Higgins came to be known as the "People's Champion" because of his popularity, and is often credited with having brought the game of snooker to a wider audience, contributing to its peak in popularity in the 1980s. He had a reputation as an unpredictable and difficult character. He was a heavy smoker, struggled with drinking and gambling, and admitted to using cocaine and marijuana. First diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Higgins died of multiple causes in his Belfast home on 24 July 2010. Higgins still holds the highest break to win a World Championship, being 135 in the 1982 final against Ray Reardon.
Alex Higgins was born in Belfast and had three sisters. Higgins was raised in the Church of Ireland religion. He started playing snooker at the age of 11, often in the Jampot club in his native Sandy Row area of south Belfast and later in the YMCA in the nearby city centre. At age 14 and weighing seven and a half stone (47.6 kg), he left for England and a career as a jockey. However, he never made the grade because, in his youth, he drank a lot of Guinness and ate a lot of chocolate, making him too heavy to ride competitively. He returned to Belfast and by 1965, aged 16, he had compiled his first maximum break. In 1968 he won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland Amateur Snooker Championships.
Higgins turned professional at the age of 22, winning the World Championship at his first attempt in 1972, against John Spencer winning 37–32. Higgins was then the youngest ever winner of the title, a record retained until Stephen Hendry's 1990 victory at the age of 21. In April 1976, Higgins reached the final again and faced Ray Reardon. Higgins led 11–9, but Reardon made four centuries and seven breaks over 60 to pull away and win the title for the fifth time with the score of 27–16. Higgins was also the runner-up to Cliff Thorburn in 1980, losing 18–16, after being 9–5 up. Higgins won the world title for a second time in 1982 after beating Reardon 18–15 (with a 135 total clearance in the final frame); it was an emotional as well as professional victory for him. Higgins would have been ranked No. 1 in the world rankings for the 1982/83 season had he not forfeited ranking points following disciplinary action.
Throughout his career, Higgins won 20 other titles, one of the most notable being the 1983 UK Championship. In the final he trailed Steve Davis 0–7 before producing a famous comeback to win 16–15. He also won The Masters twice, in 1978 and in 1981, beating Cliff Thorburn (a man who, at one point, floored Higgins with one swift punch ) and Terry Griffiths in the finals respectively. Another notable victory was his final professional triumph in the 1989 Irish Masters at the age of 40 when he defeated a young Stephen Hendry. This was the last professional tournament he won, and is often referred to as "The Hurricane's Last Hurrah".
After his retirement from the professional game, Higgins spent time playing for small sums of money in and around Northern Ireland. He made appearances in the 2005 and 2006 Irish Professional Championship, these comebacks ending in first-round defeats by Garry Hardiman and Joe Delaney respectively.
On 12 June 2007, it was reported that Higgins had assaulted a referee at a charity match in the north-east of England. Higgins returned to competitive action in September 2007 at the Irish Professional Championship in Dublin but was whitewashed 0–5 by former British Open champion Fergal O'Brien in the first round at the Spawell Club, Templelogue.
Higgins continued to play fairly regularly, and enjoyed "hustling" all comers for small-time stakes in clubs in Northern Ireland and beyond; in May 2009 he entered the Northern Ireland Amateur Championship, "to give it a crack", but failed to appear for his match.
On 8 April 2010, Higgins was part of the debut Snooker Legends Tour event in Sheffield, at the Crucible, checking himself out of hospital two days before the event, after having been admitted with pneumonia and breathing problems. Appearing alongside other retired or close-to-retiring professionals, including John Parrott, Jimmy White, John Virgo and Cliff Thorburn, he faced Thorburn in his match, but lost 2–0.
It is estimated that Higgins earned and spent £3–4 million in his career as a snooker player.
Higgins's speed around the table, his ability to pot balls at a rapid rate and flamboyant style earned him the Nickname "Hurricane Higgins" and made him a very high-profile player. His highly unusual cueing technique sometimes included a body swerve and movement, as well as a stance that was noticeably higher than that of most professionals.
The unorthodox play of Higgins was encapsulated in his break of 69, made under unusual pressure, against Jimmy White in the penultimate frame of their World Professional Snooker Championship semi-final in 1982. Higgins was 0–59 down in that frame, but managed to compile an extremely challenging clearance during which he was scarcely in position until the colours. In particular, former World Champion Dennis Taylor considers a three-quarter-ball pot on a blue into the green pocket especially memorable, not only for its extreme degree of difficulty but for enabling Higgins to continue the break and keep White off the table and unable to clinch victory at that moment. In potting the blue, Higgins screwed the cue-ball on to the side cushion to bring it back towards the black/pink area with extreme left-hand sidespin, a shot Taylor believes could be played 100 times without coming close to the position Higgins reached with cue-ball. He went a little too far for ideal position on his next red but the match-saving break was still alive.
Higgins drank alcohol and smoked during tournaments, as did many of his contemporaries. A volatile personality got him into frequent fights and arguments, both on and off the snooker table. One of the most serious of these clashes was when he head-butted a tournament official at the UK championship in 1986. This led to his being fined £12,000 and banned from five tournaments. He was convicted of assault and criminal damage, and fined £250 by a court. Another came at the 1990 World Championship; after losing his first-round match to Steve James, he punched tournament official Colin Randle in the abdomen, before the start of a press conference at which he announced his retirement. This, added to his having threatened to have fellow player and compatriot Dennis Taylor shot, led to a ban for the whole of the following season. During the World Trickshot Championship in 1991 Higgins demonstrated his seeming ignorance of how a professional snooker player should behave, when during his performance he described the black ball as "Muhammad Ali" in front of a live audience and TV cameras. This caused a visibly pained expression from Barry Hearn and an exclamation from fellow judge Steve Davis that his score was already low now before the shot was even played.
At the time of his 1972 triumph at the World Championship, Higgins had no permanent home and by his own account had recently lived in a row of abandoned houses in Blackburn which were awaiting demolition. In one week he had moved into five different houses on the same street, moving down one every time his current dwelling was demolished.
In 1975, Higgins' son Chris Delahunty was born. Higgins's first marriage was to Australian Cara Hasler in April 1975 in Sydney. They had a daughter Christel and divorced. His second marriage was to Lynn Avison in 1980 at a United Reformed Church. They had a daughter Lauren (born late 1980) and son Jordan (born March 1983). They split in 1985 and divorced. In the same year, Higgins began a relationship with Siobhan Kidd, which ended in 1989 after he allegedly hit her with a hairdryer.
He had a long and enduring friendship with Oliver Reed and was a good friend of John Sykes, with whom he often played exhibition matches.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1981 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.
In 1983 Higgins helped a young boy from the Manchester area, a fan of his who had been in a coma for two months. His parents were growing desperate and wrote to Higgins. He recorded messages on tape and sent them to the boy with his best wishes. He later visited the boy in hospital and played a snooker match he promised to have with him when he recovered.
In 1996, Higgins was convicted of assaulting a 14-year-old boy, while in 1997 then-girlfriend Holly Haise stabbed him three times during a domestic argument. He published his autobiography, From the Eye of the Hurricane: My Story, in 2007. Higgins appeared in the Sporting Stars edition of the British television quiz The Weakest Link on 25 July 2009.
For many years, Higgins smoked 60 cigarettes a day. He had cancerous growths removed from his mouth in 1994 and 1996. In June 1998, he was found to have throat cancer; on 13 October of that year, he had major surgery.
By 2009, Higgins lived alone in a caravan. In spring 2010, he contracted pneumonia. In April 2010 Higgins's friends announced that they had set up a campaign to help raise the £20,000 he needed for teeth implants, to enable him to eat properly again and put on weight. Higgins had lost his teeth after intensive radiotherapy used to treat his throat cancer. It was reported that since losing them he had been living on liquid food, and had become increasingly depressed, even contemplating suicide. He was too ill to have the implants fitted. Despite his illness, Higgins continued to smoke cigarettes and drink heavily until the end of his life.
By the summer of 2010, Higgins' weight had fallen to 6 stone (38 kilograms). He lived in sheltered housing on the Donegall Road, Belfast. Despite having once been worth £4 million, he was bankrupt and survived on a £200-a-week disability allowance. He was found dead in bed in his flat on 24 July 2010. The cause of death was a combination of malnutrition, pneumonia, tooth decay, and a bronchial condition, although his daughter Lauren stated that he was clear from throat cancer when he died. His children survived him.
Higgins' funeral service was held at St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast on 2 August 2010. He was cremated, and his ashes were interred in Carnmoney Cemetery in Newtownabbey, County Antrim. Among the snooker professionals in attendance were Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, Joe Swail, Shaun Murphy and John Virgo. Doherty was a pallbearer.
Alex Higgins was an inspiration to many subsequent professional snooker players, including Ken Doherty, Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan, who in an interview stated "Alex was an inspiration to players like Jimmy White and thousands of snooker players all over the country, including me. The way he played at his best is the way I believe the game should be played. It was on the edge, keeping the crowd entertained and glued to the action."
In Clive Everton's TV documentary The Story of Snooker (2002), Steve Davis described Higgins as the "one true genius that snooker has produced", although the autobiography of a contemporary leading professional Willie Thorne characterised Higgins as "not a great player". Higgins arguably fulfilled his potential only intermittently during his career peak in the 1970s and '80s; Everton puts this down to Davis and Ray Reardon generally being too consistent for him.
Regardless, Higgins' exciting style and explosive persona helped make snooker a growing television sport in the 1970s and 1980s. Higgins also made the first 16-red clearance (in a challenge match in 1976); it was a break of 146 (with the brown as the first "red", and sixteen colours: 1 green, 5 pinks and 10 blacks).
In 2011, Event 8 of the Players Tour Championship was re-named as the Alex Higgins International Trophy. In 2016, WPBSA chairman Barry Hearn announced that the trophy for the new Northern Ireland Open tournament would be named after Higgins.
Higgins' professional rivalry with Steve Davis was portrayed in a 2016 BBC feature film entitled The Rack Pack, in which he was played by Luke Treadaway.