Alex Higgins, the legendary two-times world snooker champion known as much for his wild lifestyle as his flamboyant play on the green baize, died yesterday aged 61.
His skill and speed around the table earned him one of sport's most enduring nicknames: the Hurricane. A world champion by the age of 22, he played a major role in snooker's booming popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, when players were household names. Higgins became one of the fans' favourite players.
His second world title win, in 1982 when he beat the Welshman Ray Reardon in an 18-15 final, is one of the sport's best-remembered matches.
Belfast-born Higgins regularly courted controversy. After one defeat, he punched a referee. Another time, he headbutted an official, resulting in a fine and a five-tournament ban. It is estimated that he earned, and mostly spent, £3m over 20 years.
Steve Davis, who played a number of classic matches against Higgins in the 1980s, considered him to be "the one true genius snooker has produced". He said last night: "To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them into the game.
"He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated. He was quite a fierce competitor, he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table."
He added: "It was a love/hate relationship with Alex Higgins. The thrill of playing him was fantastic, but the crowd that came along were not your usual crowd. They were much more noisy and you had to play the crowd as well. I used to be quite frightened of him as an individual – he could be quite vexatious. But on the snooker table, my admiration was immense."
The snooker promoter Barry Hearn said: "I have known [Higgins] for nearly 40 years. He was the major reason for snooker's popularity in the early days. He was controversial at times, but he always played the game in the right spirit. We will miss him – he was the original people's champion."
Ronnie O'Sullivan has also described Higgins as an inspiration, to himself and to other elite players, including Ken Doherty and Jimmy White.
Higgins was a heavy smoker and drinker and, 10 years ago, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He spent many years in remission, and in May he attended a charity event through which friends and former players hoped to raise money to pay for his further treatment. Radiotherapy had caused his teeth to fall out, leaving him unable to eat properly, and his weight had dropped to less than seven stone. He flew to Marbella in Spain, but was too weak to undergo surgery.
Yesterday his body was discovered at his flat in a sheltered housing complex in Donegall Road, in Belfast city centre. He had stopped answering his mobile phone, and his flat had to be broken into, sources said. Sean Boru, who ghosted Higgins's autobiography, said: "Everybody who knew Alex knew that this was an inevitability, but it's still a shock when it happens."
Higgins began playing snooker at the age of 11. Three years later, he left for England to become a jockey, but quickly put on weight and returned home. In 1968 he won the All Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur snooker championships, and turned professional at 22. His first World Snooker Championship came in 1972, at his first attempt. His speed around the table and a flamboyant technique, which featured body swerves and an unusual cueing movement, earned him his Hurricane nickname.
He made the final again in 1976, losing to Ray Reardon, but had his revenge against the Welshman in 1982.
Higgins's volatile temper frequently cost him in terms of his career. He would have ranked number one in the world in the 1982-83 season, but was docked points following disciplinary action. It was at the 1986 UK championship that he headbutted a referee and was fined £12,000 and banned from five tournaments.
In 1990, after a first-round defeat at the World Championship, he punched an official at a press conference. He also threatened to have Dennis Taylor shot, and was banned for the rest of the next season.
Despite his illness, Higgins continued to play regularly, and in 2005 and 2006 appeared at the Irish Professional Championship.