Maurice Tillet was a World Heavyweight Champion wrestler during WWII. The Russian born French American literally looked live a caveman, with massive cauliflower ears and a bizarre oversized face. He looked so gruesome that many say that the “French Angle” was the inspiration for Shrek.
He’s a real character, angelic as a child, only to become brutal in appearance and savage in the ring. Here’s everything you need to know about him.
Maurice Tillet Was the Inspiration for Shrek
Ever since Shrek was released, rumors have circulated that Tillet was the inspiration for the main character. Dreamworks have never admitted to this, but the images make this claim extremely credible.
The resemblance is uncanny with Shrek…
Despite regular requests, Dreamworks have always refused to comment on the rumor. They’ve never denied it or offered someone different. Many claim that the Shrek animators became inspired when they saw the Death Masks of Maurice Tillet at York Barbell Museum. These life casts even come in the same color as Shrek, so you can understand why bloggers thought that they were the models for the animating sculpting.
In fact, possibly the only inconsistency is those giant cauliflower ears. His ears were so abundant he had customized headphones built out speakers*, but Shrek has to make do with these squidgy little mushrooms jutting out of his big green meathead.
*We made that bit up…
He Behaved Just Like Shrek
Maurice Tillet would jump into the wrestling ring and roar at the crowd. Everyone loved that and would stamp their feet in derision. But in real life, he was well known to be kind, sensitive, noble, and a big softy at heart.
He was the gentle giant, or a benevolent ogre. Which is pretty much exactly how the Shrek character is portrayed. Both were prone to some scary displays of power but both knew how to eventually win over the audience. It all sounds too similar to be true.
The French Angel
But Tillet didn’t always look like a monster. His boyhood friends gave him the nickname “angel” because of his blonde hair and striking good looks. It was a nickname he kept throughout his wrestling career.
“He was perfectly normal at birth, had a keen mind, an intelligent curiosity and a well-built body. He was a slim boy with blonde hair and an angelic face” – Maurice Tillet’s mother in The French Angel Record Book.
When he was 17 and striking it lucky with Russian and French chicks, he developed a strange condition called acromegaly, a hormonal disorder that swells your feet and face.
He had a tumor on his pituitary gland, resulting in the weird bone overgrowth. While he looked like a giant monster, he kept the same endearing smile he’d had as a child, ensuring the French Angel nickname stuck for life.
Acromegaly is a very slow building disease, meaning that it can be building for years without diagnosis. Furthermore, the disease doesn’t stop. So Maurice Tillet was still growing these abnormal extremities well into his wrestling career.
The Early Years
They settled in Reims, France, where Tillet dreamt of becoming a lawyer or an actor. Legend has it that he spoke an incredible 14 languages and was gifted at public speaking.
However, nobody wants Shrek as their defense lawyer – it hardly works for the jury – and the concept of animated monsters hadn’t quite made it to film yet. So Tillet had to forget about the court room and join the French Navy.
Tillet’s Professional Wrestling Career
While touring the world with the Navy, Maurice Tillet met Karl Pojello, a Lithuanian pro wrestler and promoter who convinced Tillet that wrestling was the future.
Pojello had just returned from the States and established himself as one of the circuit’s biggest names. He trained Tillet in Paris and would tour Europe fighting the caveman with cauliflower ears.
By this time, Maurice Tillet looked like an absolute monster. He was just 5’7, but weighed in at 270lbs and had hands that dwarfed most pairs of shoes. Legend has it that his hands were so large and fast, he could shuffle three decks of cards at the same time.
Pojello and Tillet were destined for riches in Europe until Hitler went mental; looking like Shrek, Maurice Tillet was hardly an epitome of the Aryan Race.
Maurice Tillet Achieves Wrestling Fame in the USA
Fleeing the war in Europe, he moved to the USA with Pojello, where they were instantly picked up Boston promoter Paul Bowser. Tillet crafted his identity around being the rough villainous wrestler with a kind heart and adoration for the crowd.
He was both the badass disfigured monster and the gentle humble giant. Bowser promoted him as the ‘freak ogre of the ring’ and the “French Angel” a combination that won over the intrigue of pretty much every fan. Wrestling promoter Paul Boesch writes about Tillet in his autobiography:
“The fans crowded arenas to get a look at him and when the aberrant animal ambled down the aisle their curiosity was well satisfied.”
World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion
But Maurice Tillet wasn’t just about his bizarre looks. He was a mean fighter in the ring. Remember, these are the days long before WWF, WWE, or some other dramatized bullshit.
This was wrestling as a sport. Maury would finish off his opponents with his trademark move: the Bear Hug. Yep, when his adversary looked finished, Tillet would lean over and practically crush the man to death. And with a head that large, there was probably a few accidental head-buts thrown in for good measure.
Tillet was absolutely unstoppable in Boston and soon won the Boston version of the World Heavyweight Championship in May 1940. He held the title and went undefeated for an astonishing 19 months, beating most of the other top stars of that time, including Man Mountain Dean, Strangler Lewis,
Joe Savoldi, and Lou Thesz. Maurice Tillet was featured in Time Magazine as the whole of America began to learn of his gargoyle face and wrestling feats. In 1942, Tillet moved to Montreal to wrestle and quickly picked up the Montreal version of the World Heavyweight Championship.
In August 1944 he bear-hugged Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey to take the American Wrestling Association World Championship. All this and his head and hands were still growing. Here’s Paul Boesch again:
“The Angel was difficult to wrestle. His size and his balance, along with a certain clumsiness that created an unorthodox defense, made you wary when you entered the ring with him.”
Given his huge success, it came as no surprise when a series of wrestlers started performing under the angle nickname. None of these were called Shrek.
However, they all followed the formula of a loveable but hideously ugly giant who could roar at the crowd and still win their hearts. The most famous of the knockoffs, was the Swedish Angel who wrestled in Salt Lake City.
Tillet was pissed with this one and the pair had a series of bouts; Tillet unanimously showed who was boss and the French Angel battered the Swedish one every time. Many more cropped up across America:
- The Super Swedish Angel – Tor Johnson, an actor who went on to star in various terrible 50’s sci-fi movies.
- The Canadian Angel – Jack Rush
- The Czech Angel – Stan Pinto
- The Irish Angel – Clive Welsh
- The Polish Angel – Wladislaw Tulin
- The Russian Angel – Tony Angelo
- The Lady Angel – Jean Noble
- The Golden Angel – Jack Falk
- The Black Angel – Gil Guerrero
There were so many angels that Pojello approached the wrestling commission and asked everybody to stop imitating Big T. The commission suggested that the Angels should have a mass brawl, kind of like a Wrestle Mania, to see who was the best Angle.
It was only the Swedish Angel that dared to get in the ring with Mr Shrek Cauliflower Ears.
The Decline of Maurice Tillet
He just kept growing. The acromegaly condition couldn’t be cured and was beginning to sap his strength. His health was failing and he promoters reported that he regularly looked yellow or green in appearance – do we need any more Shrek proof Dreamworks?
By 1945 Tillet was still beating the other big stars in the ring. But he aged before his time.
“His head was so big you couldn’t get your arm around his head. He was so weak at that time that if he went down to his knees, I had to pick him up, help him back up,” writes Ed Francis, a pro wrestler who traveled extensively with Tillet during the later part of his career.
As he began to lose bouts, Tillet was no longer booked as unstoppable. He was no longer the force of yesteryear. The cash kept reigning in as he toured the States and wowed crowds with his freakish appearance.
But he began to lose regularly and struggled to fight back once he was down on the mat. He fought his last wrestling bout in Singapore, on Valentines Day of 1953, where he was defeated by Bert Assirati, and took home a stunning Russian blond to complete the Shrek love story*.
*We also made that last bit up…
Outside the Ring
Despite scaring the shit out of everyone with his monster face, Maurice Tillet was known as a shy thoughtful man. He would have conversations with anyone and his knowledge of languages always impressed. The Oakland Tribute seemed to sum up his pysche:
“Here is a human who looks on life with tranquil eyes, who neither is abashed nor annoyed by the curios stares off the public, who lives in a mental world all his own…perhaps The Angel has attained that state of complete tranquility which so many humans seek to attain, but never grasp.”
Maurice Tillet married his Russian sweetheart at 19 but he traveled alone to the USA when the war broke out.
Some records say that Maurice’s wife was mauled and killed by a tiger on the couple’s honeymoon in the African jungle. This is blatantly false as there are no tigers in Africa.
Nobody really knows what happened to the Russian beauty. Tillet is photographed posing with a series of cute chicks, although it’s understood that these shots were mostly for advertizing purposes.
Even in the autobiographies of 40’s and 50’s wrestling legends, there are few clues as to who Maurice Tillet shared his bed with.
Some Bizarre Maurice Tillet Facts
- Maurice Tillet used to work on torpedo boats in Southeast Asia.
- Maurice Tillet could pull a subway car and would perform the stunt in NYC to build up hype for his bouts.
- Maurice Tillet’s vocal cords were stretched, making him sound a little like Andre the Giant. With his slurred voice and thick French accent, most wrestlers said they struggled to have a conversation with him.
- Later in his career, Maurice Tillet developed yellow jaundice and had to cancel many of his shows. When he did perform, this new condition gave him a sickly yello – green appearance.
The Death and Death Masks of Maurice
Tillet’s health was rapidly deteriorating. In late 1953 he contracted pneumonia and was known to be suffering from a heart condition. His great friend Pojello had lung cancer and passed away on September 4th 1954. The two were inseparable even when it came to money:
“Maurice was a money-maker for Carl [Pojello]. 50 cents of every dollar he made went to Carl. He wasn’t bitter about it.” – Tony Borne.
When Maurice Tillet was informed of Pojello’s death, the French Angel also passed away, dying 13 hours after his friend. The pair are buried together in the Lithuanian National Cemetry in Illinois.
The official records say Maurice Tillet died of heart failure although many suggest he died of a broken heart – another little addition to the Maurice Tillet Shrek story.
His story was to live on in the Death Masks that had been sculpted in 1954 by Bobby Managoff. These masks ended up in the Yorl Barbell Museum and the USA Weighlifting Hall of Fame. And so his legend managed to live on, through an animated reincarnation.
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