It was Riggs’ed
Forty years ago, I may have been only 11, but I vividly remember watching a cultural phenomenon play out on the small screen. It was reality TV long before anyone knew what that was. It was the Battle of the Sexes between tennis great Billie Jean King and some Woody Allen-looking geezer I’d never heard of before… Bobby Riggs. Riggs was a hustler in the mode of Don King, Donald Trump, and P. T. Barnum. Billie Jean King seemed like the innocent rube who wanted to make a statement for women’s rights but found herself caught up in a pro wrestling-style ruse.
Remember, it was 1973. Watergate was in full bloom. An oil crisis in October would plunge the nation into a two-year recession. The Vietnam War was limping home to a disastrous end, despite our relentless carpet bombing of most of Southeast Asia. Protests were springing up across the nation. And Women’s Lib was, for many, a rude intruder onto the national stage. In many ways, the country needed a light-weight distraction. We needed a circus. And we got one.
The Battle of the Sexes was actually two matches. Bobby Riggs was a legitimate tennis star at one time, ranked No. 1 in the world in 1946 and 1947. By age 55, however, he was more of a country club tennis and golf hustler, betting people he could beat them by giving himself handicaps such as using a frying pan as a racquet or playing all 18 holes with only one club.
Billie Jean King was simply trying to promote women’s tennis in any way she could. She was a 5-time Wimbledon champion by that point, and still “in the closet” sexually. As a sport, tennis was just beginning to gain the popularity it would enjoy in the late 1970s when Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Ivan Lendl would turn it into must-see TV. But it wasn’t quite there in 1973.
Riggs came out of retirement to challenge the world’s greatest female players to a match, claiming that the female game was inferior and that a top female player could not beat him, even at the age of 55. Billie Jean King turned down the challenge but Margaret Court accepted. In May 1973, Riggs easily defeated Court in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1. Sports Illustrated called it “the Mother’s Day massacre.” King couldn’t remain on the sidelines anymore. She took up the fallen banner of her gender and agreed to play Riggs that September.
TV ate it up. I’m pretty sure that Howard Cosell did the broadcast from the Astrodome. Rocky was still three years off, but it was like the scene of the first match between Rocky and Apollo Creed. King came in looking like Cleopatra, and carted about by a cadre of buff boys.
Not to be outdone, Riggs was hoisted by a group of young women dubbed his “Bosom Buddies” – with the appropriate corporate sponsorship, of course. Is Sugar Daddy still a thing? I think not. Probably because it was horrible and had last-candy-eaten-status in the Halloween bag.
it was like a heavy-weight fight. Tennis… in the Astrodome… celebrities in the audience, broadcast to a national audience. It was crazy.
King beat Riggs, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3 for the $100,000 winner-take-all prize.
Now, ESPN claims the whole thing was fixed. My first response to this revelation was “Well, of course it was.” Then, I was all “Wait… what?”
The story is that Riggs was in deep to the mob for more than six figures. He proposed a deal to them. He’d challenge two of the biggest stars from women’s tennis. He’d win the first match and lose the second. The mob could bet the other way on both matches. They’d win big and forgive Riggs’ debt. Many tennis insiders have suspected this for years. They say that Riggs’ game was strangely absent against King. Usually a master server, he missed on half of his first serves. Larry Riggs, Bobby’s son, remembers being shocked that his father never practiced before the match and even gained 15 pounds by partying in Beverly Hills.
King denies this, of course. She says she’s played people who tanked. She knows what that looks like and that’s not what Bobby did. She also denies that Riggs ever hung out with mobsters. But what’s she going to say? If this is true, I don’t believe she was in on it. She was trying to make a serious statement and wouldn’t have gone along with it. For her to admit this would make her victory empty and show that in the end, she was played by Riggs just like everyone else.
So it doesn’t surprise me if, indeed, the fix was in. But I am amazed that Riggs pulled it off. That he snookered ABC, Sports Illustrated, professional tennis, and the entire nation in his con. In the end, King got her trophy and Riggs paid off his gambling debts. I’d like to believe that that’s what happened. it makes for an even greater legend. It’s all circumstantial of course, since Riggs took his secrets to the grave in 1995.
Meanwhile, in 2013, we vent faux outrage over athletes on PEDs or a 20-year-old former childhood TV star embarrassing herself at the VMAs on a channel that peddles teenage moms and no longer has anything to do with music or videos. Meanwhile, our students are saddled with life-long financial debt, politicians are threatening to shut down the government over a healthcare bill, and missiles are poised to start raining down on Syria for gassing their own people.
It’s too bad. We sure could use an innocent sideshow like that today. Hey Michael Jordan! You’re probably into the mob for a pretty penny. Why not come back and take on some WNBA stars? Naw. It just wouldn’t be the same, today. Not with Top Chef, Project Runway, Cake Boss, and Duck Dynasty. Nobody would even notice.