The story has been the subject of whispered rumors for decades, but now a man has stepped out of the shadows to say he actually heard three mobsters make a deal with Bobby Riggs to lose the infamous Battle of the Sexes tennis match in 1973.
29-year-old Billie Jean King, the number two female player at the time and a crusader for women’s rights was up against 55-year-old Riggs, a gambler and a symbol of male chauvinism. Riggs was favored to win. He suffered a stunning defeat, but the question has arisen whether the mob delivered a backhand, making a deal with the retired champ.
Mob attorney Frank Ragano, Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante and New Orleans crime boss Carlo Marcello reportedly had a midnight meeting with Riggs at a Tampa country club, unaware that golf pro Hal Shaw was within earshot in another room. Breaking his silence after 40 years, Shaw shared his story with ESPN reporter Don Van Natta who told PIX 11 News, “Shaw hid in fear of being discovered and listened as they discussed Riggs throwing the match to King, in return for the mob to forgive a $100,000 gambling debt.”
A friend of Riggs is quoted as saying the ex-tennis champ told him not to bet on him to beat King. Presented with the account, Billie Jean King said she didn’t believe Riggs rigged the match to let her win. So why after keeping his observation a secret for 40 years has Hal Shaw come forward now? “He was fearful of mob retribution,” Van Natta said,” but now he is no longer fearful as he approaches 80 and he just wanted the story told before he dies.”
At the US Open, tennis fans told me they’re skeptical about the story. Roy Johnson is with History Magazine. He said he believes Billie Jean King won fair and square and is disappointed some people want to taint such a historic moment in sports history.
Fixed or not, some friends of Riggs contend he was ill-prepared for the match-up, that he was partying weeks before and had gained 15 pounds. Riggs died in 1995 at the age of 77.