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Riches to rags: The downfall of a sporting genius

By Clive Everton, Special to CNN
Higgins with his wife Lynn, after winning the Coral UK snooker Final in 1983
Higgins with his wife Lynn, after winning the Coral UK snooker Final in 1983
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Higgins was a snooker player who changed the public perception of his sport
  • Higgins -- twice World Champion and twice runner up -- died a lonely death aged 61
  • Offences included head butting tournament director and grabbing referee by the throat
  • Enthusiasts will remember him fondly for the entertainment and drama he brought to their lives

Editor's Note: Clive Everton is editor of Snooker Scene and author of "Black Farce and Cue Ball Wizards," the inside story of the snooker world, which was shortlisted in the British Sports Books of the Year Awards.

(CNN) -- You all know the story: A kid from rough inner city streets defies all odds to beat the champion and become champion himself.

This familiar career pattern for a boxer was trodden by Alex Higgins -- an instinctive genius whose extraordinary rags to riches to rags life has ended in a lonely death at the age of 61.

Although he got into many fights, Higgins was not a boxer, but a snooker player who changed the public perception of his sport.

In spite of his numerous faults, he became one of Northern Ireland's greatest national sporting heroes, and his funeral in Belfast on Monday is certain to attract a huge number of mourners.

Few in America will have heard of Higgins -- their chosen sport with cue, balls and table is pool -- but anyone who has ever lifted a cue, in whatever discipline, would have immediately appreciated that he was a unique talent.

His skills were honed as a schoolboy (though he often skipped school) in the Jampot, a down-at-heel snooker hall off Belfast's Donegal Road, where he lived off fizzy drinks and chocolate and grown men unforgivingly took whatever money he had.

Soon, though, he was beating them all, not only for money but in legit competition. Northern Ireland amateur champion at 18, he crossed the Irish Sea to set up in Blackburn in the north of England, not exactly as a hustler (because he never concealed his skill,) but as a money player.

He quickly became Alex "Hurricane" Higgins because of his speed around the table, his instant assessment of the best shot choice and his lightning and deadly execution.

Within weeks, the snooker world was awash with tales of dashing centuries, high living, punch-ups and bust-ups
--Clive Everton
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Within weeks, the snooker world was awash with tales of dashing centuries, high living, punch-ups and bust-ups. He lived consecutively at 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 Ebony Street, moving along as each house on this condemned road was demolished.

"He has only three vices," said his first manager John McLoughlin: "Drinking, gambling and women."

He began to play challenge matches in front of paying spectators against the reigning world champion John Spencer, who at first conceded him a small handicap.

Higgins was obviously ready for professional tournaments, although there was some resistance to allowing him to become a member of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association because some deemed him "not the right type."

However, the contrary opinion prevailed and in February 1972 he became world champion at his first attempt, an epic journey in those days because each match was of a week's duration. It took him 11 months from first match to last -- victory over Spencer for the title.

At the time, snooker was largely a folk sport ignored by the media, but Higgins was something so different that newspapers and commercial interests started to pay it more attention.

The following year's world championship was telescoped into a fortnight, BBC Television put its toe in the water, and within five years the whole championship was being televised from first ball to last, bringing sponsorship and rights fees into the game.

Snooker's liftoff in Britain was not solely down to Higgins, because a tournament needs more than one player, but in his prime he was unquestionably the game's greatest box office and television attraction, raising the emotional temperature of every arena in which he played, idolized by the have nots and the drinking and gambling fraternities who adopted him as their standard bearer.

After 10 tempestuous years, during which he won two Masters titles, he became world champion for the second time in 1982, providing one of television snooker's most iconic images as he shed tears of joy in insisting that his wife and baby daughter join him in the arena with the trophy.

"This will set Lynn and Lauren up for life," he said at the time, but the first prize was only £25,000 -- as opposed to the £250,000 it is now -- and his character was in any case too volatile to sustain any relationship. In 1990, the love of his life, Siobhan Kidd, was to depart with a fractured cheekbone for her trouble. In 1997, after what was to prove his last match on the circuit, a fracas with a subsequent girlfriend, Holly Hayse, ended with her stabbing him with a kitchen knife.

Snooker was the glue that held his life precariously together despite innumerable disciplinary offences that included head butting a tournament director, grabbing a referee by the throat and punching a press officer. Trouble was invariably in the air when he was in a bar late at night. Once, he threatened to have his fellow Northern Irishman, Dennis Taylor -- the 1985 world champion -- killed.

Although a couple of disastrous management entanglements cost him a lot of money, he had friends who, without lasting success, tried to help him. They were to be thwarted by an imperious wish, unmodified since childhood, to have his own way all the time, every time, in matters great and small. "Never apologize, never explain" could have been taken as his motto.

A lifetime of heavy smoking, drinking, and, some believed, drugs (although he never failed a drugs test) delivered a heavy punishment in inflicting cancers of the palate and throat. Extensive radiotherapy saved his life but destroyed his teeth to the point he could eat only baby food.

Broke, skeletal, virtually voiceless, he existed on state benefits that included a small flat in Belfast until he was found dead there last Saturday.

He could be awkward, uncooperative and unpleasant -- proof that geniuses are not always nice guys or incapable of destroying themselves through excess.

But he was some player, bringing to snooker something it had never had before.

His fellow players will remember him as a uniquely stimulating opponent and the games enthusiasts will remember him fondly for the entertainment and drama he brought to their lives.