The Match Maker
Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes
This story was originally published on Aug. 25, 2013.
"HELLO AGAIN EVERYONE, I'm Howard Cosell. We're delighted to be able to bring you this very, very quaint, unique event."
On Thursday night, Sept. 20, 1973, 50 million Americans, fatigued by Vietnam and Watergate, tuned in to see whether a woman could defeat a man on a tennis court. Dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes," the match pitted Billie Jean King, the 29-year-old champion of that summer's Wimbledon and a crusader for the women's liberation movement, against Bobby Riggs, the 55-year-old gambler, hustler and long-ago tennis champ who had willingly become America's bespectacled caricature of male chauvinism.
Before 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome, still the largest crowd to watch tennis in the United States, the spectacle felt like a cross between a heavyweight championship bout and an old-time tent revival. Flanked by young women, Riggs, in a canary yellow Sugar Daddy warm-up jacket, was imperiously carted into the Astrodome aboard a gilded rickshaw. Not to be outdone, King, wearing a blue-and-white sequined tennis dress, sat like Cleopatra in a chariot delivered courtside by bare-chested, muscle-ripped young men. Moments before the first serve, King presented Riggs with a squealing, squirming piglet. "Look at that male chauvinist pig," Cosell told viewers. "That symbolizes what Bobby Riggs is holding up. ..."
All of the vaudevillian hoopla made it easy to forget the enormous stakes and the far-reaching social consequences. King was playing not just for public acceptance of the women's game but also an opportunity to prove her gender's equality at a time when women could still not obtain a credit card without a man's signature. If she were to defeat Bobby Riggs, the triumph would be shared by every woman who knew she deserved equal pay, opportunities and respect. Equally sweet, King would cram shut the mouth of a male chauvinist clown who had chortled that a woman belonged in the bedroom and the kitchen but certainly not in the same arena competing against a man. For Riggs, the $100,000 winner-take-all match offered big money and a perfect launching pad to a late-in-life career playing exhibition matches against women.
Listen: ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta Jr. details his investigation to Mina Kimes on the ESPN Daily podcast
It seemed a certain payday for him. Four months earlier, Riggs had crushed Margaret Court, the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, 6-2, 6-1, in an exhibition labeled by the media as the "Mother's Day Massacre." Court's defeat had persuaded King to play Riggs. Nearly everyone in tennis expected a similarly lopsided result. On the ABC broadcast, Pancho Gonzales, John Newcombe and even 18-year-old Chrissie Evert predicted Riggs would defeat King, then the No. 2-ranked woman. In Las Vegas, the smart money was on Bobby Riggs. Jimmy the Greek declared, "King money is scarce. It's hard to find a bet on the girl."
But by aggressively attacking the net and smashing precision shots, King ran a winded, out-of-shape Riggs all over the court. Riggs made a slew of unforced errors, hitting soft returns directly at King or into the net and double-faulting at key moments, including on set point in the first set. "I don't understand," Cosell said after a King winner off a Riggs backhand. "He's been feeding her that backhand all night." Midway through the third set, Riggs looked drained and complained of hand cramps. After King took match point, winning in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, Riggs mustered the energy to hop the net. "I underestimated you," he whispered in King's ear.
Several hours later, Bobby Riggs lay in an ice bath in the Tarzan Room of Houston's AstroWorld Hotel. Despondent and alone, Riggs contemplated lowering his head into the icy water and drowning himself.
"This was the worst thing in the world I've ever done," Bobby Riggs later told his son, Larry, about his defeat before the whole world. "The worst thing I've ever done."
WHEN HAL SHAW heard the voices at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla., on a winter night some 40 years ago, he turned off the bench light over his work table and locked the bag room door. He feared burglars. Who else would be approaching the pro shop long after midnight? Then Shaw, who was there late rushing to repair members' golf clubs for the next day's tournament, heard the pro shop's front door unlock and swing open.
Peering through a diamond-shaped window, Shaw, then a 39-year-old assistant golf pro, watched four sharply dressed men stroll into the pro shop. He says he instantly recognized three of them: Frank Ragano, a Palma Ceia member and mob attorney whose wife took golf lessons from Shaw, and two others he knew from newspaper photographs -- Santo Trafficante Jr., the Florida mob boss whom Ragano represented, and Carlos Marcello, the head of the New Orleans mob. Trafficante and Marcello, now deceased, were among the most infamous mafia leaders in America; Marcello would later confide to an FBI informant that he had ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A fourth man, whom Shaw says he didn't recognize, joined them.
Shaw's workroom was about 20 feet from the men, who sat at a circular table. Through the window to the darkened bag room door, he could see them, but they couldn't see him. Shaw says he was "petrified" as he tried to remain completely still, worrying that the men would find him lurking there. Then Shaw heard something he'd keep secret for the next 40 years: Bobby Riggs owed the gangsters more than $100,000 from lost sports bets, and he had a plan to pay it back.
Shaw, now 79, told the story of what he saw and heard that Tampa night to a friend late last year for the first time. This spring, he told it to "Outside the Lines."
The men, Shaw says, used an array of nicknames for Riggs -- "Riggsy," "BB," "Bobby Bolita." Ragano told the men that "Riggsy" was prepared to "set up two matches … against the two best women players in the world," Shaw says. "He mentioned Margaret Court -- and it's easy for me to remember that because one of my aunt's names was Margaret so that, you know, wasn't hard to remember -- and the second lady was Billie Jean King."
Ragano explained that Riggs "had the first match already in the works … and the second match he knew would follow because of Billie Jean King's popularity and everything that it would be kind of a slam dunk to get her to play him bragging about beating Margaret Court," Shaw says Ragano told the men. Shaw also says he heard Ragano mention an unidentified mob man in Chicago who would help engineer the proposed fix.
"Mr. Ragano was emphatic," Shaw recalls. "Riggs had assured him that the fix would be in -- he would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank" against King, but Riggs pledged he'd "make it appear that it was on the up and up."
At first, Trafficante and Marcello expressed skepticism, Shaw says. They wondered whether Riggs was in playing shape to defeat Court or King, but Ragano, now deceased, assured them Riggs was training. The men also wondered whether there would be enough interest in exhibition tennis matches to generate substantial betting action. In the early 1970s, as it does today, tennis attracted a tiny fraction of sports betting dollars. Ragano assured them that there was ample time for Riggs to get the media to promote the matches so enough people would be interested to place bets with the mobsters' network of illegal bookmakers.
Finally, Shaw says, the men asked about Riggs' price for the fix. "Ragano says, 'Well, he's going to [get] peanuts compared to what we're going to make out of this, so he has asked for his debt to be erased.'" Riggs "has also asked for a certain amount of money to be discussed later to be put in a bank account for him in England," Ragano told the men, according to Shaw.
After nearly an hour, the four men stood up, shook hands and agreed they'd move forward with Riggs' proposal, Shaw says.
Lamar Waldron, an author of several books about the mafia, says Shaw's account of the meeting rings true. "In the early 1970s, proposed deals were usually brought to Trafficante and Marcello by other cities' mob leaders, businessmen and lawyers for the mob," says Waldron, whose book "Legacy of Secrecy" is being developed into a film by Leonardo DiCaprio with Robert De Niro slated to play Marcello. "They'd accept some, pass on others. I know Marcello and Trafficante also met during that period in the Tampa area."
After the men left the pro shop, Shaw says he stayed hidden in the darkened room for a half hour until he was certain they were gone.
"Mobsters have been here for centuries," Shaw says of Tampa, where he has lived his entire life. "There were gangland murders on top of one another. I was brought up with the fear factor. You don't mess around with these people. You stay clear of them, and you don't do anything that would make them angry."
But as he approaches his 80th birthday this December, Shaw says he is motivated to tell his story. "There are certain things in my life that I have to talk about, have to get off my chest," he says of the meeting, which he says occurred during the last week of 1972 or the first week in 1973. "It's been 40 years, OK, and I've carried this with me for 40 years. … 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."
ROBERT LARIMORE RIGGS, the youngest of six children, was born in Los Angeles in 1918. His father was a minister, but young Bobby ignored his father's warnings about the evils of gambling. He won nickels racing boys in a Los Angeles park, played marbles and penny-ante poker and mastered his own invented games of chance. After winning his first racket on a bet at the age of 11, Riggs played the game non-stop, using smarts and guile to compensate for his 5-foot-7-inch frame, and became a dominant amateur tennis player.
Before Wimbledon in 1939, Riggs visited the London betting shops and was stunned to see he was listed at 25-1 odds to win the men's singles championship. So he placed a remarkably presumptuous parlay bet on himself that would only pay off if he'd win the singles title, the doubles championship and the mixed doubles title. At Wimbledon, then an amateur tournament, no one had ever won all three in the same year. But at age 21, Riggs pulled off the remarkable feat and won, from the bookmakers, a total of $108,000, more than $1.7 million in today's dollars. "I blew it all back on gambling like any young kid will do," he told Tennis Week in 1995. "I liked to go to the casinos and bet on the horse races and play gin. I got overmatched a few times."
But Riggs was rarely overmatched on the tennis court. Twice, he won the U.S. singles championships at Forest Hills, in 1939 and 1941. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Riggs won U.S. Pro singles titles in 1946, 1947 and 1949.
And always, Riggs had a bet on the outcome of his match. "I've got to have a bet going in order to play my best," Riggs wrote in his 1973 memoir, "Court Hustler." At least once, he had a bet going and played his worst. Tennis historian Bud Collins recalls a 1940s doubles match in which Riggs and his partner cruised to a two-set lead. But they then lost by dumping the next three sets, Collins says. The fix was obvious. "Well, there's always money with Bobby," Collins says. "The jingle of tennis was always there."
After Riggs' tennis career ended, he continued to play against seniors and amateurs at clubs in Chicago, New York and, later, in California. He was in such supreme control of a match that players say he had the ability to drop a first set or even two sets, bet on himself at fatter odds and then come storming back to win. "Staying in the barn" is what Riggs' best friend, Lornie Kuhle, calls this hustle. "[It] means you're not giving it your full effort, yet your opponent thinks you are," Kuhle says. "He led you to believe you really had a chance to beat him. As soon as the bet was increased, he came out of the barn, and he beat you. Then everybody would scream bloody murder and foul. Bobby would stay in the barn a lot -- on the golf course, on the tennis court."
Before long, Riggs was playing more golf than tennis. That was because golf's handicap system made it easier for Riggs to disguise his true talent; every golf gambler knows most wagers are won during the first tee negotiations. "The second worst thing in the world is betting on a golf game and losing," Riggs often said. "The worst is not betting at all."
In the 1950s, Riggs was the resident tennis pro at the Roney Plaza Hotel, a Miami Beach art-deco magnet for celebrities and mobsters who enjoyed wagering. "Bobby was hanging around the unsavory people," says Gardnar Mulloy, 99, a close friend of Riggs' and a former U.S. No. 1 player. "I'd seen him with people that normally you would think you wouldn't want to be with. And he was always betting big money -- it was always, it seemed to me, a fix." In those days, Riggs played golf for money with South Florida mobster Martin Stanovich, nicknamed "The Fat Man."
Riggs also gambled on the links with Jackie "The Lackey" Cerone, a hit man for the Chicago mafia and protégé of mob boss Sam Giancana, according to Riggs' son and Kuhle. As he caddied for his father as a teenager in a money match against Cerone, Larry Riggs says he noticed that Cerone and his pals kept brazenly riding their carts over his father's ball. They kicked the ball, too, when they thought no one was looking.
Bobby Riggs just smiled. "These are rough guys," he told his son. "These guys -- you don't mess with these guys. Just don't ask any questions. Just keep your mouth shut."
Larry Riggs was a child of Bobby Riggs' first marriage, which ended in divorce. Riggs' second marriage was to a woman whose family owned the American Photographic Cos. in New York, a $20 million a year corporation where Riggs worked during the 1960s. He wore a suit and necktie and took the commuter train from Long Island to Penn Station. He tried to satisfy himself by playing cards and golf on the weekends, but it wasn't enough action. His second wife divorced him in 1972, handing Riggs a $1 million-plus divorce settlement.
With that stake, Riggs moved into his older brother's duplex apartment in Newport Beach, Calif. Riggs wagered every day on things he could control, like tennis and golf. "Bobby had the guts of a burglar on a tennis court or on a golf course," says tennis legend Tony Trabert, 82, a close friend. "He could goad people or needle people or set people up by purposefully losing a set or two and get the bet up to higher stakes and then win with ease. He just had amazing control."
But Riggs was also betting on contests he couldn't control: like horse-racing and pro and college football. With California bookmakers, he'd place bets on every televised football game and often on games that weren't on TV. On a New Year's Day in the early 1970s, he lost every bowl game, dropping nearly $30,000 to the bookmakers, his friends said. At Caesars Palace, Kuhle recalls that Riggs, sloppy from too much bourbon, lost $17,000 playing baccarat in a few hours.
Riggs enjoyed far more betting success on the seniors' tennis circuit, dominating his opponents. In the early '70s, he beseeched the top women players to play him in a series of exhibition matches, but no one agreed. After having vanished from the public eye for nearly two decades, Riggs saw the proposed matches as a chance to climb back into the spotlight and make some easy money.
SIX WEEKS AFTER Hal Shaw heard the mob leaders weigh the appeal of a fixed tennis match, Bobby Riggs held a news conference at the Westview Hotel in downtown San Diego. It was February 1973. Before a room full of reporters, Riggs held up a $5,000 cashier's check -- the money was staked by a local developer -- that he was offering to Margaret Court or Billie Jean King. All either one had to do was agree to play him.
Court, then 30, agreed to a match with the 55-year-old Riggs, telling friends it would be an easy payday. Almost overnight, there was worldwide interest; Riggs made sure of it with quotable chauvinistic rants against women that sounded as if they were intended to get under the skin of King, a crusader for the women's liberation movement and a co-founder that year of the Women's Tennis Association.
"He took the most basic conflict in the world, which is man versus woman, and he took that conflict and used tennis as the metaphor and created the match," says Kuhle. "And therefore the whole world became interested."
Riggs had no doubt he would defeat Margaret Court. "I'm just going to destroy her," he told his son, Larry.
And over the next three months, Riggs trained 10 to 12 hours a day, playing hours of tennis against outstanding young male players and running miles alongside a San Diego golf course. This was Riggs' usual routine: train, rigorously, for a big match. "Never underestimate opponents," Riggs advised in his list of rules for competition titled "You Too Are Champions" published in the late '60s.
By the time she faced Riggs, Court was 30 years old and had won 18 of her previous 25 tournaments, including three majors -- the U.S. Open, Australian and French. She was one of the most dominant players of all time, having won a total of 62 Grand Slam singles and doubles events in her career -- a feat never matched by a man or a woman. Still, the odds-makers, all men, installed Riggs as the betting favorite in the Las Vegas sports books. The match attracted a fair amount of action; nearly everyone bet on Bobby Riggs.
On May 13, 1973, an overflow crowd of fans and celebrities assembled at San Diego Country Estates in Ramona, Calif., and more than 30 million people watched on CBS. Before the first serve, Riggs handed Court a bouquet of red roses. She curtsied.
Riggs made few errors and relied on his masterful service game and trademark lob while Court looked flummoxed and hit shot after shot into the net. Riggs coasted, winning 6-2, 6-1. "Sometimes I look back and think, 'Why did I need to do it?'" Court now says. "I was No. 1 in the world in tennis. … Look, we all make mistakes in life, and probably that was one of my mistakes."
"As soon as Margaret lost, I said, 'I have to play,'" King, 69, told "Outside the Lines" in an interview last week. "I knew I was going to say yes and I knew that it was on, the match was on." And she knew she had to win. A boxing promoter and television producer named Jerry Perenchio, who promoted the Ali-Frazier bout in 1971 as "The Fight," organized "The Battle of the Sexes" between King and Riggs. He put up a $100,000 winner-take-all prize for the best-of-five sets match and arranged for it to be played in the Houston Astrodome in prime-time on national television.
A week after Wimbledon, which King had won for the fifth time, Riggs and King hammed it up at a raucous news conference at the Town Tennis Club in Manhattan. "Personally," Riggs said, "I would wish that the women would stay in the home and do the kitchen work and take care of the baby and compete in areas where they can compete in because it's a big mistake for them to get mixed up in these mixed sex matches." (Kuhle and Riggs' son, who was in his mid-20s at the time, say this was pure shtick, that Riggs was not a chauvinist, but viewed women as equals; his first tennis coach back in L.A. was a woman.)
Riggs flew home to California. His son, Larry, says he was friendly with an investor named Steve Powers, who had a Beverly Hills estate renowned for its wild, all-night parties. "Bobby and I had a deal -- he got to stay at my house as long as he entertained my guests, and he did that," Powers says. "He didn't ask much of me -- just get him laid with the wild women in L.A. And I did that."
In July, Riggs moved into Powers' guest house, where he lived -- and partied -- during the eight weeks prior to the King match.
"Steve had his maid, and she wore the French maid outfit with no underwear on the top or the bottom," Larry Riggs says. "That set the tone for the parties at nighttime. … It was just a wild time to be had by everybody, including my dad."
With a glass of bourbon in his left hand and a glass of Coca-Cola in his right, Bobby Riggs would take big swigs from both glasses and mix the liquids in his mouth before swallowing. And he was always puffing on a fat cigar. "I had never seen him really drink as much as he was then," Larry Riggs says. "And it concerned me."
Kuhle's job was to train Riggs, but for the first time anyone could remember, Riggs refused to practice with solid players or even exercise, his son says. Not once did he use Powers' lighted tennis court to do anything but goof around for the cameras or hustle matches. Instead, he'd play stragglers off the street for a few quick bucks. "It's very hard to turn down $500 if a guy wants to come out and play for $500. He can put that in his pocket," Kuhle says. "There was so much commotion going on, and he just felt he could beat her on roller skates."
Riggs tirelessly promoted the match, filming several TV commercials (American Express, Sunbeam Curling Iron) and seemingly never refusing an interview request or a party invite. Early one morning, Riggs realized $1,500 had been stolen from his wallet by a young woman he had been drinking with the night before. He grumbled that the woman hadn't even slept with him.
Riggs relished playing the impish, gambling-mad chauvinistic court jester for enthralled members of the national media. On its cover, Time magazine called Riggs "The Happy Hustler." Sports Illustrated warned, "Don't Bet Against This Man." A recording artist named Lyle "Slats" McPheeters recorded "The Ballad of Bobby Riggs," for Artco Records. On "60 Minutes," Riggs tossed playing cards at a wastebasket for money, played tennis with eight chairs on his side of the court and ran around Las Vegas looking for action on anything, from tennis and golf to backgammon and card tosses, with everyone he met.
"All of the running, all of the chasing, all of the betting, all of the playing -- what's it all about?" Mike Wallace asked Riggs. "Do you do it for money, Bobby?"
"No," said Riggs with a smirk. "I do it for fun, the sport, it's the thing to do. When I can't play for big money, I play for little money. And if I can't play for little money, I stay in bed that day."
This wasn't a midlife crisis. This was a midlife Mardi Gras.
During those weeks, Larry Riggs noticed some "unsavory characters" kept showing up at Powers' house to meet privately with his father. "They weren't golfers," Larry Riggs says. "I called them shady characters with the kind of flashy suits on and the ties and whatever. They just didn't fit in."
After one of the visits, Larry Riggs confronted his father. "Who are those guys?"
"Friends of mine from Chicago."
That's when Larry Riggs says he recognized the men as associates of Jackie Cerone, the Chicago mob hit man with whom his father had played golf and cards back at the Tam O'Shanter Country Club outside of Chicago. "Very not upright citizens of our country," Larry Riggs now says of the men visiting his father.
"What the hell are those guys doing?" Larry Riggs asked his father.
"They're here to see me. We have a little business that we're doing. Don't worry about it. Everything's OK."
But Larry Riggs says he worried obsessively. And he says his father never identified the men or explained why they flew from Chicago to Los Angeles to meet with him several times before the King match.
As Riggs lived the high life on the West Coast, King trained in South Carolina with the focus of a boxer preparing for a prizefight. Larry Riggs was so sure his father was going to lose to King that he refused to accompany him to Houston for the match. "You're going to embarrass yourself," he told his father before he left. Larry Riggs says he bet $500 on King. King says she told her brother "to bet the house" on her.
On the eve of the match in Houston, Mulloy, the tennis legend who was Riggs' close friend, visited him in his leopard-patterned Tarzan Room at the AstroWorld Hotel. A party was raging. Riggs looked heavier to Mulloy; he had gained 15 pounds in the four months since the Court match. "Bobby was in his pajamas," Mulloy recalls, "and I looked around at a half a dozen cuties there, and they're all having their drinks and laughing."
Mulloy asked, "Bobby, what the hell are you doing? You got to play tomorrow."
"Oh, there's no way that broad can beat me,'' Riggs replied.
The next morning, Mulloy was scheduled to warm up Riggs on the Astrodome court for one hour, but Riggs quit after 10 minutes. Mulloy was stunned. He was even more astonished to find Riggs that afternoon in a nearby practice facility, standing on a court with a brown dog tied on a leash to his left ankle and an umbrella in one hand. People off the street with tennis rackets were lined up to play Riggs. If they won a game, they played for free; if Riggs beat them, they owed him $100. Riggs' brother, John, was collecting fistfuls of cash.
Mulloy says Riggs urged a millionaire friend named Jack Dreyfus not to bet on him against King. "Prior to the match, Jack Dreyfus had called him and said he wants to make a bet, how do you feel, where should I get odds," Mulloy recalls. "Bobby says, 'Don't bet on me.' That made me believe he was going to tank it."
MOMENTS BEFORE THE match at the Astrodome, some spectators say Riggs appeared sullen, almost angry -- the opposite of the happy hustler. "He wasn't having any fun," says Cliff Drysdale, a 72-year-old tennis broadcaster and former top-ranked pro who attended the match. With the first serve, Billie Jean King attacked aggressively in a bid to send a message to Riggs that this would not be another Margaret Court cakewalk. When one of King's early forehands rocketed past him, Riggs told King, "Atta girl." Still wearing his Sugar Daddy warm-up jacket, Riggs moved as if he were underwater. "I was surprised," King says. "He was extremely nervous. So was I."
"He was in slow motion," says Donald Dell, a 75-year-old lawyer, former Davis Cup captain and one of the first professional sports agents. "It was as if he had taken a sleeping pill."
"Well, as I watched the match, I was surprised that he wasn't attacking more," says Stan Smith, a 66-year-old two-time major winner and a former No. 1 men's player in the world.
King was ahead 2-1 in the first set. During a break, Riggs finally peeled off his Sugar Daddy jacket. His blue shirt was soaked with sweat.
At the L.A. Tennis Club where Riggs had won tens of thousands of dollars hustling its members on the tennis court, the golf course and at the card table, the members watched the match on a large television. Riggs looked nothing like the spry, dominant player who had crushed Margaret Court four months earlier. During the first set, says tennis broadcaster Doug Adler, a friend of Riggs' since they met at the club, someone shouted, "Looks like Bobby bet on Billie Jean!"
Riggs lost a game late in the first set on a double fault, something he rarely did. After losing the first set, Riggs told Kuhle to offer a friend of King's, named Dick Butera, a $5,000 bet that he'd come back to win, at 2-1 odds. Prior to the match, Riggs had bet $10,000 with Butera that he'd beat King. But Butera, who was sitting courtside, refused this mid-match bet, apparently assuming Riggs was once again keeping his game "in the barn."
From across the net, King says, Riggs looked "a little bit in shock" by his first-set loss. And she says she is certain he wasn't tanking: "Bobby Riggs wanted to win that match. 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."
Riggs played even worse in the second set, moving around even more listlessly.
In the broadcast booth, Howard Cosell and tennis analysts Rosie Casals and Gene Scott repeatedly sounded puzzled by Riggs' soft, erratic play. "He doesn't look right to me," Casals said. After Riggs hit a weak return right at King, Casals said, "That's pretty unusual for Bobby." And later, she asked, "Where is Bobby Riggs? Where did he go?"
Scott said Riggs was "just nonchalant with the forehand."
Riggs was well known for a nearly flawless service game, but he missed on nearly half of his first serves. Four times, he double-faulted, all on critical points. The level of play hardly lived up to all the hype and the anticipation. King was grinding down the old man, who was the same age as her father. "Funny, with this match I guess we all expected some high humor involved in it," Cosell said. "Instead, it's become a very serious, serious thing because the comedy has gone out of Bobby Riggs."
When it was finally over, fans stormed the court and engulfed King, and Riggs hugged her. "You could just see he wanted it so badly and couldn't get it going," she says. "I think he got so nervous -- it exhausted him." He just "choked," she says. "We've all done it. I've choked. Everybody chokes."
At the post-match news conference, a subdued Riggs saluted King's performance. "Billie Jean was too good, too quick," he said. "I know I said a lot of things she made me eat tonight. I guess I'm the biggest bum of all time now. But I have to take it." Prior to the match, King says she told Riggs, win or lose, she would never play him again. But before the assembled reporters, Riggs quickly called for a rematch. "I would've given Billie Jean a rematch if I had won, so I want a rematch."
"Why should there be a rematch?" she said. Billie Jean King had nothing left to prove.
NEARLY 40 YEARS later, "The Battle of the Sexes" is one of the most iconic sporting events in American history. The match's value is especially cherished by tennis people because it proved the game, like King, was a trailblazer for society. King planted a flag for women's equality. Gradually, America followed.
"I think it wasn't just for women," says King. "It was really about both genders. Men come up to me constantly, many times with tears in their eyes, and tell me their story, like 'Oh, I was 12 years old when I saw that match, and now I have a daughter and I have a son and I really want both of them to have equal opportunity.'
"So I think for men, it changed them to think differently about things. For women, also, they thought differently about themselves -- they were much more empowered to ask for what they want and need to have more self-confidence."
This past July, King and several hundred members of tennis' elite gathered at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, in Newport, R.I., for the annual induction ceremonies. On a Sunday evening, they watched a new documentary film that will air Sept. 10 on PBS that salutes King's victory. Afterward, Martina Hingis, a Hall of Fame inductee who wasn't alive in 1973, appeared awestruck by what she had just seen on the big screen. "This was bigger than anything, probably anyone can go through … so, congratulations," Hingis told King. "I mean -- amazing."
In attendance were the aging male members of tennis' old guard, who applauded for King. None of these men knew about Hal Shaw's allegations, and only a few knew about Bobby Riggs' mob friends. Still, the men remarked among themselves that there wasn't a single word in the film about the belief by some that Bobby Riggs' had thrown the match for a big payday.
Across nearly 40 years, some of the men who knew Riggs best have wondered: Was "The Battle of the Sexes" nothing more than a cultural con job?
"A lot of my tennis friends immediately suspected something was up, and many of us still believe something was up," says John Barrett, the longtime BBC tennis broadcaster. "It wasn't so much that Bobby lost. It was that he looked as if he had almost capitulated. He just made it too easy for Billie Jean King. We all wondered if the old fox had done it again."
"Everything was different," says Adler. "If you were a tennis person that knew Bobby Riggs, the first thing that comes to your mind is he threw the match."
Steve Powers, who owned the guest house where Riggs stayed prior to the match, says "If Bobby had an opportunity to fix the match, he would have jumped at it. Ethics wouldn't have stopped him."
Tennis great Gene Mako, who died in June, had insisted for years that Riggs had thrown the match. "You have to know Bobby," Mako told author Tom LeCompte in the 2003 Riggs biography, "The Last Sure Thing." Mako believed Riggs was so vain that his play was just awful enough to demonstrate to smart tennis people that he had tanked the match.
Almost right after the match, King says she began hearing the rumors that Riggs had thrown it. The rumors were started by "people who were unhappy -- guys who lost money," she says. "And a lot of people, men, particularly, don't like it if a woman wins. They don't like it. They make up stories. They start just thinking about it more and more. It's hard on them. It's very hard on their egos."
King also says because of all the stories about Riggs' betting and hustling, especially in Los Angeles, it was just natural that some people would assume the fix was in.
Asked recently whether she could believe Riggs had thrown the match, former world No. 1 player Chrissie Evert said she wouldn't think so but you could never be sure. "Ninety-nine percent of me would say [King] beat him fair and square," Evert says. "But if you know Bobby Riggs, you can't put anything past him."
THE ASSUMPTION BY some was that Riggs would not have been able to resist the odds on Billie Jean King, who was listed as high as 5-2 in the Las Vegas sports books. Tennis legend Don Budge, who died in 2000, had told one of his sons he had no doubt Riggs threw the match for money. "In no uncertain terms, he definitely heard from people that Riggs had thrown it," says Budge's son, Jeffrey. "And it was huge money -- more than $100,000, perhaps $200,000 to $500,000. Dad said, '[Riggs] could have run her off the court any day of the week as he did against Margaret Court.'"
But Kuhle denies Riggs threw the match, arguing it would have been impossible for Riggs to have quietly placed large bets on King in Vegas. In the 1970s, as they do now, sports books had strict wagering limits and large bets would have moved the odds in an obvious way. "It just makes no sense," Kuhle says.
If Riggs had thrown the match for the mafia, how would that kind of fix have benefited Carlos Marcello and Santo Trafficante Jr.? Both men controlled networks of illegal bookmaking operations. From New Orleans, Carlos Marcello ran "the wire" that took bets on horse races and sports wagering across the country, mafia experts say. Gambling experts said that "a perfect fix" is a result known to illegal bookmakers. That knowledge allows them to offer fatter odds on a betting favorite knowing it would attract far more action.
London betting shops listed odds on "The Battle of the Sexes," which had been scheduled to be shown on closed circuit TV at a half-dozen London movie houses. But the bookmakers viewed the match with "huge suspicion," recalls Graham Sharpe, a 62-year-old media relations director at William Hill, the UK's largest bookmaker. "This thing was regarded as a freak show, a side show. And we were concerned because one of the guys is a noted hustler and a compulsive gambler, who is not as pure as the driven snow. If anyone tried to bet more than a few pounds, we'd reject the bet and figure he knew something that we didn't."
The mafia expert and author, Lamar Waldron, was told about Riggs' mafia acquaintances and what Hal Shaw had heard. "Given all the connections that Riggs had and the way these mafia leaders operated, it would be unusual if they didn't look to him to throw the match," Waldron says. "Certainly it appears the motive and opportunity was there."
When Shaw watched Riggs lose to King, he says he knew the scheming he had overheard in Palma Ceia's pro shop had been executed. "There's nothing impossible when money's involved and power's involved," he says. Shaw says he is glad he decided to come forward and tell his story and has nothing left to fear. "You can ask me a thousand questions, I would still tell you what happened that night, you know, 40 years ago," he says. "I got no axe to grind. I don't get anything for this. I know deep in my heart -- Riggsy had taken a fall, but made it look good. He was a showman, and he pulled it off."
But Lornie Kuhle angrily denied Shaw's allegations during an interview at his home in Decatur, Ill. "I've never heard anything so far-fetched," he says. "It's just complete bulls---." As for Shaw, he said, "I mean, that's ridiculous -- unless he's got Alzheimer's, and people do get that when they're 79 years old." He added, "I never heard anything so far-fetched as this guy in Tampa. I'd like to meet that guy sometime."
Kuhle also vehemently disputed the suggestion that Riggs owed mob-linked bookmakers any money, at any time. "You can say the mob killed John Kennedy," he says. "We could rationalize that one, but Bobby never owed anybody a dime -- football bets, basketball bets or anything like that. ... There are no mob people involved with this match. The mob doesn't even play tennis. … I think that's a funny story."
Kuhle, who is the founder and owner of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Center & Museum in Encinitas, Calif., also denied that Riggs received a mafia payment deposited in a bank account in England, as Shaw had heard. "Listen, I'm with Bobby night and day for 20 years," Kuhle says. "I'm the executor of his estate. I know every nickel he had in the bank. I know every check he's written, every bet he made. There was never any bet with anybody in the mob or anything like that."
However, Larry Riggs did not dismiss Shaw's story outright because, after all, his father knew and gambled with a lot of mob guys all over the country. Bobby Riggs was also a longtime member of the La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., a reputed mob-built country club where mob leader and Riggs' acquaintance Moe Dalitz was a member. And Larry Riggs had never understood why those Chicago pals of hit man Jackie Cerone had visited his father several times prior to the King match.
"Did he know mafia guys? Absolutely," Larry Riggs says. "Is it possible these guys were talking some s---? Yes, it is possible. They talked to him about doing it? Possible." However, Riggs says, it was more likely his father purposefully lost with an eye toward setting up a bigger payday rematch -- and a continuation of the national publicity that he so craved -- than throw the match for mob money. Larry Riggs also says he remains baffled by the fact his father did not prepare for the King match -- the only match in Bobby Riggs' life for which he had failed to train. "Never understood it," Larry Riggs says.
King says Riggs underestimated her. He was devastated that he lost, though King acknowledges he might have been capable of throwing a match. "Oh, I'm capable of tanking; everyone can tank," King says. "It depends on the situation. But that was not really in Bobby's best interest in any way to lose that match."
When Mulloy was told about Shaw's story, he says, he believed it. "I think that the mobsters of some sort were in on the match with Billie Jean King," he says. "He didn't put himself in a position to win, and I think he did it on purpose to make a buck." Besides, Mulloy adds, Riggs knew his defeat would create intense interest -- and money -- for a rematch with King.
In the contract signed by Riggs and King, there was an ironclad clause for a rematch, Kuhle and others say. Riggs considered suing King to force a rematch, but friends urged him not to do it. He was "crushed" by King's decision to deny him a rematch. King says she knows nothing about a rematch clause, wouldn't have agreed to one and had never heard that Riggs contemplated suing her. Perenchio, the match promoter who is now 82 years old, did not respond to questions from "Outside the Lines" along with a request to review the contract.
For Riggs, who was often quoted as saying, "I want to be remembered as a winner," the aftermath of a loss on such a big stage to a woman he had ridiculed could not have been easy to endure. "He thought for sure she would play him in the rematch," Larry Riggs says. "He thought for sure he would have redemption."
BOBBY RIGGS' FRIENDS say he was depressed for at least six months after his Battle of the Sexes loss. Even so, he had become a legitimate national celebrity (on an airplane, "Laugh-In" star Arte Johnson told Riggs, "People tell me I look like you," to which Riggs replied, "Funny -- no one tells me I look like you."). He would do humorous star turns on "The Odd Couple" and other TV shows. By early 1974 -- only a few months after the loss to King -- Riggs moved to Las Vegas and worked at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino as the resident tennis pro and casino greeter. Paid an annual salary of $100,000, he moved into a house on the hotel's golf course.
The Tropicana was the casino where mobsters had skimmed packets of $100 bills from the counting room -- the crime immortalized in the film, "Casino." One of the men who benefited from the Tropicana skim was Riggs' Chicago golfing buddy, Jackie Cerone. In 1986, Cerone and four other men, from the Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City mobs, were convicted of skimming a total of $2 million from the Tropicana during the mid-'70s. Larry Riggs says he is unsure who had arranged the job at the Tropicana for Bobby Riggs.
Through the late '70s and early '80s, whispers about an alleged Bobby Riggs fix only grew louder. In 1983, Riggs appeared on a syndicated television show called "Lie Detector," hosted by the famous criminal defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey. On the show, Bailey asked Riggs if he had thrown the match, and he said no. Bailey declared for viewers that Riggs had passed the lie detector test. Kuhle says Riggs did the show for $5,000, not because he had felt a need to deny the allegation.
Few people who watched knew that Bailey had helped Santo Trafficante Jr. in the late 1970s avoid a congressional subpoena to testify in the House's JFK assassination inquiry. Trafficante had faced jail time, but he thwarted the subpoena with Bailey's help. Now 79 and living in Maine, Bailey says he helped Trafficante as a favor to his lawyer, Henry Gonzalez, whom Bailey called a close friend. "I knew Santo and Henry, but I didn't represent either one of them," Bailey says. Waldron, the mafia expert, says Frank Sturges, one of the Watergate burglars, also appeared on the show and passed his lie detector test. Waldron says Sturges was a bag man for Trafficante.
For years, Riggs' gambling buddies often asked him about a fix. "Of course it wasn't on the level," says Jim Agate of Las Vegas, a golf gambling pal of Riggs'. He said when he asked Riggs what had happened against Billie Jean King, "he'd laugh and giggle, and roll his eyes and say, 'Oh, well, you know, it wasn't my day.'"
Over the years, King has repeatedly denied there was a fix, saying the suggestion was preposterous because, if Riggs had beaten her, he could have parlayed the victory into additional big money exhibitions against other top women players. He had plenty of incentive to win, she says. When told about Hal Shaw's story, King laughs. "I would bet my life that Bobby never had that discussion with them," she says of Marcello, Trafficante and Ragano. "Maybe they had that discussion with themselves because they're mobsters, but that's not Bobby. Bobby doesn't get involved with mobsters. … If I really thought there was even a glimmer of possibility of that, I would think about it, but I know it's not."
In 1995, during the last year of his life, Riggs was 77 years old and suffering from prostate cancer. And reporters were still asking him about a fix. "I know there was a rumor about that match," he told tennis writer Steve Flink. "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. I didn't really think she had a chance. … Even though we had put up a million dollars in escrow for her to play the rematch, she just wouldn't do it."
The day before Riggs died in October 1995, King called him at home. Over the years, the two adversaries had become good friends.
"I love you," King told him.
"I love you," Riggs said.
Then Billie Jean King told the happy hustler how important their match's result will always be to all women.
"Well, we did it," Bobby Riggs finally told her. "We really made a difference, didn't we?"
Don Van Natta Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DVNJr.
Producers William Weinbaum and Andy Lockett and production assistant Joshua Vorensky of ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit contributed to this report.
Follow Outside the Lines on Twitter: @OTLonESPN.