The wrestler Tillet – The French Angel – is examined by Harvard anthropologists, Boston, 1940

Published in The Moth 25: Summer 2016


– You came to grappling on shore leave in Singapore three years ago, tick. – Into the ring full-time in New York City, tick. – 3 years later, if we may, the world lies ko’d at your feet, tick.

At 17, acromelagy, a pituitary failing, a handsome boy morphs into a grotesquerie of bone above the shoulders. His head is a boulder on a cubist throne, his ribs the biggest Harvard has ever seen. His distended face is hammer jawed as Phrenology callipers stretch wide as an opponent’s legs to rest their points on his cauliflower ears. Tillet presents a man from a prehistoric dream or a Triton risen from the bottom of the sea. The photographer from Time darts around like a busy referee.

– We compliment you, sir – You are a remarkable human being – A special guy, Monsieur Tillet – A one-off in more than wrestling – The papers are calling you Angel.

They hang on him, egrets to a rhino. Calico trousers tight as a choke hold, he descends the scales, ricks his bull neck from side to side like an executioner whistling his way to work. They can’t take his blood pressure – Too much arm, not enough band! He twists an ear with his fist, lets it pop back into shape and gurns a winning smile for the men in white coats.

– Extraordinary – 276 pounds of solid muscle – Easily the most powerful man we have ever seen – Should an adversary attempt a half Nelson he might hurt his hands but he won’t hurt you – We hear you speak 14 languages – Hey, they should send you to fight the Nazis!

Tillet receives handshakes and takes the offered cigar as the team files out of the room. He smokes it in silence under the lights and peers round at foetuses in jars, spears and shields nailed to the walls, bits of ancient bone left out on the chrome-topped table. Angel feels like one million brand spanking new American dollars.

Measured out, I measure up, Neanderthal or otherwise, he assures himself, lumbering off through Harvard Yard towards his next opponent.