Forty years ago, on September 20, 1973, 29-year-old Billie Jean King trounced 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome in a match that still stands as the most-watched tennis match ever; a match regarded as a landmark event in women’s sports; and a match that made the term “battle of the sexes” a permanent part of the American sports and social vernacular.
Last week, ESPN published an 8,000-word article in which it alleges Riggs threw the match, a claim based on the word of a former assistant golf pro who says he overhead a group of mobsters talking about arranging the fix because Bobby owed them more than $100,000 from sports betting. “Riggs pledged he’d ‘make it appear that it was on the up and up,’” writer Don Van Natta Jr. quotes now 79-year-old Hal Shaw. Van Natta then proceeds to dissect the match and the circumstances that seem to support his theory, in doing so citing from my 2003 biography of Riggs, “The Last Sure Thing.”
However, the case that Riggs threw the match is hardly ironclad. If Riggs meant for the match to appear “on the up and up” he did a terrible job. Not only did he lose, he lost badly (6-4, 6-3, 6-3), so badly that rumors he tanked started before the match even ended. It made no sense: In a best-of-five-set match, why not at least make it look competitive to at least generate interest in a possible rematch? Riggs said he made $1.5 million on the match — after endorsements, personal appearances and TV rights — but he hoped to make much more as he turned the match into an annual franchise, taking on the top-ranked female player in an “all or nothing” singles challenge. All that ended with his humiliating defeat. For years Bobby tried to get a rematch against Billie Jean, but each time she refused.
By 1983 the accusations became so widespread that Riggs went on the television show “Lie Detector,” hosted by attorney F. Lee Bailey, in which he answered the question while attached to a polygraph machine (he passed). Riggs made no secret of his penchant for gambling. He reveled in his reputation as the “Happy Hustler” — a Barnumesque showman, a motor-mouthed antagonist who would take on all comers in whacky challenges in which he’d play tennis while chained to an elephant or wearing a bonnet and petticoat. Given his insatiable ego, it’s impossible to believe Riggs wouldn’t tell somebody about throwing the match. But he never did.
Truth is, Bobby lost on his own. After defeating… no, destroying Margaret Court four months before, 6-2, 6-1, Riggs didn’t believe he could lose to Billie Jean. As a consequence he didn’t really practice or prepare for the match. He went on a mid-life bender of partying, promotions, TV appearances and girls. By the time he walked onto the court in Houston, he was out of shape and exhausted, and he looked it. As his close friend Lornie Kuhle told me: “It was like Bobby finally realized that the final exam was here and he hadn’t studied for it.”
Whether Riggs threw the match doesn’t really matter. Riggs versus King wasn’t about tennis or sports or even social change (after all, the women’s movement was well under way at that point). It was spectacle, a spectacle conceived, nurtured and orchestrated by a short, wispy-haired fellow with a squeaky voice, a bad haircut and horn-rimmed glasses. It still stands as the most-watched tennis match in history, with more than 30,000 people in the Astrodome, and another 48 million in the United States and 90 million worldwide watching on broadcast or closed-circuit television. The match ignited a boom in tennis never before seen, or likely to be seen again.
It’s hard to imagine how the “Battle of the Sexes” could have succeeded without Riggs. His sense of showmanship, his flair for promotion, his infectious glee at playing the provocateur, the male chauvinist pig, made the match more than just a novelty act or a sociopolitical statement. He made it fun.
- Was 1973 ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ Tennis Match Thrown?
- 8/22/05: When Billie Beat Bobby (On Point)
- 4/14/11: Billie Jean King And The ‘Incomplete’ Revolution In Women’s Sports (Here & Now)
- 9/20/03: The Last Sure Thing (Only A Game)