Maurice Tillet’s early life

Few life stories are as touching and simultaneously as rewarding and poignant as Maurice Tillet’s life story. Born in 1903 in Russia near the Ural Mountains area to French parents, Maurice had a normal childhood. Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of his early life was his beauty, with a face so pretty that people nicknamed him as “The Angel”.

But things didn’t remain calm for long and a few years after the death of his father, Tillet and his mother left Russia and went back to France trying to escape from the 1917 Revolution which saw the Bolsheviks rise to power.

After a few years of relative calmness in France the worst happened, when he was around 20 years of age Maurice started noticing a serious swelling in his feet, hands and head. Worried about this sudden physical change he went to see a doctor and after a few exams he received what was perhaps the worst news in his life: he had severe acromegaly.

Acromegaly is a condition which leads to degenerative bone overgrowth and thickening, mainly caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. The end result of this illness is the deformation of different parts of the body, and specially the face.

Suffering a facial deformity wasn’t easy during the early 20th century, and Maurice Tillet had to abandon his dreams of becoming a lawyer opting to join the French Navy instead where he trained as an engineer. The navy was in fact one of the few places with its doors opened to people with his condition.

Maurice Tillet vs Lou Thesz in 1940.
Maurice Tillet vs Lou Thesz in 1940.

The wrestling career of Maurice Tillet

However, and while Maurice Tillet’s life seemed destined to remain in darkness, a fortuitous encounter changed everything for the better. In 1937 Tillet met Karl Pojello, a Lithuanian professional wrestler who encouraged him to enter the world of professional wrestling. Tillet and Pojello then began touring the stages of Paris and London performing various acts of mostly choreographed wrestling, until the outbreak of the Second World War forced them to leave Europe and move to the United States.

Once in the United States he settled in Boston, Massachusetts, the city where he met Paul Bowser, a very talented fight promoter and the man who gave him the “The French Angel” nickname. Thanks to Bowser’s talent for promoting each match to a wider public he went from fighting in small stages to fighting in crowded arenas all over America, and unlike the choreographed matches he practiced with Pojello the matches in the American arenas were real.

Maurice Tillet enjoying one of his favorite activities, dining outside.
Maurice Tillet enjoying one of his favorite activities, dining outside.

Maurice Tillet remained undefeated for 19 months, something that earned him the title of the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. His success was such that soon several imitators began to fill the different wrestling arenas, something that Maurice Tillet certainly didn’t enjoy since the imitators were sometimes grotesque and made fun of his deformities.

Declining health and legacy

Unfortunately, the wrestler’s health began to deteriorate in 1945, to the point that he was no longer touted as the “unstoppable wrestler” by his promoter. His final match took place on February 14, 1953 and Maurice Tillet died a year later in Chicago due to cardiovascular problems.

Curiously Tillet would become much more famous in death than what he could have hoped for when he was alive, since in 2001 the world acclaimed animation company DreamWorks used his image as the main inspiration for the green ogre Shrek. A being that despite being feared by many due to his physical appearance was in fact very friendly and had a big heart.