Name: The French Angel
Year Inducted: 2012

The French Angel

“The French Angel” Maurice Tillet was one of wrestling’s biggest stars in the 1940s and he provided a chance for some wonderful newspaper copy. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, reporting on Tillet’s March 1940 bout, provides one such example: “The ‘Angel,’ stripped, proved to be a misshapen specimen of manhood. True, his big hideous head scared the women around the ringside, and probably would alarm even Boris Karloff. He has a barrel-like chest, a long torso, but his arms did not seem possessed of unusual strength and his legs were the legs of a 36-year-old man.”

“Unusual” is a far more fair term to describe Tillet than the usual mean-spirited nicknames: “World’s ugliest man,” “freak,” “human monstrosity.”

Born on October 23, 1903 in the Russian Ural Mountains to French parents, his mother was a teacher and his father an engineer on the railroad. His father died when Maurice was young. “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. His friends nicknamed him Angel,” records The French Angel Record Book. In 1917, the Russian Revolution forced Maurice and his mother back to France. At age 17, Maurice noticed an unusual swelling in his hands, head and feet, and doctors diagnosed it as a disease called acromegaly, a condition that causes swelling of bone and is caused by malfunction of the pituitary gland.

For five years, Tillet served in the French Navy as an engineer on cruisers, torpedo boats and submarines. In February 1937, he met American wrestler Carl Pojello in Singapore. Pojello convinced Tillet that pro wrestling would be his route to riches and they set off for Paris for training. “The Angel” wrestled in England and France until World War II drove the pair to the United States in 1939.

It was Boston promoter Paul Bowser that saw dollar signs everywhere and pushed The French Angel to the moon in 1940. At 5’7” tall and 270 pounds, Tillet was an awesome, if disproportioned, physical specimen, who was able to shuffle three decks of cards at a time in his massive hands or pull a subway car.

“The fans crowded arenas to get a look at him and when the aberrant animal ambled down the aisle their curiosity was well satisfied,” wrote Paul Boesch in his autobiography. “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.”

Tillet held the Boston version of the World title from May 1940 to May 1942, and again for a few weeks in 1944, along with the Montreal version of the belt in the spring of 1942. He held wins over all of the top stars of the era, from Strangler Lewis to Man Mountain Dean to Joe Savoldi to Lou Thesz. By 1945, he began putting new stars over, as his health problems continued. Ed Francis wrestled and traveled with Tillet near the end of the Angel’s career. “He was so weak at that time, he coached me on what to do; if he went down to his knees, you had to pick him up.”

Away from the ring, Tillet was shy around people he didn’t know, but brilliant as well, a polyglot and avid reader. He died on September 4, 1950 in France, just hours after learning that his manager Pojello had died two weeks earlier at age 61of lung cancer. The official cause was heart disease.

 

- Greg Oliver and Steve Yohe



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