We’re around a month shy of the 40th anniversary of one of the most controversial tennis matches ever: the “Battle of the Sexes”, which took place between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King on September 20, 1973.
I was only two years old when the match happened, so I don’t remember it. But I certainly remember the era in which it took place. “Women’s Lib” was on the rise, and this tennis match, of all things, was very nearly a referendum on gender roles and equality. Millions of “male chauvinist pigs” were sure that no man could lose to a woman, and millions of women cheered for King, either vocally or silently.
Many people have forgotten that there was actually an earlier “Battle of the Sexes”. Riggs, who was 55 and retired, initially challenged King, then ranked #2 in the world, to a match. She refused, and so Australia’s Margaret Court, then 30 years old and the #1 female player in the world, agreed in her stead. On Mother’s Day 1973, Riggs and Court met in Ramona, California. Riggs easily won the match 6–2, 6–1, and got himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time that week.
All the media attention from the first match put enormous pressure on King to accept when Riggs approached her for “Battle of the Sexes II”. Riggs, who in truth was probably interested in money much more than gender issues, put together an effective PR campaign hyping the event. Indeed, it was likely Riggs’ people who really hyped the gender issues, stoking the fire of feminism in hopes of making more money from the event. Not that it was really needed: King was an outspoken feminist, and Riggs’ sexist taunts, freely given to any media outlet that would listen, begged King to reply. T-shirts and buttons were made up promoting the event, and millions of Americans chose sides. ABC, the network airing the event, ran breathless promos for the match around the clock, and Riggs went on 60 Minutes before the event just to make sure that every single American was aware of the match.
Tennis is normally a pretty sedate and well-mannered sport. But all the hype around the event gave it a pro wrestling feel. The 30,472 people who showed up at the Astrodome to watch the spectacle (the highest-ever attendance at a tennis match in the US, by the way) were treated to King being brought to the court in a chair “held by four bare-chested muscle men dressed in the style of ancient slaves”, while Riggs was brought in on a “rickshaw drawn by a bevy of scantily-clad models”. The two met at mid-court, where Riggs gave King a large lollipop, and King gave Riggs a live piglet named Larimore Hustle (“Larimore” being RIgg’s middle name, and “Hustle” coming from his reputation as a gambler). 90 million people around the world – a staggering 50 million in the United States, whose population was only 212 million at the time – were glued to their TVs as the match began.
And then, the damnedest thing happened: King won, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
Women across America cheered while men cried in their beers.
But let’s take a closer look at what actually happened, shall we?
First of all, Riggs was 55 while King was 29, a difference of 26 years. I don’t care what anyone says, that means a lot. Youth will almost always beat talent (or any supposed gender advantage) once one reaches a certain age. Is there any one out there who actually thinks a 55 year-old Michael Jordan could beat a 29 year-old Michael Jordan? How many times could a 55 year-old Tiger Woods beat a 29 year-old Tiger Woods? To be even more on point, is there anyone out there who thinks that 67 year-old Franz Beckenbauer could beat 24 year-old Alex Morgan in a one-on-one soccer match?
To give King credit, however, she didn’t fall into the same trap that Court did. Court played Riggs aggressively and fell victim to Riggs lobbing balls over her shoulders. King, who by all accounts didn’t play especially well against Riggs, simply sat back and waited for Riggs to bring the game to her. Which was genius, as Riggs was old and out of shape. King countered by returning short lobs just over net, balls that Riggs could have easily returned had he been younger, or even in better shape at 55.
While King appeared to have put together a solid game plan, Riggs played pretty poorly, even for his 55 year-old self and especially compared to how well he’d played Court only a few months before. Riggs even committed several errors that “baffled” tennis experts. It wasn’t just that Riggs was having a bad day… he almost looked lost out there, Almost.
Before the match had even concluded, some were convinced that Riggs had thrown the match on purpose. And why not? Riggs was well known to be a gambler. In his 1949 autobiography Riggs admitted that he’d bet on himself at Wimbledon in 1939, and had turned his $500 bet into $105,000 (which is around $1.7 million in 2012 dollars). Because of World War II rules against taking money out of England, Riggs was forced to keep his winnings in a British bank until 1946 (this fact will be important later).
1939 was a great year for Riggs: he’d won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon and become the undisputed champion of the male tennis world. But as he aged into his late 20s, he rapidly fell down the rankings. By the early 1950s it seemed that his best days were behind him, at least as a professional tennis player. So Riggs turned into a hustler. He’d challenge well-known professional and amateur tennis players to matches for money where Riggs would give himself ridiculous handicaps, like playing a match with a frying pan instead of a racquet. As time went on and his name began to fade, he’d challenge younger players who’d likely never heard of him to matches. Riggs, who was short to begin with and forced to wear thick glasses by his mid 30s, must have looked like an easy mark. But Riggs would almost always end up winning his bets.
By the late 1960s, Riggs wasn’t “poor” but he wasn’t swimming in cash, either. There have been persistent rumors that Riggs owed a large sum of money – usually stated as being $100,000 or more – to illegal bookies. And, of course, once Riggs began having issues paying the bookies back, the mob got involved. Which is why some say Riggs thew the match against King. So the story goes, not only did Riggs volunteer to throw the match (so that the bookies could make tons of money), he’d also bet against himself, making his financial outcome of the match moot. If he won, he’d get the $100,000 in official prize money; if he lost, he’d win $100,000 on his bets.
Over the years, many have dismissed the idea that Riggs threw the match. Sort of. They’d adamantly insist that there was no way Riggs would allow himself to lose to King… yet they’d also freely admit that Riggs would take all kinds of other bets. Riggs’ son, Larry Riggs, will swear up and down that his father would have never lost to King on purpose… but he also admits that his father did know quite a few bookies and mafia types, and also says that if his father did lose the match on purpose, it would have been to set up a rematch for an even bigger purse. To many, the repeated denials from Riggs’ family and friends sound an awful lot like family members admitting that a loved one drove drunk all the time… but not that one time he killed someone.
A recent news article sheds light on the issue. A man named Hal Shaw, who worked as a golf instructor at Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa in the early 70s, says that he overheard “mob attorney Frank Ragano, Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. and New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello discussing the plan” at the club. He also says that the bosses made it clear that the whole thing was Riggs’ idea. According to Shaw, the mobsters would make so much money off the deal that they would forgive Riggs’ gambling debts. He also says that they had agreed to give Riggs some of their winnings… which Riggs asked to be sent to a British bank account. We don’t know if Shaw has read Riggs’ autobiography, in which he openly discussed keeping his Wimbledon winnings in a British bank, or if this is evidence of Riggs cheating. Either way, it’s interesting.
Perhaps we’ll never know what really happened. Riggs died at the age of 77 on October 25, 1995. A couple of months before his death he was quoted as saying:
“People said I was tanking, but Billie Jean beat me fair and square. I tried as hard as I could, but I made the classic mistake of overestimating myself and underestimating Billie Jean King.”
But then… what would you expect him to say?
If you’re interested, ESPN did a great documentary about the match; part 1 is available on YouTube here: