It was the opening round of the 1990 World Snooker Championships, and Alex Higgins had just been dealt a defeat at the hands of Steve James.
As so often the case with Higgins, it was a match played amidst much background noise about his personal life. As well as tackling severe financial difficulties, the icon was also facing disciplinary action after threatening to have Northern Ireland team-mate Dennis Taylor shot during the World Cup earlier that season.
Heavily intoxicated, Higgins proceeded to punch WPBSA press officer Colin Randle upon arriving for his press conference, before delivering a slurred tirade, in which he announced his retirement from professional play.
The subsequent one year ban from competitive snooker, and stripping of all ranking points, amounted to little more than a token gesture. It was already evident that the career of ‘The Hurricane’ was over.
In many respects, it was a sad conclusion for the game’s most colourful star. And yet, it also seemed fitting.
Because with Alex Higgins – controversy, flash points, personal demons, headlines, and yes, alcohol – all seamlessly went hand in hand with his snooker.
Indeed, the nickname ‘Hurricane’ was perhaps as much to do with his lightning quick play around the table, as it was his love of living life in the fast lane away from it.
Higgins was mercurial yet unpredictable, colourful yet controversial, dynamic yet dangerous, talented and yet tormented. The very characterisations that undoubtedly etch him in history as one of snooker’s greatest characters, arguably also prevented him from going down as one of snooker’s greatest players.
Indeed, it’s often forgotten that at the core of it all was a supreme talent. In 1972, he became the first qualifier in history to become world champion, aged just 22. He captured the title again in 1982, and was twice runner-up in-between.
Furthermore, he was a UK Championship winner, twice Masters champion, and a three-time World Cup winner the the all-Ireland side – and all successes were supplemented by an ability to pot under pressure that few others could match.
Was Alex Higgins snooker’s greatest ever character? Let us know in the comments section.
That 1982 triumph at the Crucible, where he potted the last three frames to secure the trophy, sparked emotional scenes which with his then wife and daughter, went down in snooker folklore. His pivotal 69 break against Jimmy White in the semi-final of the same tournament is widely regarded as one of the best the sport has seen.
It wasn’t his success which saw him dubbed ‘The People’s Champion,’ but his portrayal as the working class, anti-establishment figure who played with freedom and charisma. To the majority of his fans, Higgins was one of them, a man of humble beginnings whose fame and fortune didn’t suppress the love of a drink and smoke with his mates.
And yet, it is perhaps the latter sentence which ensured trouble was never far away.
Within three years of his epic encounter with Ray Reardon, his marriage had ended and he’d been handed a five-tournament ban, and a £12,000 fine, for head-butting a WPBSA official after being asked to take a drugs test.
In 1989 he broke multiple bones having fallen out a window while trying to slip out from home to a casino, and yet remarkably, won the Irish Professional Championships soon after. During the World Trickshot Championship in 1991, in front of a live audience and television cameras, he referred to the black ball as “Muhammed Ali,” and seemed unperturbed by the subsequent negative reaction.
As well as famously threatening to have Taylor shot, problems continued post-retirement. In 1996, he was convicted of assaulting a 14-year-old boy and a year later, girlfriend Holly Haise stabbed him three times during a domestic argument.
There were other controversies of course, not that Higgins ever sought to play the role of an angel. He admitted to smoking and drinking heavily, to regularly using cocaine and cannabis, and to struggling with a gambling addiction. It’s why essentially all of his estimated £4 million career earnings were blown in pubs and nightclubs.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. By the time he died in 2010, aged 61, there was multiple contributory health-related causes.
Through the past misdemeanours though, the legacy of a man who Steve Davis once described as the only “true genius snooker ever produced” shines bright.
Higgins represented the game’s first real superstar. During the 1980’s, when snooker seemingly peaked in popularity, it was he who undoubtedly made it attractive to a wider audience. For all the negative publicity he often brought upon himself, the positive publicity he brought to the game he loved will never be forgotten.
It’s a fair question to ask where Alex Higgins would have been without snooker?
It’s perhaps more appropriate, to ask where snooker would be now without Alex Higgins?
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