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Did Bobby Riggs throw the Battle of the Sexes to settle mob debt?

7:37 PM, Aug 26, 2013   |    comments
(Photo By: Jim Garrett/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
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One of the greatest urban legends in tennis is the subject of a terrific, in-depth piece by ESPN's Don Van Natta. In his article, "The Match Maker: Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes," Van Natta traces the origins of the long-held rumor that Bobby Riggs threw the 1973 Battle of the Sexes against Billie Jean King and reveals an explosive allegation that an assistant golf pro heard mob bosses discussing Riggs' gambling debts 40 years ago.

Van Natta's article - which you should be reading if you haven't already - doesn't definitively say whether Riggs threw the match to forgive a mafia debt, nor does it try to. However, most impartial readers would finish it believing Riggs threw the match. But like Billie Jean King, who has always denied the allegations, I lean to the side of skepticism for reasons listed below. (Pro-fixing arguments are in bold, my counterpoints are below.)

1. Bobby Riggs didn't train as hard for the Billie Jean King match as he did for his previous "battle of the sexes" against Margaret Court, which he won with ease.

The counter-argument: Riggs beat Court so easily, maybe he figured he didn't need to train hard to beat King.

2. Riggs met with "shady characters" before the match, who had planned things well in advance.

The idea that a shadowy cabal of mob bosses played a role in setting up both of Riggs' battle of the sexes is hard to fathom. In this scenario, a mob figure would have taken Riggs at this word that he was good for his debt and then waited months for a payoff that was dependent on ginning up national interest in a tennis match and knowing the odds on King winning were going to be long? That sounds exactly like the mob: Forgiving and possessing of keen foresight.

3. Riggs may have thrown the match to set up a rematch with King that would bring an even bigger payday.

Here's one of the biggest issues. No one as savvy as Riggs would have believed that his losing the first match to Billie Jean King would set up a more enticing rematch. The only way a rematch would have been compelling is if Riggs won and King had to try again to beat him.

4. The way for Riggs to make back his money was to lose.

As described in the piece, there wasn't much action on King to win the match. But if Riggs was so confident in his abilities, why didn't he bet money on himself and win that way?

5. After the match, Riggs said "this was the worst thing in the world I've ever done."

Instant regret isn't a trait I'd associate with someone who just had a looming mob payment lifted from his shoulders. If Riggs was really in so deep to the mob that the only way out was to set up two high-profile tennis matches and lose one of those, wouldn't he have been relieved?

6. Riggs destroyed Margaret Court, so he would have beaten Billie Jean King too.

Riggs was 55 years old. King was in her heyday. It's like if Serena Williams played John McEnroe today. Whatever happened in the Court match was irrelevant. King should have won that match and did win it.

Van Natta's piece is excellent and his reporting is no doubt top-notch. My skepticism comes from the 79-year-old who is revealing a 40-year-old secret and the son of Riggs, who is outing his father as a mob cheat. It also comes from Billie Jean King, who is vehement with her denials. I believe her far more than a man who says he overheard a conversation 40 years ago. 

The truth is, there probably isn't anyone alive who knows the answer to the question of whether Bobby Riggs fixed the Battle of the Sexes, which makes the story even better. The mystery will always endure.

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