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Tampa to the rescue as pro wrestler 'Kamala' faces health and money problems

When he performed as a professional wrestler, James Harris entered the ring wearing the mask of Kamala and a loincloth. Now in poor health, he’s getting help from a GoFundMe account. [Courtesy of James Harris]
Published May 1

When he was a professional wrestler, James Harris welcomed the hatred of fans.

It was his job, after all, to get booed.

For decades, he played wrestler Kamala, a 6-foot-7, 400-pound, uncontrollable "Ugandan headhunter."

Dressed in a loin cloth and war paint, he was known for slapping his belly like a wild man and bludgeoning beloved grapplers such as Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant.

Now, his career behind him, Harris is enjoying the support of wrestling fans.

And it couldn't come at a better time.

Harris, 68 and now living in Tate County, Miss., suffers from diabetes, has had both his legs amputated, and owes $13,000 in taxes plus mounting medical bills.

"I didn't know where I was going to find help," Harris said.

It came from Tampa, where former pro wrestler and Hillsborough County commissioner Brian Blair heard of his ex-colleague's plight. Blair, 60, launched a GoFundMe campaign in early April.

Odessa's Chris Irvine, 48, also known as pro wrestler Chris Jericho, donated $5,000 to the cause. In under a month, $15,000 had been raised.

"Brian is a good friend who I wrestled many times and I thank him so much," Harris said. "Chris just knocked it out. I know who he is from TV, but I can't remember ever meeting Chris."

Irvine could not be reached for comment; friend Gerald Brisco — another retired wrestler living in Tampa — said Irvine does not like to talk about his charity work.

READ MORE: Ex-WWE star Chris Jericho buys Odessa estate for $3.255 million

"Chris is a wonderful man," Blair said. "He has a heart for helping his brothers and sisters from wrestling."

On the GoFundMe page, Irvine said he was a fan of the Kamala character.

"God bless you James!" he wrote. "Thx for the years of entertaining!"

Overall, nearly 350 fans donated.

"That means a lot," said Harris, who from 1978 to 2010 worked for wrestling promotions around the world including WWE and the now-defunct Championship Wrestling from Florida of Tampa.

"It means I did my job in the ring. It is a feeling I cannot describe. It is wonderful."

READ MORE: For Tampa, 'time has come' to host WWE's WrestleMania

When he receives the GoFundMe money, Harris said he will pay $2,000 in back property taxes to Tate County and $9,500 in state income taxes he owes. The rest will go for repairs to a Ford Excursion that has racked up almost 400,000 miles.

Unfortunately, Tampa's Blair said, many wrestlers struggle financially once their careers end — even those who performed on television for a global audience.

Harris counts social security as his only source of income.

"In wrestling there is no retirement plan," Blair said. "Disease, hospital bills or bad investments can lead to bad times."

Never a world champion, Harris still appeared opposite a promotion's biggest star.

"People think I earned millions of dollars because I wrestled guys like Hogan," he said. "That's not the truth."

He accepts responsibility for failing to manage his diabetes, forcing the amputation of both legs below the know and dialysis three times a week.

The Seattle-based Cauliflower Alley Club was founded to help former wrestlers like Harris. Blair is president.

"We help those who gave their bodies for the business," Blair said.

The nonprofit is named for the cauliflower ear grapplers get from repeated blows. It caps annual payments to $2,000 and Harris has been a beneficiary for five years.

"James needed more," Blair said, "So I did more."

So did fans, most of whom have given $5 to $30 each at GoFundMe — along with messages of support.

"He entertained me and others as a legendary pro wrestler," wrote donor James Gore. "I feel as a fan it's my duty but also my pleasure to give back."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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