Gods of Snooker: 'He turned players into rock stars' – Ronnie O'Sullivan on legacy of Alex Higgins
World champions Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins and 'Rocket' Ronnie O'Sullivan remain the two greatest Gods of Snooker with their attacking style, flair and natural ability to entertain bewitching millions of fans across the globe. O'Sullivan believes snooker would never have survived beyond the 1980s without the "incredible" People's Champion, who he feels brought a rock star vibe to the green baize.
Alex Higgins in action at the Irish Masters in 1990.
The Gods of Snooker. Ronnie O'Sullivan and Alex Higgins have been the two biggest crowd pullers and pleasers to entertain millions of fans over the past six decades, but the snooker GOAT is in doubt who has left his sport's biggest legacy.
"I think people gravitated towards Alex Higgins, he was a showman, he had something about him: a charm, an aura – when he walked into the room, you felt there was a presence in the room," said O'Sullivan. "The audience would feed off that."
O'Sullivan is widely regarded as the greatest player of all time having lifted six world titles in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2020 since first appearing at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre in 1993 amid a record haul of 37 ranking titles, 15 competitive maximum breaks and over 1100 century breaks.
But Rocket Ronnie feels he might never have been granted the chance to sprinkle his gold dust across the green baize without the Hurricane, a magical potting pioneer fighting out of Belfast armed with pints, a packet of smokes and a self-destructive penchant for the unpredictable on and off the table.
The epic rise and fall of Higgins is recaptured vividly and perhaps vexingly on the brilliant three-part Louis Theroux documentary Gods of Snooker, charting the emergence of snooker from working-class pass time to prime time television when the sport became a national obsession in past times, culminating in 18.5 million people – still a record audience for BBC Two 36 years on – witnessing Dennis Taylor's 18-17 win over the six-times Crucible winner Steve Davis, in the "final frame, the final black" as iconic commentator Ted Lowe put it, of a 1985 world final finishing beyond midnight. And beyond the sport's wildest dreams.
Alex Higgins with baby daughter Lauren after winning the World Championship in 1982.
Image credit: Eurosport
Higgins' boozy antics of sex, drugs and snooker pot and roll, assaulting officials, officialdom and the senses, made him the ultimate sporting hellraiser, but it is easy to forget he was also world champion in 1972 and 1982 such was his ability to clear space on the tabloids as much as the table.
He was bigger box office for snooker than any player in the history of the sport, a fact not lost on O'Sullivan, who feels players have a duty to embrace the Northern Irishman's legacy by entertaining the public in times of dwindling attention spans.
Witness the fabled 69 against Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White trailing 15-14 and on the cusp of defeat 59-0 behind in the 1982 World Championship semi-final to see an inimitable, an inspired break of sporting genius constructed more impressively than any ship built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast.
Higgins won the match 16-15 and the final 18-15 against six-times world champion Ray Reardon, concluding with a 135 in the final frame, amid a frenzied national outpouring of joy last seen a year earlier when Charles and Diana tied the knot.
“I always remember Higgins being the people's champion and everybody rooting for him to win, but I was a Steve Davis fan myself because I was growing up, and I obviously wanted to be a winner. I wanted to win tournaments like Davis, who was the guy doing that," said O'Sullivan in an exclusive Eurosport feature about the influence of the "incredible" Northern Irishman under the influence.
But Alex Higgins brought something to snooker that nobody could bring. He made snooker what it was, and turned snooker players into rock stars. Looking back at it, if there was one player responsible for making snooker big in the 1980s, it was definitely Alex Higgins.
“If Higgins hadn't been there, snooker wouldn't have been popular on the back of Steve Davis or Stephen Hendry, who were very reserved in comparison.
“I remember watching him in the qualifiers in Blackpool when I was younger. It was sad in a way because he shouldn't have gone through that. Alex was master of his own downfall in many ways, but in many ways that's why you loved him because there no compromise. He was anti-establishment, living life by Alex's rules. I admire that in a human."
Image credit: Getty Images
Ireland's 1997 world champion Ken Doherty recalls facing Higgins in his final match at the Crucible in 1994, a 10-6 win in the first round, that turned into a farce against the force of nature.
"I played the late great Alex Higgins, who was my hero, who inspired me to take up snooker and play at the World Championship," said Doherty.
"He was a little bit inebriated as you might say. As the match wore on, he got very jittery and argumentative with the referee John Williams. At one stage, he told John Williams to stand on his left hand side.
Williams said: "No Alex, I've been standing here all day, I'm not in your line of sight. And Higgins replied: "You're not in my line of sight, John, you're in my line of thought. That is one of the greatest lines I've ever heard.
"It was a tough match, but it was a hollow victory because here was my hero and it was the last time he appeared at the Crucible.
"It was just great to play the great man."
Alex Higgins celebrates getting married to Lynn in 1980.
Image credit: Eurosport
A heavy smoker, Higgins tragically died at the age of 61 of malnutrition in July 2010 after a long battle against throat cancer, an outcome he blamed on the cigarette companies who sponsored snooker until 2005. But O'Sullivan says he will always be celebrated as a visionary for the offensive instincts witnessed on the baize in the modern era.
"I just think Alex was the best thing that's probably ever happened to snooker," he said. "I spent time with him when I was only 16 in Blackpool. I practised with him at the time, and I used to run out to get him a Guinness.
"He’d say: ‘Go and get me a Guinness’. I loved it at the time. I thought: ‘I’m Alex’s slave’. "It gave me a buzz. Everybody wanted to get him a Guinness, but he chose me. I remember watching him. He would say to the referee Len Ganley in those little cubicles in Blackpool when he was trying to play: 'stand back, you’re a big man'.
“I remember laughing, thinking: 'go on Alex, you tell him'. He terrorised people, but thrived on it. He got a buzz out of it. He was incredible. I kind of copied his technique a little bit.
"He was a bit like (China's leading player) Ding Junhui on the shot, very compact, solid technique. He had a few bad habits where he moved on the shot, but he tended to move after the shot.
"He was a very good ball striker.“
Compulsive viewing amid the chaos. Like all Gods, the Hurricane's legend, like some sort of potting Prometheus, will be forever preserved in snooker mythology alongside his Crucible ice bucket.