Alex Higgins, one of snooker’s all-time greats, died in July 2010 after a long battle against cancer.
The two-times World Champion, who was aged 61, was found dead by carers in his flat in his native Belfast. He had suffered from the affects of throat cancer for 12 years, and his weight plummeted to seven stone because of a problem with his teeth which prevented him from eating solid food. Friends raised £20,000 so that he could have new teeth fitted, but he was too frail to have surgery.
World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn said: “He was the major reason for snooker’s popularity in the early days. He was controversial at times, but he always played the game in the right spirit. We will miss him – he was the original people’s champion.”
Born in 1949, Higgins started playing snooker at the age of 11 in the Jampot Club in Belfast. Soon he was beating older boys and men, and legend has it that he walked quickly around the table to avoid clips on the ear from incensed opponents. Later, his rapid and attacking style would earn him the nickname ‘The Hurricane’.
After considering a career as a jockey, he focussed solely on snooker and turned professional age 22. Remarkably, he won the World Championship at his first attempt in 1972, beating John Spencer 37-31 in the final. Higgins captured the imagination of the snooker public, his personality and playing style a dramatic departure from the traditional image of a snooker professional. Young, flamboyant, from a working class background and wearing his heart on his sleeve on and off the table, he was a player that the ordinary man could relate to. His technique was also anything but orthodox; his whole body seemed to be on the move as he struck the cue ball, but somehow the balls nearly always found their target.
More than any other player, he helped transform snooker from a niche game into the most popular sport in Britain by the early 1980s, with millions turning on the television whenever he was playing, and hundreds packing the venues of the major events.
In 1982 he won his second World title; the gap of ten years between his first and second crown remains a record. With perhaps the most extraordinary break in snooker history, including a sequence of improbable pots slotted into pockets around the table, he defeated Jimmy White 16-15 in the semi-finals, and went on to beat Ray Reardon 18-15 in the Crucible final. The moment when his wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren joined him on the stage, Higgins in tears as he clutched the infant in one hand and trophy in the other, is among the most memorable in televised sport.
He was also World runner-up in 1976 and 1980 and won the Masters in 1978 and 1981.
His life was dogged by controversy and turmoil both within snooker and in his private life. On one occasion he punched a WPBSA official, unprovoked, on his way into a press conference, on another he head-butted the tournament director, on another he threatened to have fellow Northen Irishman Dennis Taylor shot (while playing on the same side in a team event). A heavy drinker (and smoker) with a short fuse once the Guinness was flowing, he had a series of stormy relationships with women, which resulted in divorces from Lynn and Cara and many more break-ups. He is survived by Lynn, Lauren and son Jordan.
The media was fascinated by this maverick genius, the subject of hundreds of column inches on the front and back pages of national newspapers. Fans turned up at tournaments not only to watch his skill on the table, but to see how he would behave towards his opponent, the referee and anyone else who crossed his path.
Higgins never quite recaptured the heights of his 1982 performance, though he did win other tournaments, including the 1983 UK Championship when he came from 7-0 down to beat nemesis Steve Davis 16-15 in the final. Twice ranked second in the world, he slipped down the rankings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and retired from the professional game in 1997. In recent years he has often played in exhibitions and pro-ams, often with his close friend Jimmy White, though it was clear that his health was rapidly deteriorating.
Higgins leaves us with great memories of his brilliance and charisma on the table.