The original people's champ Alex Higgins dies
Long cancer battle took toll on one of snooker's most loved characters
Alex Higgins, the mercurial snooker star who was twice champion of the world and who had fought a long battle with cancer, was found dead yesterday. He was 61.
The two-times World Snooker Champion had struggled with throat cancer for more than a decade.
Higgins was discovered at a block of flats in the centre of Belfast. he had been living in sheltered housing on the Donegall Road.
It is understood that the snooker legend had not been answering his mobile phone leading to friends forcibly entering his flat where his body was discovered.
Steve Davis last night described his former rival as one of the few "geniuses" around the table.
Davis said: "To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game.
"He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated."
As to his own encounters with Higgins around the table, Davis said: "He was quite a fierce competitor, he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table.
"It was a love/hate relationship with Alex Higgins. The thrill of playing him was fantastic, but the crowd that came along were not your usual crowd. They were much more noisy and you had to play the crowd as well. To many people in the 1980s he was the only player they came to watch."
"I used to be quite frightened of him as an individual, he could be quite vexatious. But on the snooker table, my admiration was immense."
THE HURRICANE PAGE 26
Fellow Ulsterman Denis Taylor was involved in a number of memorable battles against Higgins, most notably in the final of the 1987 Benson & Hedges Masters, and he described his long-standing rival as "a total one-off -- nobody had seen a guy running round the table like that.
"The thing that got snooker going in the early Seventies was Pot Black, with John Spencer and Ray Reardon," Taylor said. "Then Alex came on the scene in 1972 to beat John in the final. He really lifted the profile of the sport."
Higgins was not a man to play the percentages. He was a heavy drinker and smoker and in 1998 he had an operation to remove a cancerous growth in his throat. He also lost his teeth, and this made it difficult for him to eat, leading to drastic weight loss in recent years.
His overall earnings from snooker were reckoned to be somewhere around £3m (€3.6m), but he was virtually penniless at the end of his life, and his friends and associates set up a charitable appeal earlier this year to raise the £20,000 he needed for new teeth implants.
Unfortunately, he was not well enough to have the operation. "I think everybody who had seen him play in the Legends tour at the Crucible knew he wasn't well at all," said Taylor. "But he'd come back in the past -- he was always a battler. I suppose there were people who had done an obituary for him years ago."
Higgins won snooker's world championship twice, in 1972 and 1982, and also finished as runner-up in 1976 and 1980. His success was all the more extraordinary in the light of his erratic lifestyle and penchant for aggressive behaviour. He was banned for five tournaments in 1986, after butting a referee at the UK Championships. But he always remained a popular favourite among sports fans.
"Snooker owes Alex an enormous debt for all the colour and the controversy he added," said Barry Hearn, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.
"He could divide opinion, you loved him or you hated him, but he was never boring."
Mr Hearn said Higgins would be remembered as the "original people's champion" and the man who transformed the popularity of the sport.
Mr Hearn said: "I have known him for nearly 40 years. 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."
Despite being the man credited with making snooker popular as a TV sport, Higgins had latterly suffered the indignity of being pitched against unknowns in back-street halls in the pre-qualifying rounds for ranking tournaments, instead of playing in the finals by right.
But he never lost his passion for the game, recently telling the Daily Telegraph: "I think I was the most natural, charismatic player who ever lifted a cue. I think my presence around the table was mesmerising at times. It captured people. I'm not telling you this to bolster my own ego. It's what people tell me."
Despite being warned many times to cut his drinking and smoking to save his health, Higgins sucked his way through as many as 80 Marlboros a day until attempting to quit in 1996.
He had cancerous growths removed from his mouth in 1994 and 1996 and was told in 1998 that he had throat cancer.
His fall from grace began when he head-butted an official and was fined £12,000 and banned for the next five major tournaments.
He raised his game one more time, to outplay up-and-coming Stephen Hendry and win the Irish Benson & Hedges Masters in 1989, hobbling round the table with his leg in plaster due to a broken ankle suffered when he fell from a first-floor window.
The following year, he was in trouble again, and was banned for 12 months after thumping an official and telling Northern Ireland team-mate Dennis Taylor that he would have him shot.
By then, Higgins' age and the effects of his phenomenal thirst were beginning to show, and he slipped out of the top 100 rankings in 1997.
He was convicted in 1996 of assaulting a 14-year-old boy, and on another occasion was photographed being led away by police officers, his arm dripping with blood, after an incident at his girlfriend Holly's house, where he was living.
He is survived by two ex-wives Car and Lynn and by his two children Lauren and Jordan.