Back in 1973, the biggest deal in the history of the world was a tennis match between the top American woman, 29-year-old Billie Jean King, and a 55-year-old tennis and golf hustler named Bobby Riggs. Riggs, a small man, had won Wimbledon as an amateur in 1939, and played some successful pro tennis after the War. Since then he`d supported himself gambling, such as playing amateurs using an umbrella while holding a dog on a leash. (Sports used to be more fun when they were mostly excuses for betting.)
In a television match earlier in 1973, Riggs had easily defeated the #1 ranked woman, Australian Margaret Court, flummoxing her with his cunning Old Man Game of dinks and floaters.
Jerry Perenchio, future owner of Univision, then set up a giant promotion machine to make the Riggs-King match in the Astrodome a referendum on Women`s Lib. Riggs spent four months partying, showed up fat and listless, and was thoroughly drubbed by King, who, mercifully, denied him the contractually-required rematch.
A new article in ESPN by Don Van Natta Jr. (hat tip Jonathan Last) fleshes out the long-time rumor that Riggs threw the match to get out of debt to his mafia bookmakers. The journalist has found some guy who claimed to have overheard hitmen spell out the whole plan. It sounds much like JFK assassination lore.
Since then, there have been remarkably few Battles of the Sexes. Even before then, it was known that the best women softball pitchers could strike out major league batters, at least until the guys got a chance to adjust to underhand pitching. But, mostly, nothing much happens.
Back in 2003, Annika Sorenstam got really pumped up and entered a PGA tournament. She was only one over par the first day, and that became a 24-hours wonder in the media, but she faded on the second day and missed the cut by four strokes, as I had predicted.
It would be interesting to know what other Landmark Cultural Milestones were rigged.
There`s been a rumor that in recent years a Very Famous tennis or golf star had to be bailed out of 8 or 9 figures of debt to his sports bookmakers by his marketing company. I suspect that the rise of endorsement income in the country club sports has lowered the incentive to throw tournaments.