When Don Boyd heard last month that Bobby Riggs might have thrown the Sept. 20, 1973, "Battle of the Sexes" match against Billie Jean King to erase a $100,000 gambling debt with the mob, Boyd says he shrugged: Of course Bobby Riggs threw the match. He all but told me and my brother that he was going to throw it. I thought everyone that was in the know knew this match was fixed.
Boyd and his brother, Russell, say in June 1973 they were working summer construction jobs near the Bear Valley Springs resort outside of Tehachapi, Calif., where Riggs stayed for several weeks. Each day at lunch in the resort's clubhouse, the Boyd brothers say they'd see Riggs at the bar drinking liquor with a younger unidentified man and that Riggs eagerly chatted up clubhouse patrons, including the Boyds.
"Well, we eventually struck up conversations with him over a few weeks -- he was always at the bar, laughing and drinking," said Don Boyd, 59, adding that he and his brother were joined for the lunches by their father and his business partner, both of whom are deceased. "And Riggs told us, 'It wouldn't do much good if a man beat a woman. There wouldn't be any money in that.'"
A month earlier, Riggs had beaten Margaret Court in a nationally televised exhibition match, 6-2, 6-1, for which Riggs won $10,000 and a promise by Billie Jean King for an exhibition match later that year.
"He talked about the upcoming match as if it was a joke, a farce," says Russell Boyd, 56, adding that from his vantage point, Riggs was doing far more drinking than training. "He just kept laughing about it … I didn't realize at that time that it was such a serious matter of him playing Billie Jean King, and that he was actually expected to make an effort to win." Russell Boyd added that his father's partner cashed in on Riggs' comments, betting heavily with a local bookie that King would defeat Riggs.
The Boyds are among nearly a dozen people who came forward with personal stories after ESPN's "Outside the Lines" aired and published "The Match Maker," on Aug. 25. Most say they had their own reasons to believe that Riggs had thrown the iconic "Battle of the Sexes" match. Of those, they say their conclusions are based on conversations they had with Riggs, either before the match or in the years following it, or on conversations years later with Riggs' friends.
None of those interviewed by ESPN since the original report said they had heard from Riggs or his confidants that he had thrown the match to eliminate a mob gambling debt -- a central component of the "Outside the Lines" stories. Instead, they say he was motivated by money, by betting on King and the possibility he'd make even more money if King agreed to play him in a rematch.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the match between Riggs, the gambler, hustler and long-ago Wimbledon champion, and King, then 29, a proponent of gender equality and then a five-time Wimbledon winner. Before a still-record tennis crowd of 30,472 at the Houston Astrodome and more than 50 million American TV viewers, King demolished Riggs in straight sets, and the social consequences of the match are still being felt four decades later. A PBS documentary about King, which first aired on Sept. 10, is to be screened at the White House today, with King on hand to answer questions, according to a tweet from one of the film's producers.
For her part, in the weeks following the "Outside the Lines" reports, King has reiterated that there's no way Riggs threw their match, saying she'd "bet" her "life" that her victory was legitimate. "I happened to be there, I actually kicked his butt," King said on the FoxSports1 show, "Crowd Goes Wild," on Sept. 9. "He had every reason to try to win this match. So I think to wait 40 years is pretty below the belt, I think, I don't know. Maybe they're still upset a girl beat a guy, I don't know."
Riggs' best friend, Lornie Kuhle, also continues to insist that the match was on the level. Kuhle says Riggs was never in debt to the mob, or anyone else, and he did not throw the match to satisfy an agreement that he had proposed to several mob leaders.
"Even Hans Christian Andersen couldn't come up with that fairy tale," Kuhle said in an email.
Jerry Perenchio, the promoter of the match, declined to answer written questions for the ESPN.com story published on Aug. 25. Four days later, Perenchio, 82, released this written statement: "These so-called revelations 40 years later are absolutely preposterous and merely an attempt to rewrite history. They are an insult to the sport of tennis and more so to Billie and all she has done for women in sports over her lifetime. I was closer to that event than anyone except the players. Believe me, Bobby Riggs loved being in the limelight and wanted to beat Billie Jean in the worst way. The fact is, Billie Jean cleaned his clock. End of story."
The "Outside the Lines" stories quoted a retired golf instructor named Hal Shaw, 79, of Tampa, Fla. In late 1972 or early 1973, when Shaw was an assistant golf pro at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in south Tampa, he says he was repairing clubs in the bag room after midnight when he heard men's voices. He says he shut off his bench light, locked the door and watched four men enter the pro shop, three of whom he recognized: Frank Ragano, a mob lawyer and member at Palma Ceia, whom Shaw says he knew; Santo Trafficante Jr., then the leader of the Florida mob and Carlos Marcello, the leader of the New Orleans mob. Shaw says he recognized Trafficante and Marcello from their newspaper photographs.
Shaw says he heard Ragano say that Riggs brought them a proposal -- he'd set up two exhibition matches against the top women's players of the time, No. 1 Margaret Court and No. 2 King. He'd defeat Court, and then throw the match against King, Shaw says, to erase a gambling debt of more than $100,000 and for an undisclosed sum to be deposited for him into a bank account in England.
Shaw on Thursday said he has received more than 100 calls from the media around the world since the "Outside the Lines" report and has turned down all interview requests he's received. He also reiterated that his story is accurate, despite assertions to the contrary by Ragano's son in an Aug. 26 Tampa Bay Times report.
"When you come out with something like this, you are going to get negative and positive reflections from different people," Shaw said. "I go back to my faith and what I said originally. I had a feeling from the Holy Spirit telling me not to have any fear -- this was going to be all right and for me to go ahead telling what I knew. I feel good, to put it short. I feel good."
Kuhle adamantly denied Shaw's story, but some readers say they believed it because of Riggs' reported ties to mobsters, including a Chicago mafia hit man named Jackie "The Lackey" Cerone. According to what Riggs' son, Larry, told "Outside the Lines," Cerone's associates visited Bobby Riggs several times for private conversations in the weeks leading up to the King match. Larry Riggs said his father never revealed why he was meeting with Cerone's mob associates so close to the match.
"I don't see why Mr. Shaw would fabricate a story," was how former U.S. No. 1 player Cliff Richey, who knew Bobby and Larry Riggs, reacted to the reports. "And with Larry Riggs basically confirming a mafia connection … and with Bobby's reputation, it makes you lean toward believing Mr. Shaw."
Nancy Richey, a tennis Hall of Famer who had a courtside seat for the Riggs-King match, says she agrees with her brother about the circumstantial case made for a "fix." "It was a definite thing that crossed my mind," she said. "He was a compulsive gambler, he had a problem. It was a pretty good bet that he put the flippers on and went in the tank."
One of the more intriguing aspects of whether Bobby Riggs threw the match was whether he was motivated by a rematch for more money and to continue the national media limelight that he relished.
Adam Friedman was a Pittsburgh teenager in June 1974 and says he spent a day with Riggs while his mother, a KDKA TV reporter, worked on a feature about Riggs, who was attending a charity event. Now an independent filmmaker in Century City, Calif., Friedman says he asked Riggs what happened in his straight sets loss against King nine months earlier. "He told me, 'We had a contract for a rematch.' He basically said that his loss was no big deal -- it was all an attempt to build up a bigger rematch. I came away feeling pretty sure that he threw the match."
Kuhle and Larry Riggs both insisted in interviews that there was a clause in the "Battle of the Sexes" contract calling for a rematch. Gardnar Mulloy, a 99-year-old former top-ranked U.S. player and a close friend of Riggs', recalls him saying there was a rematch clause in the contract. Mulloy says Riggs was so angry King refused to play him again that he wanted to sue her to force the rematch.
However, King told "Outside the Lines" last month that there was no clause in the contract for a rematch and she never would have signed an agreement with one. "'This is about history, this is about social change … if I lose, I will never play you again,'" King said she told Riggs. Perenchio, the promoter, said there was no rematch clause "to the best of my recollection." He said there is no longer a copy of the contract to review: "It is our policy to destroy files after 10 years."
Robert Grey Johnson of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., said he was Riggs' lawyer from the mid-1970s until Riggs' death from prostate cancer in 1995 at age 77, and that he is almost certain Riggs did not throw the match.
A rematch with King if Riggs were to lose the "Battle of the Sexes," amounted to "a subliminal thought," Johnson said. "[Riggs] thought it was going to be a walk in the park. In his mind, he would beat her easily. Once she won it, he felt she reneged on what he perceived to be an oral understanding -- he would have given her a rematch if he won, so then he felt she owed him a rematch, even if it wasn't in the contract."
Like King, Kuhle and Larry Riggs, Johnson said he never knew that Riggs had owed anyone any money. "He always paid his debts, always," said Johnson. Johnson also said that much of Riggs' wagering on football in the late 1970s, when he lost as much as $30,000 in a single day, was placed through him with a friend connected to a local bookie. But Johnson said he does not know whom Riggs was wagering with earlier, at the time of the King match.
Even if Riggs purposely lost the match, what should that mean for King, now 69, and her legacy?
Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Fame basketball player and women's sports pioneer, says although the new revelations of a possible fix raise credible questions, King's stature in women's sports history is unchanged. "It doesn't matter," Lieberman said. "Everybody got what they wanted. It was the biggest stage ever. Billie Jean King paved a path for me and for others. Everybody won. There was no negative.
"Billie Jean King did her part and her legacy is never to be tarnished -- she came with her goods and did what she could, she handled her business with class and integrity and she played hard and won. She is not responsible for what Bobby Riggs did."
"She has nothing to be ashamed of," says Nancy Richey. "She played like she was playing the Wimbledon final and she won. She can't control the other side of the court."
Tennis Hall of Famer Rosie Casals, a longtime doubles partner of King's and a broadcaster of the match on ABC with Howard Cosell, said that King's victory and its aftermath were so important to women, that reports of new suspicions about the match do not detract from that at all. "None of this is as important as all she accomplished," Casals said.
And what about the legacy of Riggs? He lost ingloriously to King, whatever the circumstances -- and it's also indisputable that his defeat contributed to the historic changes she had championed.
"He was a big part of the advancement of women -- he was, whether he likes it or not." said tennis great Chrissie Evert, now an ESPN tennis analyst. "I think after the fact he did like it, because I think he did believe after that in Billie Jean and in women's tennis, and I think he got a kick out of that he was a part of that."