans nationwide were eating up the gimmick faster than Kimala could ravage a bucket of KFC. (OK, now that was racist, and I should be ashamed of myself.)

Eventually, Vince McMahon & Co. saw dollar signs in a Kamala vs. Hulk Hogan feud, which did in fact draw some of the biggest houses of 1986. (Hogan claims he was so convinced the two could draw big money on a house-show rematch that he overruled agent Chief Jay Strongbow’s booking and lost to Kamala by countout instead of winning by disqualification as instructed. Supposedly, the rematch did sell out, but like anything Hogan says, take that with a grain of Mr. Fuji’s salt.) Not too bad for a guy like Harris, who was considered washed-up in the business four years earlier. Just goes to show what the genius of Jarrett and Lawler could do with a heaping of creativity and a little makeup. (Yes, Jarrett’s book also provides some insight into how he created the Fabulous Ones, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and other long-lasting gimmicks that drew money nationally for many years.)

Kimala went to have years of success off and on in the Former Fed, occasionally coming home to feud with Lawler. In fact, one of the highlights of my heel manager career saw Kimala return as Brian Lawler’s babyface partner against Tommy Rich and me. When the Ugandan Giant grabbed me around my pencil neck with his massive hands and lifted me over his head, clearly choking the life from me as the fans roared their approval, I might have been the happiest guy on the planet at that point. After all, the name “Kimala…the Ugandan…Giant” used to send shivers down my spine as a kid in 1982. On this night in 1994, I literally faced the biggest bogeymen of my childhood–and lived to tell about it. (Today, I hear conflicting reports of Kimala’s/Harris’ new career in politics. Hmmm.) Even today, the gimmick endures, as Mattel recently released a new Kamala action figure as part of its WWE Legends line.

A personal note if you please: I apologize for my absence this past month. I’ve been fortunate to pick up a great deal of freelance writing work in Los Angeles–y’know, assignments that actually pay–over the last 60 days. On that note, I do appreciate the few of you who occasionally click an ad on this site, as Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ has always been a labor of love and something I enjoy writing…when I can afford to do so. I should have more free time over the next few month or so. (And quite frankly, WWE’s CM Punk angle and the release of Jerry Jarrett’s book have reinvigorated my interest.)

I will provide more of an overview of Jarrett’s book soon, but in short, let me just say that The Best of Times provides insight into what made Jerry not only one of the greatest wrestling minds of all time but also one of the most decent men I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. To order Jarrett’s book and others produced by Mark James at Memphis Wrestling History, click here.


YouTube Finds: The night Jimmy Hart’s Monk flunked

January 26th, 2011 3 comments

Jimmy Hart was known not only for his hilarious Memphis wrestling promos but also for his pre-match preparations and strategies for his First Family members in big championship matches. A shrewd negotiator, Hart also knew how to get the better of promoter Eddie Marlin–never was this more evident than when the Mouth of the South secured an AWA Southern title bout for the unheralded Monk vs. Jerry Lawler. Even more impressive was that the Monk’s shot at championship glory occurred on the same Monday night as the infamous initial bout between Lawler and performance-artist Andy Kaufman on April 5, 1982, in front of nearly 9,000 fans.

Although fairly common in mixed-martial arts preparation today, Hart’s training methods at the time were considered unorthodox. Judging from the clip promoting the title bout, the Monk, despite appearing to become increasingly constipated, certainly appeared ready to solidify Hart’s reputation as a manager of champions.

But despite Hart’s confidence, Lawler knocked out his challenger with one punch, pinning him in under 30 seconds–the angle being that despite his intimidating physical presence, the Monk had one weakness: a glass jaw. The humiliated Monk disappeared from the Memphis rasslin’ scene shortly thereafter. As you might imagine, a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters proved disastrous at the end of 1982, leaving the Monk  to live out his remaining days in a monastery.

Kamala, Steve Cooley locked in grudge-match battle to be named California’s new attorney general

November 9th, 2010 3 comments

Kamala declares victory on Nov. 3 after initial votes indicated a victory for the Harris camp.

CBS San Francisco is reporting that former Southern heavyweight wrestling champion Kamala (aka “Sugar Bear” Harris) is currently trailing Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley by more than 50,000 votes, as data from the election to name California’s next attorney general continues to be tabulated.

Kamala was plucked from obscurity when manager J.J. Dillon stumbled upon the Ugandan savage during a jungle safari in 1982. Always a keen eye for talent, Dillon was mesmerized by the giant specimen’s size, speed and agility, wisely realizing that Kamala’s keen hunting skills would translate well to professional-wrestling competition.

After a bloody feud with Jerry Lawler in Memphis for the Southern title, Kamala moved on to Mid-South Wrestling and World Class before achieving his greatest fame during a memorable feud with Hulk Hogan over the World Wrestling Federation championship in 1986.

Headhunter: Kamala sticks it to Hulk Hogan during a WWF battle in 1986.

Years after retiring from the mat wars, Kamala shocked wrestling and political analysts alike on June 8, 2010, when Harris received the Democratic nomination for California Attorney General, despite incessant displays of ritualistic belly slapping and awkwardly gazing into TV cameras without saying a word during television interviews.

At the close of the polls on Election Day, the race between Cooley and Harris was too close to call with initial votes. At that point, Cooley trailed Harris by about 15,000 votes. Much like his professional wrestling career, Kamala seemed not only confused about his apparent victory but also seemed to unaware he was in a competition at all, with a far-away look in his eyes at the podium when addressing his supporters. The Beverly Hills Courier reported Monday that Cooley had a lead of 19,189 votes after more data had been tabulated. Today, Cooley expanded that lead, garnering 3,782,957 votes, or 46 percent. Harris currently has 3,731,518, or 45.5 percent, CBS San Francisco reported Tuesday.

Harris’s campaign officials remain undaunted.

“Kamala is not someone you want to make angry,” says Dillon, who has successfully made the transition to campaign manager, shrewdly guiding the savage Democrat  from the squared circle to political circles. “Kamala forged a trail of bloodshed never before seen in professional wrestling, chopping down everyone who got in the way, from Andre the Giant to Bruiser Brody. I can assure you that this little punk Cooley is no different. We’ll squash that feeble Republican like the cockroach that he is. We will not rest until Kamala is named California’s next attorney general.”

Kamala’s senior consultant, Kim Chee, refused comment.

The campaign has been heated, with several negative ads aired by both parties. Most notably, Cooley criticized Kamala for the wrestler’s past association with manager Jimmy Hart and a “fast-lane lifestyle of watermelons and women throughout the 1980s.”