It may sound crass to say that Bestie’s ill-fated friend and fellow Belfast child Alex Higgins went to pot years ago, but, as with George, the Hurricane’s legacy can’t ignore the tragic reality. Which is that as much as he made snooker what it was, in doing so he destroyed himself, both burning out and fading away all too harrowingly.
Snooker’s most tortured and controversial genius was a larger-than-life character, the (pre-Jimmy White) people’s champion. A working-class hero who became the headline act in a sport that went from black-and-white anonymity to primetime showbiz, despite struggling to rid itself of smoky backroom connotations: not surprising considering he was puffing his cheeks off and necking double-vodkas during games like decorum and sobriety were dirty concepts.
By the spring of 1982 I was nine and sports-obsessed, “snooker-loopy” included. I clearly remember Higgins winning and tearfully beckoning his then-wife and baby girl into the Crucible arena after beating Ray Reardon to clinch his second World Championship, a decade after his first. But it was mostly all downhill from there — though his 9-8 Irish Masters final trumping of a young Stephen Hendry in 1989 briefly rolled back the years — with the twitching, snorting and snarling becoming more pronounced in proportion to his hedonistic, rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Too complex and violently-inclined a character to be merely described as a lovable rogue, Higgins, whose parents were poor working-class protestants and predeceased him (possibly explaining some of his issues), was an out-and-out maverick who couldn’t be controlled by anyone, himself included.
Yet in his pomp he always looked the part, a fashion trendsetter as well as a stunning entertainer. “He was a metrosexual before metrosexuals were even invented,” his biographer Bill Borrows observed this week, recalling the person whom men wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Initially. “He had it all going on.” Indeed, Borrows said it was the deterioration in his appearance that distressed Higgins the most.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know (ask the forbearing Dennis Taylor or any number of referees/officials), his matches were unmissable. He took on audacious pots and shunned safety play, shimmying from balk end to black spot like a body-swerving ballbreaker on speed. Two world titles and a handful of major tournaments was a paltry return for someone so talented. And he knew it.
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