Forty years ago in September, Billie Jean King struck one of the most decisive blows in women's fight for equality, and she did so with her weapon of choice: a tennis racket.
In a ridiculously hyped match, Bobby Riggs, 55-year-old former tennis champ and outspoken "male chauvinist," challenged King, then 29 and coming off a victory at Wimbledon, to a "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match in the Houston Astrodome. To the winner would go $100,000; to the winner's entire gender would go bragging rights for years.
Riggs had earlier that year beaten Margaret Court, the world No. 1, and a thrashing of King, then ranked #2, seemed all but certain. Oddsmakers favored Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, in an overwhelming tide. "King money is scarce," said another product of the era, gambling expert Jimmy the Greek. "It's hard to find a bet on the girl."
Anybody who did bet on "the girl" would have seen a huge and unexpected payday, however, as King absolutely thrashed Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Everyone from announcer Howard Cosell on down could see that King was the superior player, running a clearly winded Riggs all over the court and forcing him into error after error.
But how? Perhaps the greatest women's tennis player ever, Serena Williams, has said she would lose 6-0, 6-0 to Andy Murray. Riggs was no Murray, but then again Williams is in a different time zone from King. How on earth could such a stunning defeat have happened?
The story, according to ESPN's Don Van Natta in a must-read story, is painfully straightforward: the fix was in, and the Mafia was in on it all.
Hal Shaw, an assistant golf pro at Tampa's Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club, recently told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that he heard several notable Mafia figures, including Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello, discussing how Riggs would throw the match in order to pay off more than $100,000 in gambling debts. (For the conspiracy-minded: Marcello later claimed he had ordered John F. Kennedy's assassination. Everything is connected!)
According to Shaw, the Mafiosi determined that Riggs would decisively win the first match, against Court, in order to generate action on the second, against King ... which he would then throw.
Shaw kept his silence for forty years, fearing reprisal. And a Mafia expert whom Van Natta consulted said Shaw's story has the feel of truth. But now, Shaw has decided to come forward. "It's been 40 years, OK, and I've carried this with me for 40 years," he said. "The fear is gone. … And I wanted to make sure, if possible, I could set the record straight — let the world know that this was not what it seemed to be."
The entire article is must-read, starting with the accounts of Riggs' early hustling days, where he'd "stay in the barn" — allow an opponent to gain false confidence by dropping a set or two in order to gin up more betting action. He soon found himself running with less-than-reputable crowds, and the leap from there to Riggs as Mafia pawn isn't hard to make. King, for her part, made for an easy mark for Riggs; his chauvinistic condescension was specifically geared to needle her. King was an outspoken supporter of women's rights at a time when women couldn't even get a credit card without a man's signature.
The event itself was pure hype. Check out this trailer from a recent documentary of the match, and try to imagine how over-the-top we'd all go with it today:
Right from the start, Riggs appeared listless and slow. But King maintains that she doesn't believe he threw the match. "Bobby Riggs wanted to win that match," she told ESPN. "I saw it in his eyes. I saw it when we changed ends, and there is no question. I have played matches where players have tanked, and I know what it feels like and I know what it looks like, and he did not. He just was feeling the pressure."
Even as King was hammering Riggs, talk that Riggs was throwing the match was beginning. It's never really stopped since. Many supporters of Riggs deny the allegation, some angrily. Still, London betting parlors were so suspicious of the match, and Riggs' history, that they didn't even offer action.
Was Riggs throwing the match to appease the Mafia? Or was he, as some have suggested, staying "in the barn" for a long con — throwing the first match to set up a highly lucrative rematch? (King refused any rematch.) We won't ever know; Riggs passed away in 1995. But he and King remained close for his entire life, and the match remains a singular moment in American sports. Maybe that's enough, regardless of its origins.
The Match Maker [ESPN]