One day, about 15 years ago, after Alex had drunkenly abused a girlfriend one too many times she stabbed him with a large knife. He appeared in newspapers the next morning covered in blood and sporting the same bewildered look that publicans would have grown used to while ejecting him from their taverns.
For the man who had elevated snooker to an art form in the 70s it was one of a sequence of lows in the kind of fall only experienced in Greek tragedy. Upon winning the world championship for the second time at 33, he observed that he was “the same age Jesus was at his most dangerous”, then followed suit by falling foul of the authorities and crucifying himself.
But, as one commentator pointed out after his life break finally came to an end at 61 last week, it was the longest suicide in sporting history. An estimated £4m fortune at the height of his fame had been blown on drink, drugs and gambling, in exactly the same way fellow Belfast boy George Best dug his own early grave.
With a skeletal six-stone frame ravaged by 12 years of cancer and an 80-a-day smoking habit Alex died with only £80 left to his name, looking like a man in his late 80s, alone in a tiny Belfast flat. A cruel joke surfaced online that he was to be buried in his cue box.
I met Alex in 2004 when I went to review ‘Hurricane’ – the one-man-play celebrating his life – in the West End and spotted the fallen legend sitting alone with a pint in a corner of the theatre bar after the show, no one else recognizing the withdrawn figure in the trenchcoat and fedora, as gaunt and emaciated then as he was in his final weeks. The play, incidentally, had left some spectators sobbing uncontrollably as they were confronted, again, with such a grim downfall acted out before them, unknowing that the protagonist himself was watching too from the back row.
I approached and greeted, chuffing him so much that he then hobbled over to my table to sit with me and my girlfriend. Even then he could only speak with not much more than a hoarse whisper, communicating after a few attempts that it was the 11th time he’d seen the play, but conversation proved such a strain for him that he eventually gave up, knocked back his Guinness and staggered out the bar door with a wave.
“Don’t pity me,” he said, perceiving the pathos he created. “I stood on top of the world!” At a later performance he was reportedly ejected by venue management for causing a scene and barred.
By then the gifted cueman who single-handedly revolutionised snooker had been reduced to hustling for his next pint by taking on all-comers for £10-a-pop in backstreet clubs, the kind of dingy places the sport was confined to before Alex clattered onto the scene.
With his flamboyant and charismatic demeanour, and an attacking style that was unorthodox and unpredictable, he was the very tonic snooker needed to awaken it from the stuffy scene led by old boys Fred Davis and Ray Reardon. Higgins the showman could effortlessly execute shots and breaks that no contemporary could pull off, engrossing and entertaining new generations of fans watching on their then state-of-the-art colour TVs, and casting the mould for future crowd-pleasers Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
But just as ‘The Whirlwind’ and ‘The Rocket’ battled their own demons, The Hurricane’s natural talent was overshadowed by a dark side, more sinister than anyone’s in the sport before or since, or, arguably, in any sport.
Almost pathologically self-abusive and self-destructive, but never self-controlled, Alex guzzled beer and chain-smoked during televised matches as he would in the pub before and after. And he was a notoriously nasty drunk, one who despised officialdom and held a deep sense of grievance, which invariably reared itself as aggression and belligerence.
When asked for a mandatory urine sample in 1986 Alex viciously nutted the tournament director, hurled plates at the heads of innocent bystanders and was wrestled away foaming at the mouth. At the 1990 Nations’ Cup, following a disagreement with Irish team-mate Dennis Taylor, he threatened to rape his sister and have him shot.
Even his charity exhibition matches could collapse into violence. He was once ejected from one for flinging his cue at a spectator who had goaded him, then only three years ago summoned the strength to punch the exhibition referee after disagreeing with a foul call.
Higgins’ biggest career high and low took place at snooker’s Wembley, the Crucible Theatre. Firstly, the unforgettable victory scenes of the 1982 world final where he calls for his baby daughter through tears of joy and relief. Then in 1990 he terminated his season by punching a tournament official in the stomach.
It was one of the final straws in a turbulent career that had seen him hauled before snooker’s disciplinary committee over 50 times, with other transgressions ranging from trashing dressing-rooms to drugs offences.
Inevitably, after destroying his career, what was so difficult for so many to witness was the gradual destruction of his own body. Hurricane Higgins became Holocaust Higgins, with the once powerful winds dying to a feeble wheeze, and the calm eye of the storm arriving only at the very end.
‘Hurricane’ is thus as appropriate a sobriquet as it was later redundant. Despite the flaws and problems of his youth however – attributed at his funeral to an inability to cope with the fame thrust upon him so early – Higgins’ transformative legacy has stretched through snooker’s 1980s glory years to today’s era of young attacking players, helmed by reigning world champion Neil Robertson.
It’s kind of fitting that snooker’s zenith – the 1985 world final watched by 18.5m past midnight on a Monday (a BBC late-night record that remains unbroken) – was played out between two of Higgins’ player nemeses: spurned compatriot Dennis Taylor versus Steve Davis, the cold potting machine who would blow him and everyone else out of the water.
Whether or not the sport can reach that high again, or surmount its current problems of corruption and waning sponsorship, at the least it owes its enduring popularity to the troubled Irishman who blew life into it and kept it airborne through the decades.