'Terribly exciting' – Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and a golden sporting rivalry that has defied time
Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins – with 10 world titles between them – will meet for the sixth time at the Crucible when they confront each other in the semi-finals of this year's tournament. Their latest duel astonishingly comes 26 years after their first match on the sport's grandest stage. Watch the World Championship and other top snooker live on Eurosport and discovery+
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It was also the year when Fergie's Manchester United 'Class of '92' kids completed the double, Fergie divorced the Duke of York, Take That split and the Spice Girls released their debut single Wannabe.
Both aged 20 having turned professional four years earlier, their quarter-final meeting over a quarter of a century ago was the iconic pair's first tête-à-tête around a Crucible snooker table that O'Sullivan edged 13-12 in a sweltering finale inside the stress test of the Sheffield hothouse.
John Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan at the 2001 World Championship final.
Image credit: Eurosport
"It is terribly tense and exciting with these two 20-year-olds, an amazing talent between two young men," whispered a tranquil Ted Lowe in the commentary box.
"It is just a pity one has to lose."
Old Ted did his final World Championship for the Beeb that year. It is just a pity that the traditional incomparable voice of snooker is no longer around to discover what became of the young men he tipped for future sporting riches.
Even 'Whispering Ted' would have been astounded by the commitment to potting perfection that has shaped their respective lives around the hush and adrenaline rush of finding the light from within the darkened recesses of a billiards hall.
Higgins had led 12-10 in their 10th career meeting 26 years ago only to witness the young Rocket produce some remarkable escapology to wriggle free by snagging the final three frames of a taut confrontation that would prove to be a poignant staging post on the road to future prosperity for both figures.
O'Sullivan would lose in the semi-finals 16-14 to Peter Ebdon in 1996 before Higgins avenged his crushing defeat two years later with a comfortable 17-9 victory over O'Sullivan in the semi-finals.
An 18-12 win over defending champion Ken Doherty helped Higgins hoist above his head the first of his four world titles in 1998, but the Essex potting prodigy would have his revenge in the new millennium.
Widely regarded at that juncture as the greatest player never to land the sport's ultimate prize, the 25-year-old O'Sullivan was dominant in an 18-14 win over Higgins in the 2001 final.
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It was a match that produced four century breaks, two from each player, but O'Sullivan never trailed, at one point racing 14-8 clear, before finally donning the first of his six Crucible crowns.
On three of the four occasions he has become world champion, Higgins has outlasted O'Sullivan en route to the sport's most coveted prize.
He toppled his fierce foe 13-9 in the 2007 quarter-finals and reeled off eight of the final 10 frames from 8-5 behind in a 13-11 success at the last-eight stage in their previous Crucible contest 11 years ago.
Since those losses, a reinvigorated O'Sullivan, remarkably back at world No. 1 20 years after first reaching the summit, has added to his Crucible collection of 2001, 2004 and 2008 with three more titles in 2012, 2013 and 2020.
O'Sullivan leads the career head-to-heads 35-33 with three drawn matches, but the Scotsman has enjoyed the better of their Sheffield jousts by the odd win in five.
Ahead of their sixth duel at the ripe young age of 46 in the semi-finals of the 46th World Championship, the incentives have never been greater: O'Sullivan chases a record-equalling seventh Crucible title and Higgins bids to become the first man to land the trophy for a fifth time over a quite outlandish sporting time frame of four decades.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? It is a question that has yet to provide a definitive answer between two genuine green baize goliaths.
There is just something about him. He is like the Ready Brek man: he has that glow about him when he is at the table.
"Whatever he does, doesn't surprise me. He is such a tough animal to play nowadays. Even he admits it I think because he would maybe throw the toys out of the pram a little bit a few years ago.
"Now he is just the complete player. He is a tougher player to play. I don't know if he is a better player, but is a tougher opponent to beat. It's as simple as that."
A classic match that has been trailed as snooker's 'El Clasico' since their first encounter, when O'Sullivan ran out a 5-1 winner in the last 16 of the 1994 Dubai Classic, deserves no better backdrop than the Crucible Theatre and its one table set-up.
The sport's most famous venue has witnessed 15 centuries and 77 breaks over 50 between the duo before the next three days. They are the heaviest scorers in history with 2057 between them amid a glistening 30-year haul of nine Masters and 69 ranking titles.
When O’Sullivan and Higgins decided to pursue snooker all those years ago, Bill Clinton was on the cusp of becoming president of the USA, Prince Charles and Di were about to split, Czechoslovakia was still a country and Windsor Castle went up in flames in a year the Queen described as an "annus horribilis".
There are not many flames in professional sport who continue to burn brightly at a point in their sporting lives when they are supposed to be snuffed out by younger predators circling in evolution's natural order.
O'Sullivan and Higgins incredibly first met in a final as teenagers at the 1995 Masters at the old Wembley Conference Centre which O’Sullivan won 9-3. Little did they know back then that they would be as sharp as a Savile Row tuxedo 27 years on.
There are no other players in any professional sport, alongside their great contemporary Williams, playing as well over such an elongated period. The lesson to be learned is valuable: if you are old enough, you are bold enough.
“There are a lot of fantastic young players, but the three of us have been doing it for so long, we are all turning 47 this year," said O'Sullivan. “Williams and Higgins – they have little subtleties in their game.
“It’s a bit like the Mexican boxers – we were brought up in a tough school. The British fighters are comfortable here, then you throw them into the Mexican or American market and they are not so good.
“We were brought up playing hard matchplay in lots of tournaments and we were dedicated to our sport. That stood us in good stead.
The Mexican boxers are hardened people who can grind it out. We are the three Mexicanos!
There is no glitch in the matrix here. The competition, the rising cream in the sport, have not been good enough to milk them dry.
The day will come eventually, but these remain the days of their lives.
This is a golden, incomparable sporting rivalry that continues to glisten with Father Time perched in the front row of the Crucible, clutching a pint of wild expectations alongside the other beguiled punters.
Age has failed to diminish the youthful, attacking edge to their approach. Longevity has brought wealth, wisdom and the desire for dedication. They play the same shots now that they were playing in 1996. Only arguably better.
When O'Sullivan and Higgins perform, they remain a class apart. These are unique sportsmen, whose ongoing success is measured in decades rather than years.
Higgins v O'Sullivan: A Crucible odyssey
2011 World Championship quarter-final: John Higgins 13-10 Ronnie O'Sullivan
2007 World Championship quarter-final: John Higgins 13-9 Ronnie O'Sullivan
2001 World Championship final: Ronnie O'Sullivan 18-14 John Higgins
1998 World Championship semi-final: John Higgins 17-9 Ronnie O'Sullivan
1996 World Championship quarter-final: Ronnie O'Sullivan 13-12 John Higgins
Watch the World Championship and other top snooker live on Eurosport and discovery+.