Longreads Best of 2013 Postscript: New Questions About a Legendary Tennis Match

The Match Maker

Don Van Natta Jr. | ESPN | August 2013 | 34 minutes (8,461 words)

 

Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

My story, The Match Maker, was online at ESPN.com only a few hours on Aug. 25 when I heard from a California man who shrugged at the possibility that tennis champ and American hustler Bobby Riggs had thrown the famous September 1973 Battle of the Sexes match. The man’s name is Russell Boyd, and he claimed Bobby Riggs had talked openly and repeatedly with him, back in June 1973, about his intention to lose his upcoming match against Billie Jean King at the Houston Astrodome. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was such a serious matter of him playing Billie Jean King,” Boyd, 56, told me, “and that he was actually expected to make an effort to win.”

This reaction was typical of more than a dozen people who claimed to have first-hand information—or second-hand knowledge—that Riggs had purposely lost the “Battle of the Sexes” for a big payday and/or the possibility of an even more lucrative rematch against King. My colleagues and I heard from several dozen tennis world veterans, who said that after reading The Match Maker they were even more convinced that the match, one of the most iconic events in American sports history, ranked as Bobby Riggs’ greatest con. “It was a definite thing that crossed my mind,” said Nancy Richey, a tennis Hall of Famer who had a courtside seat for the Riggs-King match and who said The Match Maker had convinced her of a fix. “He was a compulsive gambler, he had a problem. It was a pretty good bet that he put the flippers on and went in the tank.”

There were only a handful of denials, but these came from the people closest to the match. And they were just as adamant. King, as well as Riggs’ best friend and confidant, Lornie Kuhle, continued to deny the match was fixed after my story was published. “I happened to be there—I actually kicked his butt,” King said on the FoxSports1 show, “Crowd Goes Wild,” on Sept. 9. “He had every reason to try to win this match. So I think to wait 40 years is pretty below the belt, I think, I don’t know. Maybe they’re still upset a girl beat a guy, I don’t know.” The match promoter, Jerry Perenchio, 82, called my story “absolutely preposterous and merely an attempt to rewrite history.”

But Riggs’ own son, Larry, had told me it was possible that mob leaders had set up a fix with his father. After The Match Maker was published, Larry Riggs texted me, saying, “Lots of calls. People think Billie and Lornie [are the] only people in America in denial of [a fix] being possible.”

I have covered many high-profile stories in my career—Hurricane Andrew, the crash of TWA Flight 800, an American President’s impeachment and the September 11th terror attacks and their aftermath. But The Match Maker was something different. It’s an irresistible whodunit that began with a tip, from a 79-year-old Tampa, Florida, man named Hal Shaw, who said he had overheard four mob leaders discuss Riggs’ alleged proposal of a fix late one night in December 1972 or January 1973 in the pro shop at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa.

The story’s appeal is that the truth will likely never be known—Riggs died in 1995 of lung cancer, and the mob leaders Shaw had overheard at Palma Ceia are all gone, too. But in the end, The Match Maker’s details build a strong enough case that most readers conclude a fix was possible and even plausible.

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