Snooker Pays Tribute to Ex-Champion `Hurricane' Higgins, Who Died at 61

Snooker players and officials have paid tribute to Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, the two-time world champion who has died at the age of 61.

Higgins, famed for his potting ability, fondness for alcohol and clashes with authority, was found dead at his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, two days ago. He’d been battling throat cancer.

Higgins, winner of the world title in 1972 and 1982, was one of the biggest box-office draws in snooker and was often referred to as the “People’s Champion.” He’d long been troubled by financial and medical problems, and in May media reports said his weight had dropped to under 84 pounds.

The “Hurricane” helped to transform snooker from a niche sport into one that achieved record TV viewing figures in Britain in the 1980s. Controversy was never far away from a man who attracted tabloid headlines for his drinking, love affairs, fights and rows with officialdom. In a 2003 profile, the British Broadcasting Corp. gave him a “bad boy” rating of 11/10.

Ray Reardon and John Spencer were great champions of the Seventies but the person who dragged the game further was Alex Higgins, he was a genius,” six-time world champion Steve Davis told Sky Sports. “He was a player I had so many battles with, it was a pleasure to play against the man.”

Another ex-champion, Dennis Taylor, said Higgins was “totally unique.”

‘Exciting’

“I don’t think you’ll ever, ever see another player in the game of snooker like the great Alex Higgins,” Taylor told the BBC. “He was a very, very exciting player to watch.”

Alexander Gordon Higgins was born on March 18, 1949, in Belfast and his first playing experiences were at the Jampot club in a working-class Protestant district. As an 11-year-old he would play regularly there, often against players many years older.

After an unhappy attempt to become a horse-race jockey, Higgins concentrated on snooker.

He won the world championship at his first attempt, beating John Spencer by 37 frames to 32 in 1972. At 23, he was then the game’s youngest champion. In contrast to today’s more orderly format, the competition was played in the crowded, noisy and smoky atmosphere of a club in Birmingham, central England.

As the game’s profile soared with the advent of color television, Higgins reached the final again in 1976 and 1980, losing to Ray Reardon then Cliff Thorburn. He was renowned for his attacking brilliance and accuracy of his potting, or ability to knock balls into the pocket. Higgins earned the nickname “Hurricane” because of his quick play.

‘People Gasped’

“He played shots which had not even been thought of at the time. People gasped,” World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn told the BBC’s “Sportsweek” program. “He helped to take the game from the working-class background of misspent youth into more global entertainment during his period. But Alex rewrote the book on misspent adulthood.”

In 1982, Higgins won the world title at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, beating Reardon 18-15, having triumphed over Jimmy White in the semifinals. A weeping Higgins called for his wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren to join him as he celebrated, and the pictures became part of British sporting history.

Among his other trophies he won the Benson & Hedges Masters twice, the Coral U.K. -- beating Davis 16-15 in 1983 after being 7-0 down -- and the Irish Masters.

He had no shortage of confidence in his own abilities, once saying, “I think I was the most natural, charismatic player who ever lifted a cue. I think my presence around the table was mesmerizing at times. It captured people.”

Run-Ins

Higgins failed to emulate his playing brilliance off the table. He head-butted a tournament director in 1986 and was subsequently banned, setting off a round of run-ins with snooker officials. On another occasion he punched a tournament director.

Higgins complained that he was being victimized, with bans making it harder for him to stay high in the rankings. The resulting need to play qualifiers for the major tournaments increased the pressure on Higgins, and frustration and blow-ups followed.

Other players incurred Higgins’s wrath, and during an argument with Taylor in 1990 he threatened to have his fellow Ulsterman shot. He later apologized and the two were reconciled.

For years a heavy smoker, Higgins fell into poor health and was operated on for throat cancer. Financial problems arose and he was reported by newspapers to be living in a caravan at one point and playing club games in Belfast for a few pounds.

Whatever his problems off the table, Higgins remained popular with many snooker players and followers.

“Alex was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker,” three-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan said on his own website. “He is a true legend and should be forever remembered as being the finest-ever snooker player.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter-Joseph Hegarty in London at at phegarty@bloomberg.net

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