Higgins, Alexander Gordon ('Alex'; 'Hurricane') (1949–2010), snooker player, was born on 18 March 1949 in Belfast, the only son of Alexander Gordon Higgins, a labourer, of Abbingdon Drive, Sandy Row, Belfast, and his wife Elizabeth (née Stockman); he had three sisters. Educated locally at Mabel Street primary school and Kelvin secondary school, he was a restless child with little interest in schoolwork. Aged 11, he wandered into the Jampot snooker hall off the Donegall Road, where he earned a few pennies keeping score for other players. He soon discovered a talent for snooker, particularly when playing for a cash stake. His skills and competitive instinct were honed in the unforgiving environment of the Jampot, where older players had no compunctions about trying to relieve him of his pocket money. He left school in 1964 and worked briefly as a runner for the Irish Linen Company, but spent most of his time playing snooker into the early hours of the morning.
Aged 15, he left home to train as a jockey with trainer Eddie Reavey in Berkshire. However, the hard work and discipline required of aspiring jockeys held little appeal, and he spent more time backing horses than riding them. This was a habit that continued for the rest of his life: rarely a day went by without his placing a bet, and usually losing. After almost two years it was clear he would not make the grade, and Reavey let him go. (Looking back, Higgins regarded these days as the happiest of his life). He then lived for a time in the East End of London, working the night shift in a paper mill and spending his days playing snooker. Returning to Belfast in late 1967, he resumed his hustling at the Jampot and other Belfast snooker clubs. In 1968 he captained the YMCA team that won the UK team championship, and also won the individual Northern Ireland and all-Ireland amateur snooker championships. Afterwards he based himself in Lancashire (a snooker hotbed), sleeping in squats and playing all comers. Local promoters dubbed him 'Hurricane Higgins' to advertise his rapid-fire play and the name stuck (although he would have preferred 'Alexander the Great'). At Accrington, he challenged the world champion John Spencer to play for £100 and won, which encouraged him to turn professional at the age of 22.
Professional career, 1972–83 In January 1972 Higgins won the Irish professional championship, beating the veteran Jack Rea (1921–2013), who had held the title for twenty years. He also beat Spencer to win the world snooker championship at his first attempt in February 1972. (Until 1990 he was the youngest-ever world champion). His prize was a modest £480. Snooker was generally regarded at the time as a marginal working-class sport and drew little sponsorship or media attention, but those who saw Higgins in action knew they had seen something special. Already his game showed the unique combination of edginess, speed and grace that would enthral spectators and massively broaden snooker's appeal. He also showed signs of being a troublemaker: he was fined £100 for misconduct at the 1973 world championship, ushered out of the 1974 tournament after abusing the referee, and throughout his career attended numerous disciplinary hearings. Many of the senior players who dominated the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), sensitive to the hackneyed jibe that proficiency at snooker was the sign of a misspent youth, worried that this brash young tearaway would destroy the sport's veneer of respectability. Some, though, believed that Higgins's flamboyant style and bad-boy image were just what was needed to attract more public and media interest. He was the subject of a documentary, Hurricane Higgins, broadcast by Thames TV in summer 1972, and by the mid 1970s snooker was receiving more television coverage, notably on BBC2's Pot black, its appeal transformed by the growing availability of colour television. Higgins appeared on Pot black before he won his world title in 1972, but offended the commentator and was not invited back until 1978.
As its profile grew, snooker needed distinctive personalities, and Higgins duly obliged. His style was like no other player's, and broke many of the textbook conventions. He had a high unorthodox stance, and his cueing action included a trademark body swerve. Waiting his turn to play, he twitched, fidgeted and chain-smoked. Once his chance came, he would spring up to the table, radiating nervous energy, potting balls instinctively and racking up mesmerising breaks. Previously, the game had revolved around long periods of safety play, as players jockeyed for position, but Higgins disdained cautious tactics: the riskier the shot, the more it appealed to him. His daredevil style thrilled audiences and inspired the kind of adulation and raucous cheering normally heard in football stadiums rather than snooker halls.
When a system of world rankings was introduced in 1976, Higgins took second place, and the mid 1970s to early '80s were his heyday. Over the course of his career he won five major titles: the world championship (1972, 1982), Benson & Hedges UK Masters (1978, 1981) and Coral UK Championship (1983), completing snooker's triple crown of world, UK and UK masters titles. Other titles included the Irish professional championship (1972, 1978, 1979, 1983 and 1989), Canadian Open (1975, 1977), Watney Open (1975), Benson and Hedges Ireland tournament (1977), British Gold Cup (1980), Tolly Cobbold Classic (1979, 1980) and the Irish Masters (1989). In 1984 he and Jimmy White (one of his few close friends on the snooker circuit) won the world doubles championship, and Higgins won the world cup three times with an all-Ireland team (1985–7). At his best he was almost unbeatable, but his game lacked consistency, and in terms of major titles won he did not fully deliver on his early promise. Although an astute tactician capable of playing a cagey game if required, he rarely had the discipline to maintain it over a full match, and his cavalier approach invariably provided openings for opponents. In 1976 he was runner-up in the world championship final to Ray Reardon, and in 1980 to Cliff Thorburn. In the latter, the showmanship that endeared him to his fans was his undoing: 10–6 ahead, he was on course for victory but was intent on winning with style and started playing to the gallery, allowing the relentless Thorburn to regain the initiative and win 18–16.
The seventeen days of continuous play required to win a world championship was ill-suited to Higgins's restless personality and helter-skelter style, but in the 1982 tournament he combined tenacity with brilliance to play some of the best snooker of his career. His 16–15 win over Jimmy White in the semi-final was regarded as one of the classic all-time matches, and its penultimate frame among the best ever seen on television, with Higgins rarely in position and attempting a succession of daunting pots that few other players would have contemplated, let alone tried. He went on to beat Ray Reardon in the final to win his second world championship. This time the prize money was £25,000 (with £1,000 surrendered in disciplinary fines for offences such as urinating in a plant pot). By 1982 the world final at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield was a major televised event, and Higgins's tearful post-match celebration with his wife Lynn and baby daughter Lauren became one of the classic scenes of 1980s sport. He proclaimed himself to be 'the people's champion' and was probably the most popular player in the world at the time, with large followings in Ireland, Britain, Australia and the Far East. For many of his fans, his flaws and vulnerability were part of his appeal, and they enjoyed his clashes with officialdom, lauding him as a rebel who spiced up the sport by challenging its outmoded conventions and pretensions to respectability.
In 1983 Higgins achieved the most dramatic of all his victories, coming from 0–7 down to beat Steve Davis 16–15 in the final of the UK championship. This was a rare victory over Davis, who dominated snooker in the 1980s, winning six world and six UK titles, and beat Higgins in twenty-five of their thirty-one tournament matches. Higgins, though, was contemptuous of Davis's methodical playing style and colourless personality, likening him to a robot, and the contests between them always had an extra edge, often portrayed as a clash between the mercurial Celt and the stolid Englishman.
Troubles and decline, 1983–97 Primarily because of his gambling, Higgins was never financially comfortable enough to limit the number of tournaments and exhibitions he played and reserve his energies for the really important games. His frenetic lifestyle often left him physically and mentally exhausted, and in 1983 he attempted suicide after a domestic row. He was a bad loser and, as he lost with greater frequency and his personal troubles mounted, he became more troubled and aggressive, particularly towards referees and officials. In 1986, after being asked to take a drugs test at the UK Open at Preston, he headbutted the tournament director. He was convicted and fined £200 for assault in a magistrate's court, and the WPBSA fined him an unprecedented £12,000 and suspended him for five tournaments. He was little chastened. Asked by a journalist if he could face life without snooker, he replied: 'Could snooker face life without me?' His treatment added to his contempt for the WPBSA, which he believed had unfairly hounded him and given him no recognition for his role in popularising snooker.
From this time his decline accelerated. His marriage collapsed and he indulged in self-destructive excess, gambling recklessly, drinking heavily, taking marijuana and cocaine, and enjoying the company of hell-raisers such as the actor Oliver Reed. He was involved in several brawls and violent domestic incidents, reported in lurid terms in the tabloid press, and was regularly barred from pubs, betting shops and hotels. Higgins craved popular adulation, but was ill-suited to the demands of celebrity. He bitterly resented press intrusion into his life and, away from the snooker table, often regarded meeting the public as a tiresome chore (at one event he 'signed' autographs with a rubber stamp to save time). When he wanted to, he could be amusing and charming, and friends recalled acts of kindness and unpublicised visits to children in hospital. But his unpredictability and short fuse meant that being in his presence was rarely easy. For most of his career he relied on a relay of friends and hangers-on to get him out of trouble, chauffeur him around (he never learned to drive), run his errands and lend him money. But as his snooker prowess and fame declined, he was increasingly left to face the world by himself. This was something for which he was singularly ill-equipped. Although he had a prodigious memory and a sharp mind (he was adept at crosswords and Sudoku puzzles), he was incapable of dealing with the mundane tasks of everyday life and unwilling to take advice from anyone. All his failings (on and off the snooker table) were blamed on others. Higgins bitterly resented the fact that players he thought inferior were financially secure while he was not, and became obsessed by the idea that others had made money at his expense. Consumed by his grievances, he inflicted them on anyone available and alienated all but his most loyal friends. He took a perverse delight in his own awkwardness, noting: 'I'm a one-off; a mystery man who'd drive the world's best psychiatrist to his own consulting couch' (Francis, 8).
In March 1989 Higgins played the Irish Masters with several broken bones in his foot, having fallen from a first floor window after a domestic row. Hobbling around the table, he beat a young Stephen Hendry in the final, and became the first Irishman to win the Irish Masters. This was his last significant victory and, as frustration at his declining prowess grew, controversies followed in quick succession. In March 1990, while playing for Northern Ireland against Canada, during a row over prize money he threatened to have his catholic teammate Dennis Taylor (whom he had known since they were teenagers) shot by loyalist paramilitaries. Disciplinary action was pending when, after losing in the first round of the 1990 world championship at the Crucible, Higgins punched the WPBSA's press officer. In a rambling, drunken tirade at the ensuing press conference, he rounded on the WPBSA and announced his retirement from snooker, dismissing it as an endemically corrupt sport. By now many players and officials saw him as a liability who was damaging snooker's image. His accumulated misdeeds resulted in his being banned from snooker for the 1990/91 season and deducted 25 ranking points. His world ranking fell to 120th and compelled him to pre-qualify for major tournaments, an ordeal he hated. He was also penniless. What he had not gambled away, he lost in poor business decisions, most notably in allowing himself to be managed by Howard Kruger's Framework Management Company, which was wound up with massive debts in 1991.
After losing to Ken Docherty in the first round of the world championship in 1994, Higgins was fined £5,000 for smashing a bottle containing a urine sample. Two years later he assaulted a 14-year-old boy who had interrupted a conversation with his ex-wife; after admitting the charge, Higgins was conditionally discharged. In 1997 his girlfriend Holly Haise stabbed him during a domestic argument; photographs of a dazed and bloodstained Higgins appeared all over the press. His last match on the professional circuit was in August 1997 in a qualifying event in Plymouth, by which time he was ranked 156th in the world. After he lost, he became abusive and was escorted from the venue by police. He was found at 4 a.m. sprawled on the ground outside a nightclub, the victim, he claimed, of an unprovoked assault.
Illness and final years In 1996 Higgins underwent an operation for cancer of the palate and two years later the disease spread to his throat. He joined two hundred other smokers to sue Embassy and Benson & Hedges, two prominent snooker sponsors, but both actions lapsed. In 1998 he returned to Belfast and, as his health steadily declined, lived in sheltered housing on the Donegall Road, cared for by two of his sisters and surviving mostly on state benefits. He loved Belfast, and was proud to number himself among the great sportspeople, actors and musicians the city had produced. Higgins often compared himself to Belfast's other famous sporting prodigal son, George Best (qv), and they met on a few occasions. Best, though, found him arrogant and aggressive and preferred to avoid his company.
Higgins continued to play occasional exhibition matches and appeared in the Irish professional championships (2005–07), but was defeated in the first round each time. When his health allowed, he hustled for small stakes, sold signed photographs of himself, and frequented the Royal Bar on Donegall Road (where he was later commemorated by a mural). Friends such as Jimmy White and Ken Doherty organised benefit matches for him, and believed that the WPBSA should have done more to help. On 8 April 2010 Higgins was part of the 'snooker legends tour' event at the Crucible, checking himself out of hospital two days beforehand, having been admitted with pneumonia and breathing problems. He was received with great warmth by fellow players and spectators, but cut a pitiful figure. Fifty radiotherapy sessions had virtually cinderised his teeth, and he was unable to eat solid food. He looked wizened and emaciated, and his voice had degenerated to a faint, croaking whisper. That month friends announced a campaign to raise the £20,000 he needed for teeth implants to enable him to eat properly again and put on weight, but he was too ill to have the implants fitted.
Higgins was found dead in bed in his flat on 24 July 2010, aged 61. The cause of death was a combination of malnutrition, pneumonia, a bronchial condition and throat cancer. His lavish funeral was held on 2 August 2010: after a service in St Anne's Church of Ireland cathedral, thousands lined the streets of Belfast to pay their respects to 'Higgy', and his cremated remains were interred in Carnmoney cemetery, Co. Antrim. Political leaders throughout Ireland praised his sporting achievements, and prominent snooker figures such as Ken Doherty and Barry Hearn paid tribute to his importance in popularising the sport. Players such as Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan claimed him as an inspiration, and even his great rival Steve Davis described him as 'the only true genius I have encountered in the game' (Telegraph, 25 July 2010). Higgins was inducted into the Snooker Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 1991 Higgins released a documentary film on his life, I'm no angel; another, Alex Higgins: the people's champion (2010), was directed by Jason Bernard. The one-man play 'Hurricane', written and acted by Richard Dormer, was first performed in Belfast in October 2002. Notable portraits of Higgins were painted by Rodney Dickson (1992; Ulster Museum) and Alan Quigley (2010).
Higgins had four children from three different relationships: a son, Chris Delahunty, from his relationship with Joyce Fox; a daughter, Christel, from his marriage in 1975 to Australian Cara Hasler; and a daughter, Lauren, and a son, Jordan, from his marriage in 1980 to Lynn Avison.