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Did Bobby Riggs lose famous 'Battle of the Sexes' match on purpose?

Aug. 26, 2013 at 1:06 PM ET

Video: A new report from ESPN alleges that Bobby Riggs threw the groundbreaking “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Billie Jean King nearly 40 years ago to pay off gambling debts to criminals.

Did Bobby Riggs intentionally lose the famous “Battle of the Sexes’’ tennis match in 1973 against Billie Jean King?

A report on Sunday by ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” speculates that Riggs, who died in 1995, may have thrown the match in order to repay a reported $100,000 gambling debt to the mafia. The report cites a conversation allegedly overheard by an assistant golf instructor in the pro shop at a course in Tampa in the early 1970s that featured several mafia figures discussing how Riggs would set up the fix for a match with King.

Riggs, who was 55 years old at the time, lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 to the 29-year-old King, who was the second-ranked female player in the world. The event was held at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30, 472 people, which is still the largest crowd in the U.S. to ever attend a tennis match. The match is frequently cited as a turning point for the women’s liberation movement that King passionately supported.

Four months before Riggs lost to King, he dominated the No. 1 women’s player, Margaret Court, beating her in straight sets to build anticipation for his showdown with King after she accepted his challenge. Hal Shaw, 79, who worked at Palma Ceia Gold and Country Club in Tampa, told ESPN he was working late in the shop one night when four alleged mob figures entered and began to talk about Riggs throwing the match against King.

Shaw, who says he secretly listened to the conversation, claims the late mafia bosses Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello were there with Trafficante’s attorney, Frank Ragano, and an unidentified fourth man. Shaw said the men were working out an arrangement in which Riggs would repay the $100,000 he was in debt to them for betting on sports events by beating Court and then taking a dive in a match with King.

"Mr. Ragano was emphatic," Shaw told ESPN. "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."

After the plan was allegedly determined, Shaw said the price Riggs would be paid for fixing the match was settled.

“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,’’’ Shaw said. “(He) has also asked for a certain amount of money to be discussed later to be put in a bank account for him in England.”

Shaw said he waited 40 years to come forward with this revelation about the meeting, which he claims was held in either the last week of 1972 or the first week of 1973, out of fear for his safety.

"There are certain things in my life that I have to talk about, have to get off my chest," Shaw said. "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."

Before he died in 1995, Riggs talked about the longtime speculation that the match was fixed.

"I know there was a rumor about that match," he told tennis writer Steve Flink. "People said I was tanking, but Billie Jean beat me fair and square. I tried as hard as I could, but I made the classic mistake of overestimating myself and underestimating Billie Jean King. I didn't really think she had a chance… Even though we had put up a million dollars in escrow for her to play the rematch, she just wouldn't do it."

Lornie Kuhle, a longtime friend of Riggs, also denied any fix in an interview with the Herald and Review in Decatur, Ill., earlier this month.

“I looked at him and told him it was the most far-fetched story I’d ever heard,” Kuhle said about being contacted by ESPN reporter Don Van Natta Jr. “Why would four mafia guys be in a golf pro shop at midnight? Why is the golf pro in there at midnight? I asked him, ‘Do you believe this (expletive)? I told him if he was looking for a scandal, there’s not one here.

“It was a real match and he got beat. Bobby didn’t purposely throw the match — it’s demeaning to the match and it’s all complete (expletive).”

Larry Riggs, Bobby’s son, told ESPN that his father did know mafia figures and that “it’s possible” they talked about fixing the match, but said it was more likely his father lost with the intention of setting up a rematch and an even bigger payday. He added that he still doesn’t understand why the King match was the only one in his father’s life that Bobby never prepared for by training.

King also remains skeptical that any kind of fix was in.

“This story is just ridiculous,'' King said in a public statement. "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. People need to accept he had a bad day at the office -- just as Margaret Court did when she played Bobby. 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."

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