A legend who lived up to his nickname

Alex “Hurricane” Higgins lived up to his stormy nickname.

Stalking round the green baize like a man possessed, the people’s champion blew away opponents with a fast and furious style which made him the biggest character ever to wield a cue.

But away from the snooker hall, his private life was a chaotic whirlwind of drink, womanising, fights, illness and debt.

Twice world champion, in 1972 and 1982, he earned millions in the years when snooker was a British national obsession, but blew it all in a long and turbulent descent into homelessness and drink.

His career disintegrated in a blizzard of fines, bans and court-cases and he was left penniless after losing his luxury house in Cheshire to the taxman.

He was divorced by two wives, Cara and Lynn, and was stopped from seeing his two children, Lauren and Jordan.

Despite being the man credited with making snooker popular as a TV sport, Higgins had latterly suffered the indignity of being pitched against unknowns in back-street halls in the pre-qualifying rounds for ranking tournaments, instead of playing in the finals by right.

But he never lost his passion for the game, recently telling the Daily Telegraph: “I think I was the most natural, charismatic player who ever lifted a cue.

“I think my presence around the table was mesmerising at times. It captured people. I’m not telling you this to bolster my own ego. It’s what people tell me.”

Despite being warned many times to cut his drinking and smoking to save his health, Higgins sucked his way through as many as 80 Marlboros a day until attempting to quit in 1996.

He had cancerous growths removed from his mouth in 1994 and 1996 and was told in 1998 that he had throat cancer.

Born in Belfast, Higgins discovered the game that was to dominate his life when he stumbled across a snooker hall while taking a short-cut home at the age of 11, and became a teenage “pool-shark”, hustling money from older and less talented players.

He claimed the world champion’s crown at the first attempt, aged 22, and took it back again ten years later from Ray Reardon at the Crucible in Sheffield.

The scenes of him then, weeping in triumph, one arm round wife Lynn and the other cradling his baby daughter, are among the most famous and moving images in snooker history.

But what many feel was his finest hour came the following year at Preston Guildhall, when he came back from 7-0 down against the seemingly unbeatable Steve Davis to win the 1983 United Kingdom championship final 16-15.

His fall from grace began in the same hall three years later, when he head-butted an official and was fined £12,000 and banned for the next five major tournaments.

He raised his game one more time, to outplay up-and-coming Stephen Hendry and win the Irish Benson & Hedges Masters in 1989, hobbling round the table with his leg in plaster due to a broken ankle suffered when he fell from a first-floor window.

The following year, he was in trouble again, and was banned for 12 months after thumping an official and telling Northern Ireland team-mate Dennis Taylor that he would have him shot.

By then, Higgins’ age and the effects of his phenomenal thirst were beginning to show, and eventually he slipped out of the top 100 rankings in 1997.

He was convicted in 1996 of assaulting a 14-year-old boy, and last year was photographed being led away by police officers, his arm dripping with blood, after an incident at his girlfriend Holly’s house, where he was living in a caravan.

With his home gone, he relied on an ever-smaller circle of friends and admirers to provide a roof over his head, or stayed at cheap hotels, where his rent was paid by a hardship fund for snooker players.

He was devoting much of his energy to battling with the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association’s governing body, making multiple complaints and issuing High Court writs accusing them of treating him unfairly.

But his descent into chaos failed to dilute his ability to beat the odds. After being diagnosed with cancer for the third time, he appeared gaunt and weary at the funeral of his great friend, Oliver Reed, in 1999.

No one at that point believed he would live into his 60s, especially as his life unravelled in sheltered housing on the Donegall Road in Belfast.

Yet Higgins still played the game which made his name, appearing at the Irish Professional Championship in 2005 and 2006. He then published his autobiography, From the Eye of the Hurricane: My Story, in 2007.

With modern champions including Ken Doherty, Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan hailing him as an inspiration, he was set to make an emotional return to the Crucible in Sheffield on April 8 to take on the likes of Jimmy White, John Parrott and Cliff Thorburn.

For a man perpetually strapped for cash, Higgins cited the return as one last chance to get his life back on track.

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