Did A Florida Mob Boss Rig The 1973 'Battle Of The Sexes' Tennis Match?

Sep 10, 2013

The late tennis pro Bobby Riggs called himself Sugar Daddy in the lead-up to 'The Battle of the Sexes,' his match against then No. 2-ranked women's tennis pro Billie Jean King in 1973.
Credit dbking / Creative Commons/Flickr

The 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes," is an iconic moment in sports history.  King beat Riggs at the height of the feminist movement, proving that women could beat men in a test of physical ability, at a time when women could not even obtain a credit card without a man’s signature. 

For years, though, speculation has been that Riggs threw the match.  

Riggs had decisively beat No. 1-ranked Margaret Court in a game just months before he played King, who was then ranked No. 2.

RELATED: Why Florida Picks Fights With The U.S.

But now ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta, Jr. has unearthed new evidence: a former assistant golf pro in Tampa, Hal Shaw, claims he overheard mob bosses discuss a proposal by Riggs to throw the match.

The conversation among the bosses reportedly happened at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa. In that group was the infamous Santo Trafficante, Jr., a Tampa mobster who controlled criminal operations in Florida and Cuba.

Why would Riggs risk his reputation by purposefully losing?

Santo Trafficante, Jr., is third from the left in this photo from a dinner in New York City in the 1970s. Trafficante operated several casinos in Cuba and was head of the Sicilian Mafia in Florida.
Credit mafia.wikia.com

Van Natta, who broke the story, says Shaw heard the bosses mention that Riggs had a gambling debt of over a $100,000.

Riggs “was a hustler and a big gambler,” Van Natta adds, and he “had a lot of friends across the country in the mob,” including in South Florida. Riggs’ son Larry also said that Chicago mobsters visited his father’s house the week before the match.

Van Natta delved into archives and interviewed a mob expert and Riggs' friends and family, but he can’t be absolutely sure what happened that day on a tennis court in 1973.

At the very least, he concludes, “I think we build a very strong circumstantial case that raises new questions.”