Meet Maurice Tillet The ‘French Angel,’ The 1940s Wrestler Who Could Be The Real-Life Shrek

Published March 15, 2024
Updated April 2, 2024

Wrestler Maurice Tillet was stricken with acromegaly that caused his hands, feet, and facial features to swell to enormous proportions — and is rumored to have inspired Shrek.

Maurice Tillet

Wikimedia CommonsMaurice Tillet, the wrestler known as the “French Angel,” in 1953. His appearance is said to have inspired Shrek, the cartoon ogre.

Maurice Tillet was perhaps better known by his stage name, the “French Angel.” A Russian-born French professional wrestler, Tillet enjoyed a relatively successful career during his lifetime, having won two heavyweight titles. For a time, during the peak of his career in the 1940s, he was considered a major box office draw, but of course that success could not last forever.

As the decades wore on, Maurice Tillet’s career and stardom began to fade. He died in relative obscurity in 1954, and in more common circumstances, that would likely be the end of the story. For someone who was sometimes unkindly referred to as the “Ugliest Man in the World,” though, his story found new life in a strange, faraway place: the world of Shrek.

When the world’s most lovable ogre burst onto the scene in 2001, some people immediately drew comparisons to Maurice Tillet. The connection has never been confirmed, of course.

This is the strange but true story of Maurice Tillet, the mid-20th-century wrestler with acromegaly who may have been immortalized thanks to Shrek.

Maurice Tillet’s Early Life And The Onset Of His Acromegaly

Born in 1904 to French parents in the Ural Mountains of what is today Russia, Maurice Tillet earned the nickname “Angel” when he was a child due to his cherubic appearance. His father died when he was very young, leaving his mother, a teacher, to raise him on her own. When the Russian Revolution upended the country in 1917, Tillet’s mother made the decision to move from the Ural Mountains to Reims, France.

The move proved to be beneficial for the two. His mother found work teaching multiple languages at a local girl’s college, and Maurice likewise learned to speak multiple languages.

Then, when Tillet was 17, he began noticing a swelling in his feet, hands, and head, which seemed to have no real root origin. A subsequent visit to the doctor revealed that he’d developed acromegaly, a rare condition in which the pituitary gland secretes too much HGH, or human growth hormone. The result is often enlarged extremities, sleep apnea, and even a complete change in one’s physical appearance — which is exactly what happened to young Maurice Tillet, according to TIME.

Maurice Tillet The French Angel

Public DomainA 1940 portrait of Maurice Tillet.

Despite the growing fear that he’d never be successful due to his increasingly monstrous appearance, Tillet successfully obtained a degree in law from the University of Toulouse, but made the unexpected decision not to practice. Instead, he entered the French Navy, becoming an engineer and serving honorably for five years.

After his time in the military, Tillet experimented with different careers, including acting in some early French films. He had also been, in his earlier years, been an all-star rugby player — and even once received the distinction of shaking the hand of King George V.

It was in 1937, however, when Tillet’s life would change once more and set off in a new direction. Lithuanian light-heavyweight champion Karl Pojello took notice of Tillet — in part due to his unique appearance — and believed he could shape Tillet into a wrestling sensation.

The two began training together, and by 1939, Tillet was ready to make his debut on the American wrestling scene.

The French Angel’s Unstoppable Reign In The Ring

If it were up to Tillet, he would have likely remained in his beloved country of France. However, World War II forced both him and Pojello to leave Europe and make for the United States in 1939. While the situation may not have been ideal, it ultimately proved to be beneficial for Tillet’s career.

The French Angel Wrestler

Wikimedia CommonsMaurice Tillet the “French Angel”wrestling against Lou Thesz in 1940.

In 1940, Tillet caught the eye of Boston-based promoter Paul Bowser. Though largely forgotten today, Bowser was effectively the Vince McMahon of his time, eventually earning the posthumous nickname “The Brain” in 2006 after a campaign by devoted wrestling fans brought his accomplishments to light.

Bowser recognized the potential in the young Tillet and began booking him in a series of bouts where he was listed as the “main event.” For 19 straight months, Tillet — under the name “The French Angel” — was unstoppable, earning the AWA World Heavyweight Champion title in May 1940 — a title which he held for more than two years. In 1942, he also snagged the World Heavyweight Championship in Montreal, Canada.

French Angel Maurice Tillet

PicrylMaurice Tillet wrestled as the “French Angel” throughout the 1940s.

But by the time he’d scored his second World Heavyweight Championship title, Maurice Tillet — who was being billed as “The Ugliest Man in Wrestling” — several “Angel” imitators had begun cropping up, diluting his brand.

What’s more, Tillet’s health had begun to fail him. By 1945, he could no longer be considered “unstoppable,” and it was clear that his wrestling career was on borrowed time.

Still, he held on for nearly a decade longer. He ultimately had his final match on Valentine’s Day, 1953, when he faced off against the English wrestler Bartolomeo “Bert” Assirati and lost.

One year later, in September 1954, Maurice Tillet was informed of the death of his close friend and former trainer, Karl Pojello. The news came as such a shock to Tillet — and his health had declined so greatly — that he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The two men were buried together at the Lithuanian National Cemetery in Justice, Illinois beneath a gravestone that reads: “Friends Whom Even Death Couldn’t Part.”

Was Maurice Tillet Actually “The Real-Life Shrek?”

Maurice Tillet The Real-Life Shrek

All That’s Interesting CollageAlthough no one at Dreamworks has ever confirmed or denied it, rumors claim that Maurice Tillet inspired the look of Shrek.

That would have likely been the end of Maurice Tillet’s story had it not been for Shrek. In 2001, the kind-hearted ogre voiced by Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers hit the big screen, and eagle-eyed fans immediately noticed the similarities between the animated character and the Ugliest Man in Wrestling.

The film’s producers have neither confirmed nor denied the inspiration, but there’s plenty of photographic evidence to suggest that Tillet was likely “the real-life Shrek,” and the theory has only grown in popularity ever since the film’s release.

Wrestler Maurice Tillet

Wikimedia CommonsMaurice Tillet doing a radio broadcast in Montreal in 1940.

There’s also the fact that Maurice Tillet was often judged due to his appearance, with people widely believing the relatively kind-hearted man was actually a “monster.” Oddly enough, that story is not all that different from Shrek’s, though perhaps that’s just coincidence.

Either way, Maurice Tillet’s widely-overlooked impact on American sports and culture cannot be denied to this day.

Now that you’ve read all about Maurice Tillet and his potential ties to Shrek, read all about Juana Barraza, a famed luchadora who was later found guilty of murdering old ladies. Then, read all about Rocky Aoki, a famed Japanese wrestler who founded Benihana.

Bernadette Giacomazzo
Bernadette Giacomazzo is a New York City-based editor, writer, photographer, and publicist whose work has been featured in People, Teen Vogue, BET, HipHopDX, XXL Magazine, The Source, Vibe, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Giacomazzo, Bernadette. "Meet Maurice Tillet The ‘French Angel,’ The 1940s Wrestler Who Could Be The Real-Life Shrek.", March 15, 2024, Accessed May 18, 2024.