Monday, June 8, 2020

The Ugliest Angel

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It's fixed format so it's better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website.

The Ugliest Angel
Nicknamed “The Angel” as a child for his angelic face, Maurice Tillet was born in Russia to French parents in 1903. His father died when he was young and Maurice and his mother emigrated to France in 1917 during the Russian revolution. He developed acromegaly from a pituitary tumor when he was 19 which caused grotesque deformation of his face and body.

He served in the French navy for 5 years, getting out in Singapore in 1937 where he met Karl Pojello (Karolis Požèla), a Lithuanian professional wrestler, who mentored him in the wrestling business. The two went to Paris for training. Tillet wrestled in France and England as “The Angel” for two years and did very well: “England’s Ugliest Man Wins 180 straight Wrestling Matches” was the headline in Life Magazine September 4, 1939.

Pojello was born in 1893 in Lithuania and went to St. Petersburg to join his brothers in a pharmacy in 1906. He was the Russian amateur national champion and in 1913 he won an international tournament in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). He served in the Russian army in World War I and was wounded.

He learned ju-jitsu from a Japanese instructor in Shanghai, went to Japan in 1923 and won a ju-jitsu championship at Yokohama. Later that year he went to the United States and became a citizen. He was popular and successful, wrestling all over the country. In 1928 he won the world light heavyweight championship. He went to Europe in 1932 and won the heavyweight championship at Nottingham. He went back and forth to Europe and America several times, returning for good in 1940 with Tillet. They were in Italy when the war broke out and sailed for the United States on the Italian liner S.S. Rex on January 2, 1940, arriving in New York January 12. Pojello became Tillet's manager.

On January 24, 1940 Maurice made his debut at the Boston Garden. Harvard scientists were in the audience and asked him if he would submit to being measured. He was 5 feet 8½ inches tall, weighed 276 pounds and had a 47 inch chest, a 19½ inch neck and a huge face. “The collar bones and rib cage are the most massive I have ever seen”, reported Time Magazine March 4, 1940 quoting one Harvard investigator.

Maurice held the American Wrestling Association World Championship title from 1940-42, going 19 months undefeated until he lost to Steve “Crusher” Casey and again in 1944 when he defeated Casey. Maurice was billed as the highest paid sports star by the Sandusky Register-Star News April 20, 1946. In 1947 he became a U.S. Citizen. There is a wonderful photo of him holding his certificate joyously grinning as a citizen of the greatest country on earth.

Jack Pfefer, a wrestling promoter, created the “Swedish Angel” and other “Angels” of various nationalities appeared on the scene, forcing Tillet to change his moniker from “The Angel” to “The French Angel”. When Pfefer went to Tillet's dressing room in 1942 to arrange a match with the Swedish Angel, Tillet was so annoyed that he slapped Pfeffer who then sued Tillet for $30,000, saying the slap probably “caused brain concussion”, but the court only awarded $250 and the wrestling commission fined him only $50, both minimal awards seen as secretly sympathetic to Tillet at the time.
nseparable friends, Maurice and Karl with his wife Olga bought a mansion in Chicago, turned it into a boarding house, and lived in adjoining rooms on the first floor. 

Maurice began deteriorating in 1945 and in 1953 he lost his final match in Singapore. On September 4, 1954, Karl Pojello died of lung cancer. Maurice, already suffering from heart disease, had a heart attack when he heard the news and died later the same day. They were buried next to each other on September 8 at the Lithuanian National Cemetery in Justice, Illinois with a common headstone.
It has been suggested that Maurice was the model for Shrek. An anonymous blogger who worked in the art department of Dreamworks while Shrek was being developed said that he had pictures on his wall of odd people including Maurice. Shrek did not reply to questions concerning his ancestry.

Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky

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