Forty years ago, the battle of the sexes took a more literal turn in the world of sports, and captured the imagination of the country — and the world.  By then a fading star in men’s tennis, Bobby Riggs challenged rising women’s tennis star Billie Jean King to a three-set match to settle whether women could compete against men on an even field.  But how even was the field?  ESPN and ABC report that Riggs may have thrown the match in cahoots with the Mafia:

The “Battle of the Sexes,” a 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and a former Grand Slam champion, was rigged by the mob, according to a new report.

The tennis match between King and the late Bobby Riggs, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ, was a spectacle watched by millions around the world Sept. 20, 1973. More than 30,000 people packed the Houston Astrodome to see whether King, 29 at the time, could defeat a man.

King beat Riggs, who was 55 at the time of the match, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The win gave women’s tennis a huge boost in terms of respect and gender equality, but an ESPN “Outside the Lines” report says the whole match was fixed because Riggs owed mobsters more than $100,000 and threw the match to erase the debt.

If you weren’t around for this, it may be difficult to relate just what a big deal this match was.  From schoolyards to business offices, people chose sides and argued vehemently about the possible outcomes and the relative skills of the two professional athletes.  Those who cheered for Riggs became known (mostly by choice) as “Rigg’s Pigs,” a reference to the insult “male chauvinist pigs” thrown at those opposed to the feminist movement at the time.  Riggs, who certainly knew how to promote the match, cut a deal with Sugar Daddy candies, if I recall correctly, and surrounded himself with a bevy of beautiful women to stoke interest.  The match itself drew 90 million viewers worldwide, making it one of the most-watched sporting events ever, and easily the most-watched tennis match in the US at least to that time.

This report is based on one overheard conversation from months earlier, one that didn’t even involve Riggs.  That makes it a little thin, and for her part, King vehemently denies that Riggs threw the match:

“I was on the court with Bobby and I know he was not tanking the match. I could see in his eyes and body language he wanted to win,” she said.

“It was 40 years ago and I won the match and I am 100 percent sure Bobby wanted to win as badly as I did. Those who bet against me lost money but the result is the same today as it was 40 years ago.”

Riggs’ son Larry admits that his father knew mobsters at the time, and allows that it might be “possible” that they talked to Riggs about the game. However, I’m pretty skeptical about this, and not just because the intense media spotlight on the game would have made it more difficult to pull off.  Riggs was almost twice the age of King at the time of this match, 55 years old to her 29, and both were world-class athletes.  Even today, when 55 is a lot younger than it used to be, a 29-year-old woman on a tennis court will have fresher legs and more stamina than a 55-year-old man, especially one who threw himself more into promotion than practice in the weeks leading up to the match.  In retrospect, Riggs seems fortunate to have made it as competitive as he did, losing in three straight sets and two service breaks down in each of the final two sets.

For those who weren’t around at the time, Bob Costa had a good recap in his book And the Crowd Goes Wild: