Before Ronda Rousey, there was Billie Jean King and the Battle of the Sexes

Ronda Rousey continues to attract mainstream attention to a sport with her awe-inspiring fights and record-breaking submission wins. She exudes an aura of deadly…

By: Karim Zidan | 9 years ago
Before Ronda Rousey, there was Billie Jean King and the Battle of the Sexes
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Ronda Rousey continues to attract mainstream attention to a sport with her awe-inspiring fights and record-breaking submission wins. She exudes an aura of deadly confidence, and enforces it with ruthless aggression and utter dominance.

In fact, she has become so dominant as of late, that media outlets have begun to entertain the hypothetical man vs. woman challenges to emphasize Rousey’s unique athletic talents. However, instead of being admired for the comparison, Rousey was bombarded with a slew of negative responses from male fighters who scoffed at the mere suggestion that a woman could compete with them, let alone beat them.

While the initial media frenzy regarding this discussion may have been a sort of promotional tactic to garner attention for the champion, the result was an enraged fan base seemingly appalled by the debate. It was somewhat reminiscent of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that took place 42 years ago between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The historic encounter saw the tennis legend face Bobby Riggs, a former world No. 1 back in the 1940s, in order to determine, once and for all, if female tennis pros could play as well as well as their male counterparts. King had initially rejected Riggs’ chauvinistic challenge, but after seeing the top-ranked female Margaret Court lose to him, she accepted in 1973.

King was the driving force of the players’ union, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and played a pivotal role in furthering the cause for women tennis players to be eventually paid the same amount as their male counterparts at Grand Slam tournaments. After she was played $15,000 less than the male champion for winning the United States Open, she had threatened to boycott the Major, if the tournament would not give out equal prize money.

Officials at Flushing Meadows gave in and prize money was equalized.

At the time, her impact was undeniable. She was an activist who modernized the sport for its female athletes, and had the courage to publicly demand rights that others only murmured about behind closed doors. She was the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a single year, and was the only reason a players’ tour and union existed for female tennis competitors. Maybe that was why the world tuned in when she accepted Riggs’ challenge. She was the shining beacon for all women’s sports at the time – much was riding on her success.

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” she told ESPN. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem.”

The sporting climate was entirely different in the 1970s, as was society’s views on feminism and misogyny. This greatly impacted King – a known bisexual – and added fuel to her motivation as an activist. She could not tolerate the daunting boy’s club atmosphere that tennis embodied, particularly at the sport’s crowing event, the Wimbledon Championships.

“In the ’70s we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes,” King added. “We had to make it OK for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports.”

The struggle for female equality at the time was the driving force that captured the imaginations of millions of viewers curious to see what this so-called ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was all about. At first, they witnessed King’s Cleopatra entrance into the Houston Astrodome, as she was carried to the grass court in a gold chair; Riggs, in his typical misogynistic manner, brought out in a rickshaw pulled by models dubbed ‘Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.’  However, the Hollywood spectacle was put aside, and King proceeded to engrave her name and face into the hearts and minds of the crowd in attendance, and the millions of captivated viewers watching at home.

King and Riggs were both past their prime years when they faced off, but it was the stylistic approach to the match that made all the difference. King, who studied Riggs’ game from his previous match against Court, relied on an entirely different gameplan than her usual aggressive style, which appeared to befuddle Riggs enough to win the match. It was a serve, volley, and dropshot clinic that eventually ended with a definitive 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 scoreline.

To this day, it stands as the most watched tennis match in the history of the sport. No other match has even come close to topping that record.

King went on to claim more titles – she compiled six Wimbledon singles championships, four US Open singles titles, as well as Australian and French Open titles to complete the career Grand Slam. Overall, she won 39 Grand Slam titles. Over the past few decades, she has received countless medals and awards for her achievements for women’s’ rights and women in sports, including being named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Life magazine. She was one of just four athletes selected, and was the only female athlete amongst them.

While her efforts and achievements left noticeable ripple effects in the world of sports, and arguably society as a whole, the struggle for gender equality remains a very real aspect in the 21st century. In sports, few other female athletes managed to transcend gender bias in a way that King did. Her ‘Battle of the Sexes’ phenomenon was the single time in tennis history that a female athlete was able to defeat her male counterpart, and did so in front of a record crowd and live audience that will never be duplicated again. The stars had aligned once, and Billie Jean was the chosen one.

Her protégée Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and gay rights activist, would revitalize the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ theme 19 years later against fellow legend Jimmy Connors in Las Vegas.  It did little in terms of cause a stir in mainstream media, and came under criticism for a lack of fair rules since Martina was allowed to serve twice as many times as Connors was. Connors’ later revelation that he had bet $1 million on himself to win the match also took away from the contest’s splendor.

The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ concept was watered down even further when the Williams Sisters, Venus and Serena, aged 17 and 16 respectively, took to court at the 1998 Australian Open to challenge former world No. 4 Karsten Braasch to an impromptu match. The sisters, both playing slightly before their peak years on the tour, claimed that they could defeat any male competitor ranked outside the Top 200 in the ATP rankings. Braasch, No. 203 at the time and a regular smoker, accepted the challenge, and even offered to face each sister consecutively. He beat Venus 6-1 and Serena 6-2; later, he scoffed at the suggestion that the Williams Sisters could ever have beaten him, and that he only played them as a joke.

Those sort of patronizing comments are not much different to former top-ranked flyweight Ian McCall’s recent tirade against the women’s bantamweight champion.  McCall called Rousey’s wins “cute” and asked her to step aside, as they were “doing man things here.”

While the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was originally conjured up as a mainstream way to bring the discussion about gender equality to the forefront of sports, its latest manifestation in mixed martial arts is nothing more than a cheap ploy to drive traffic and keep Rousey’s name in the headlines.

Even her mother, former world judo champion AnnMaria De Mars shrugged aside the suggestion that this was a topic worth discussing.

“That’s a stupid idea,” De Mars said (via Yahoo). “Seriously, that’s a stupid idea. I’m as much a feminist as anyone but the fact is that biologically, there’s a difference between men and women. Hello. Duh. A woman who is 135 pounds and a man who is 135 pounds are not physically equal.”

So why do Joe Rogan, Dana White, or others insinuate that Rousey’s can beat up men at her weight? All that does it emphasize that her value as a sportsperson is rooted in whether she could beat her male counterparts. When Billie Jean King did what she did in tennis – a non-combat sport – she did so with the intention of legitimizing women in sports back at a time where women were struggling for equality in society. Rousey has done her part for women’s MMA – she does not need to fight a man to prove her worth to the world.

Share this story

About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories