Battle of the Sexes: 41 Years Since Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs

Bobby Riggs Billie Jean King

On September 20, 1973, tennis titans Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs squared off in the Houston Astrodome, playing three sets for a winner-take-all cash prize of $100,00 in an event billed as “The Battle of the Sexes”. The contest captured the world’s attention and remains one of the most pivotal happenings in professional tennis history—although recent reports indicate that perhaps more went down than just Riggs to Billie Jean’s devastating forehand.

During the 1930s and ’40s, Riggs regularly ruled tennis as the sport’s number-one competitor. Come the women’s liberation movement of the ’70s, colorful character Riggs hatched a scheme to make a quick buck and fan the flames of pro tennis’s increasing popularity.

Eagerly assuming the role of “male chauvinist pig,” Riggs repeatedly declared in public that, even though he was 55, he could easily defeat the top-ranked female tennis player on earth because women were “inferior.” Margaret Court took Riggs up on the challenge and, in short order, he beat her handily during a May 1973 event that came to be known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

Rising superstar Billie Jean King proved more formidable. A media circus arose around the Astrodome on the day of the “Battle.” 30,472 spectators crowded the—largest single gathering to ever watch tennis in the U.S.—while 90 million TV viewers tuned in worldwide. King entered the arena being carried by musclemen in the manner of Cleopatra. Riggs followed suit in a rickshaw pulled by sexy female models. She gave him a live piglet, he presented her with a giant lollipop. Once things got serious, King whipped Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3…


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Although King and Riggs became close friends following “The Battle of the Sexes,” rumors almost immediately persisted that the results were not legit. Riggs was a world-class gambler, and it’s long been whispered that he through the matches to eradicate his debt to the mob. Just last year, ESPN investigated the unofficial allegations. No conclusive answer was reached. Riggs died in 1995, leaving Billie Jean King to definitively respond to the charges on Good Morning America in 2013: “I just beat his butt!”


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