In 1968, representing the Belfast YMCA, he was a member of a team that won the British Team Championship in England. He stayed on afterward, living, as he says, rough. At one period he was in residence in a row of derelict houses in the Lancashire town of Blackburn, where, he claims, he kept just ahead of the bulldozer, with five addresses in one week: 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 Ebony Street. That was in 1969.
By 1972 the Hurricane had howled right across the snooker world—he became world champion that year—and the year after, picked up his first fine from the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, for unbecoming conduct, mostly for showing up late at tournaments and yelling at people. He celebrated his title by visiting India at the invitation of the ultraposh Bombay Gymkhana Club. The excursion lasted only one day and ended, so it is said, with the Hurricane being put on a plane home for drinking, abusive behavior and refusing to wear a shirt, though he had started an exhibition game with a flashing break of 109 points. The Hurricane later denied that he was expelled. "I went of my own accord," he says proudly.
But it wasn't adventures like this that won him his name. It was his swashbuckling style and speed as he banged home shots. Most of the time the shots worked, but in the aftermath of his '72 win, shots of a different kind looked as if they were cracking up his career: shots straight out of a vodka bottle.
The next decade brought episode after episode of the kind described here by Higgins' former agent, Geoff Lomas. "Alex turned up absolutely legless," he said of a tournament in which he had backed Higgins with $6,000, "with a gypsy bird with bloody big gold earrings. We sobered him up next day, but that was a mistake. He had the shakes. Still, he only lost by one game."
Meanwhile, Davis had been making a name for himself, though the game still occupied a niche in British culture comparable to that of pool in the U.S. But that was to change. Enter Barry Hearn. Hearn is now Davis' business manager, shield, organizer and, some would say, puppeteer. His beginnings were similar to Davis', but he found his way to the top by a different route. At 21 Hearn was already a certified public accountant, but, reasoning that such idiosyncrasies as wearing all-white suits made it unlikely he would ever become a partner in his firm, he branched out on his own, once as far as New York's Seventh Avenue. He figures he lost close to $350,000 in the garment business. Once back in Britain, with remarkable prescience he bought a snooker parlor in Romford. At this point, he says, he barely knew the rules of the game, and it was a full year before he realized the potential of the spidery kid who was hanging around his club.
That was in the spring of 1976. Since then, Hearn has worked industriously, not only on Davis' image but also on his own as the sport's most bumptious entrepreneur. In the eyes of the public Hearn is the slave driver who exploits every minute of "that nice young Steve's" life in a whirligig of promotions, exhibitions and personal appearances. He's Flash Barry, the barracuda of the snooker circuit, who says coldly of Davis, "He's full-time, 24 hours a day."
Another way of looking at the relationship is provided by Jean Rafferty, a young Scottish journalist who followed the snooker circuit for eight months in 1981-82 and produced a book entitled The Cruel Game. In it she wrote, "Barry is a...very convenient person for Steve Davis to have around. He drives a hard business bargain without Steve appearing avaricious. He can fend off the press without Steve appearing to be uncooperative. He does all the ruthless things that Steve Davis can't do without tarnishing his public image. In return, Steve reserves his ruthlessness for the snooker table, and in the process earns them both a fortune." In Romford, as he kept signing, Davis said, somewhat obscurely, "Money is a game Barry and I play together." It didn't seem to be a complaint.
As Davis moved to the top, winning his first world championship in 1981, the Hurricane went on blowing himself away. With the '82 championship a little more than four months away—he had never recovered the title he lost in '73—Hurricane was lying in a private clinic in Lancashire, incapable of holding down food, moaning that his talent had been thrown down the drain and that he had been exploited, talking of crying himself to sleep in lonely hotel rooms and of the consolation of vodka. Drinking was part of the job, though, he said, and he disparages Davis for sipping water during matches. "He'll be haunted by me until I'm carried out in a little brown box," the Hurricane said.
Against all expectations, Higgins was back on his feet again for the '82 championship. Lomas, whose agency had just released the Hurricane from his contract, had no notion this would turn out to be a blunder, even when, extraordinarily, Davis was knocked out in the first round by an outsider.
Lomas recalls how he watched Higgins sit out a game as his opponent made a long run. "He was reading the Bible," says the agent. "He was sucking a crucifix. He had bloody rabbits' feet everywhere. There was no way he was going to win."