Did Bobby Riggs throw the Battle of the Sexes with Billie Jean King?

 

MMA were impressed but not stunned when UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey tapped out TUF runner up middleweight Uriah Hall. But there was a time when it was believed that any competent man could beat pretty much any woman at anything physical.

That belief ended in 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in front of 30,472 fans at the Houston Astrodome. It remains the largest crowd to watch ever tennis in the United States.

40 years later, a witness has come forward who says that the match was fixed by the Mafia, over a $100,000 gambling debt Riggs owed the hoods.

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.

"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."

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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.

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.

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.

"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 Martin Scorsese 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."

The fix was not without precedent.

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."

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.

"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."

In stark contrast to the way he approached every other tennis match, Riggs partied, promoted and never seriously practiced in the four months prior to the King match.

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.

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.

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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."

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."

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."

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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."

"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.

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.

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.'"

--

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?"

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