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In 1968 he won the All-Ireland and Northern Ireland amateur snooker championships. He turned professional at the age of 22, winning the World Professional Snooker Championship at his first attempt in 1972, aged 23. His opponent in that final was John Spencer. Higgins was the youngest winner of the title until Stephen Hendry in 1990 (21). He won again in 1982 after beating Ray Reardon 18-15 (with a magnificent 135 total clearance in the final frame), which was an emotional victory for him. Higgins was also runner-up in 1976 and 1980. While well beaten by Reardon in 1976, actually conceding before Reardon reached the finishing post, he should have won in 1980 after leading Cliff Thorburn 5-1 and 9-5 before losing narrowly 18-16.
Higgins' quickness around the table and flamboyant style earned him the nickname Hurricane Higgins, and made him by far the most popular and high profile player in the game. He drank and smoked during tournaments, as did many of his contemporaries, helping sponsored tobacco advertising. His volatile personality got him into frequent fights and arguments, both on and off the snooker table. Perhaps the most infamous of these clashes was when he head-butted a tournament official at the UK championship in 1986. He is now semi-retired and battles throat cancer periodically. However, he did make an appearance in the 2005 Irish Professional Championships; the comeback ended in a first-round defeat by Garry Hardiman. But apart from the controversies he was considered by many during his peak as a genius. This excitement created by Higgins brought him great popularity and alongside Jimmy White arguably elevated the game onto the world stage in the early 1980s.
It is estimated that Higgins earned and blew a £3 million fortune over twenty years.
His unorthodox brilliance is best encapsulated in his break of 69 against Jimmy White in the penultimate frame of their World Professional Snooker Championship semi-final in 1982. Experts and players continue to cite it as one of the greatest ever breaks under pressure. Higgins was 0-59 down in that frame and probably one ball away from going out, but managed to compile a clearance that almost defied belief. He was scarcely in position until he came to the colours. In particular, one pot will live long in the memory: a three-quarter-ball blue into the green pocket with the cue-ball screwed off the side cushion towards the top cushion. Dennis Taylor considers that the shot could be played 100 times without coming close to the position Higgins reached with cue-ball (he actually went much too far for good position on his next red).
Willie Thorne, whose biography arguably displays a certain jealousy of Higgins' popularity, does not consider him a great player. However, few would dispute that his natural aptitude and cueing ability revolutionised the sport and mark him out as one of the best players ever. This is interesting, as Thorne is famous for being one of the best break-builders the game has ever seen; so perhaps it is worth noting that Higgins had the first-ever 16-red clearance.