Albany Times Union – August 27, 2014
By Jennifer Gish
And how could Hulk Hogan tossing his sweaty, ripped tank top into your adolescent arms not change your life?
It set Kenny Casanova — or Ken Bevan, as he was known before he adopted a stage name — on a definite path, one that had a lot of turns, including the teaching career and DJ business he has today. But it all led back to chronicling the life of a guy who used to wrestle The Hulk. Casanova recently wrapped up “Kamala Speaks,” an autobiography he ghost wrote for James “Kamala” Harris.
Casanova grew up like a lot of kids in the ’80s and ’90s who spent time perfecting their flying clothesline off the corner of the sofa and seeing how many veins they could get to pop out in their necks a la The Macho Man. Casanova’s dad used to take him to shows, and one day, Hulk Hogan sent his ripped white tank top emblazoned with the words “American Made” into the crowd; Casanova, who was 13 then, was the one to make the grab.
“(Wrestling’s) like a comic book or a male soap opera, because what did this guy do to this guy or did he take his girl?” he says.
From there came a collection of action figures: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Hulk and even a Kamala. Later, heckling an announcer at a show led to a chance to announce some WWF(now WWE) matches himself around the same time he’d enrolled in pro wrestling school in Elmira. They noticed he had a good voice there, too, so although he wrestled in the minor leagues throughout the region and into New England as characters including “The Jive Turkey” Jimmy Giblets and Kendra Casanova (when he wrestled in drag), he was more often called to be a manager, the guy who stirred things up ringside.
That’s how he met Kamala, who was known as “The Ugandan Giant,” a wild man who supposedly was plucked from the African jungle (which seen through today’s lens was fairly racist). Casanova was asked to play his “handler,” Kim Chee, and the two made a couple of appearances together over the years. Kamala had a long life in wrestling, though some of it was spent outside of WWE, being paid decently to be the known wrestler at small venues with crowds of 500 to 1,000. Casanova lost track of him over the years, but he never lost touch with wrestling, fitting the occasional show between DJing weddings and teaching BOCES students.
When he saw a YouTube video about former pro wrestler Koko B. Ware giving Kamala a scooter, he learned that long-untreated diabetes had claimed the legs of the once 385-pound and 6-foot-7 Ugandan Giant. Kamala no longer could drive a truck, which he still did even in those years of wrestling, knowing that the sometimes spotty pay all would drain away in his post-wrestling years, and he had to receive dialysis 10 hours a day. He gave up wrestling in 2010.
So the man who used to stand alongside the golden brawn of pop culture legends like The Hulk had a hard time even getting out to sign autographs for fans. Having a degree in literature, Casanova found the contrast tragic: a man who used to travel the world and tower above everyone now being confined to viewing the world from an electric scooter. Given that Casanova was trying to get started in the publishing world, he reached out to Kamala and asked if he could tell his story.
They decided on autobiography, and the story is told in Kamala’s voice, with memories filled in by Casanova’s countless interviews with others from the wrestling world and hours of phone discussions between the two men. They’re trying to finance self-publishing the book with a Kickstarter campaign of $12,000. Kamala, whose income is limited, will keep any earnings. An interview with Steve Austin for his podcast helped them toward that goal. They’re hoping to release the book in October and make it available at kamalaspeaks.com.
And it’s more than telling a story with a deeply undulating story arc from screaming fans to learning that his sister and niece were shot by his brother-in-law to losing his legs. It’s even more than going from a figure who had the power to drive an audience to cheer or boo him to being someone with a disability who was afraid to leave his house in rural Mississippi. Casanova says the book will be something to remind wrestling fans that there weren’t always so many African-Americans in the business, and that Kamala paved the way for wrestlers like Booker T and Kofi Kingston.
“Wrestling fans are very ADD,” Casanova says. “But if it weren’t for Kamala’s book, some of these great stories and struggles would also be forgotten.”
And holding onto wrestling has been an important part of Casanova’s life ever since he first held a shredded tank top in his hands.