On the surface, Kamala just looks like another character victim to racial stereotyping in professional wrestling. How often does an “Akeem The African Dream” or “Yamaguchi” need to come and go before promoters and writers alike understand that these characters are very quickly forgotten? If you dig deep into Kamala’s wrestling career, however, it’s so much more than just lazy pigeonholing.
Photo credit: The Washington Post
In 1982, the Continental Wrestling Association introduced Kamala to pro wrestling fans. Vignettes and backstage promotional videos showed the six foot seven, 380-pound Kamala with war paint embellishing his face and torso as he walked through a misty Ugandan jungle. He wielded a spear and instead of speaking in any kind of coherent language, Kamala grunted and groaned, portraying him as some kind of feral monster. During his CWA run, Kamala would win his matches using chops, bites and weight-driven attacks that often saw him crushing his always smaller opponents.
Starting in 1983, Kamala toured the US wrestling territories, wrestling for Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling, World Class Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation. Some of his most notable feuds around this time put him against another feral-type character in The Junkyard Dog, fellow giant in Andre the Giant, and his most recurring foe in Hulk Hogan. All of these feuds and subsequent matches against one another painted “The Ugandan Giant” as a monster heel capable of inflicting serious harm and damage to even the biggest, most resilient and larger-than-life professional wrestlers.
In 1984, a particularly controversial WWF segment involving Kamala guzzling down a live chicken cemented him as a terrifying being in the company’s ecosystem in comparison to guys like Hillbilly Jim and Brutus Beefcake. Though obviously fake from a contemporary perspective, it was pure horror for 1984’s standards.
When Kamala briefly left the WWF in late 1984, he wrestled for a myriad of promotions including the American Wrestling Association, All Japan Pro Wrestling and Jim Crockett Promotions. All of which are where he would showcase his true violent tendencies, unseen from the last two years. Brutal, bloody matches against the likes of Sgt. Slaughter, Jerry Blackwell and Magnum T.A. proved to viewers that Kamala wasn’t just scary looking, but capable of being equally scary in-ring.
When Kamala returned to the WWF in 1986, he was placed with “Kim Chee,” a masked handler of sorts. The pairing worked really well, as Kim Chee would attempt to tame the beast, making him seem truly unhinged and dangerous against any and every opponent he would come across. This run with Kim Chee would lead Kamala to perhaps his most memorable series of matches for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship against Hulk Hogan. Though he would never acquire company gold, Kamala lent such a helping hand to the Hulkster’s career, that Hulkamania’s 1980s boom-period is universally synonymous with The Ugandan Giant.
In another career turning point, Kamala feuded with Jake “The Snake” Roberts in 1986. Roberts, who famously carried around his pet snake, “Damien,” would exploit Kamala’s fear of creepy crawlers. Every time Damien was on screen, Kamala would be seen running out of the ring, often hiding in Kim Chee’s arms. This very evident fear would go on to humanize Kamala, while at the same time, not necessarily weaken his allure. Though there was some comic relief in the sight of a 380-pound man running in fear, it only reinforced his backstory as a man who had become feral, spending years in the African jungles and imagineably coming across all kinds of terrifying animals.
Kamala left the WWF in 1987 to tour wrestling promotions throughout Mexico and Japan, usually being saved for the main event as a terrifying attraction, where he would have cruel and gory matches against the likes of Abdullah The Butcher, as well as technical showcases against the likes of Mil Mascaras.
His final run in the WWF began in 1992, and while still a heel, the character was becoming even more humanized. In an attempt to help further tame him, Kamala’s manager Kim Chee sought out the aid of fellow heel manager, Harvey Whippleman. The two managers would constantly abuse the giant both mentally and physically, until babyface manager Slick caught wind of the mistreatment. Slick took a liking to Kamala, famously telling him that he wasn’t a monster, he was “A MAN!” Segments between the two included hilarious back and forth (pep talks followed by grunts and groans) and bowling lessons. His relationship with Slick was the last major storyline for Kamala in the WWF and soon, he was touring the house show circuit, often on the losing ends of his matches before being released from the company in 1993. Fun fact, this final WWF run saw Kamala in the first ever televised casket match in the company’s history against The Undertaker!
In 1995, Kamala joined World Championship Wrestling and was introduced as part of the God-awful Dungeon of Doom. He wrestled a total of three matches in the company, losing to Hulk Hogan in his final two matches, and he was gone from the company as quickly as he joined.
From 1996-2010, Kamala wrestled for a number of independent wrestling promotions, as well as a few one-off WWE appearances. In a fever-dream-like card, Kamala wrestled a surprisingly good match against Bryan Danielson for the Ring of Honor World Championship in 2006. Later that year, he was squashed by Umaga on a random episode of Monday Night Raw. A few TNA and Juggalo Championship Wrestling appearances later, and Kamala retired due to his declining health.
Kamala died in the summer of 2020, but his legacy remains as one of the truly terrifying wrestlers of the 20th century. He’s remembered as a hardworking, well-rounded pro wrestler, who rarely broke kayfabe, always stood in character in and out of the ring and never failed to entertain fans of whatever promotion he was working in.
Though we can retrospectively look at Kamala as a racially insensitive gimmick, 411Mania’s Ryan Byerns said it best when he said it was “problematic,” but “you believed he was what he was portraying, and, more importantly, you believed that he was dangerous.”