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Alex Higgins and Steve Davis: an intense snooker rivalry

BY Matt Bozeat

25th Jul 2023 Sport

Alex Higgins and Steve Davis: an intense snooker rivalry

Matt Bozeat looks back at how Alex Higgins and Steve Davis became one the greatest sporting rivalries of the 1980s and sent millions snooker loopy

In his new book Snooker’s Bad Boys: The Feuds, Fist Fights and Fixes, Matt Bozeat looks back at a time when snooker players were better paid than footballers and lived like rock stars. The snooker bad boys he writes about include Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White and Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan.

In these extracts from the book, Matt talks about how the original snooker hellraiser, Alex Higgins, clashed with his sporting nemesis and polar opposite, the cool and “calculated” Steve Davis and how their rivalry began. They truly were the chalk and cheese of snooker, during the sport's peak years in the 1980s.

“I hate Steve Davis”

“Personally, I hate Steve Davis,” said Alex Higgins, “but apart from that, he’s a very good professional snooker player”. The tabloid press knew the story here wasn’t Higgins calling Davis “a very good snooker player”. Reporters needed a response from Davis and he told them: “Of course I hate Higgins, but I love playing him”. Davis delivered his words with a smile, playing down the rivalry.

The irony is that though Higgins was “The People’s Champion” and millions wished Davis would lose whoever he was playing, Davis was surely more agreeable company—and fun.

"The irony is that though Higgins was 'The People’s Champion', Davis was surely more agreeable company—and fun"

He showed his quick wit when interviewed alongside Higgins. “Davis sends spectators to sleep,” said Higgins. “Spectators have no point of contact. How can you relate to a robot? I’d rather have a drink with Idi Amin”. Davis replied: “That was because Idi Amin would buy him more drinks”.

Davis said it would be “strange” for two competitors at the top of a sport to be good friends and even joked Higgins once saved his life. “I came out of the stage door of a tournament and three blokes set upon me, started beating me up,” said Davis. “Fortunately for me, Alex came round the corner and said: ‘That should be enough lads’”.

The Borg and McEnroe of snooker

Steve Davis playing in Finland in 2008Steve Davis is one of snooker's true greats. Credit: Joni-Pekka Luomala

Davis and Higgins were the Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe of the drinking classes. Borg was an icy-cool, ruthless tennis champion from Sweden, McEnroe a hot-headed talent who blamed others when he lost. McEnroe was famous for screeching: “You cannot be serious” in his New York accent at umpires when decisions went against him.

Davis was polished, unflappable and emotionless, while Higgins lived in a world of ripped-up betting slips and resentment towards authority.

Clive Everton made the comparison with tennis great Borg after Davis won his first world title in 1981.

"Davis was polished and unflappable, while Higgins lived in a world of ripped-up betting slips and resentment towards authority"

He wrote in The Guardian: “In his dedication, temperate habits, appetite for his chosen game, temperament and, in match play, his ability to reduce avoidable mistakes to a minimum, he resembles Bjorn Borg”.

Geoff Lomas, Higgins’ manager, said around the same time: “He [Higgins] astounds me. Higgins represents everything an image shouldn’t be, yet it works. This is just an enigma. You can’t work it out. It’s like McEnroe. He’s terribly popular, however badly he behaves”.

Insults and praise

Higgins called Davis “calculating” and it sounded like an insult. The implication was, Davis somehow shouldn’t be trusted.

Davis admitted years later that Higgins “played from the heart” and that wasn’t his way. He said: “He probably felt I didn’t play the game with enough panache”.

“The People’s Champion” and “Personality Minus”

Alex Higgins tribute artAlex Higgins will always be remembered as a wild snooker legend. Credit: Peter Kersten

Higgins needed the gallery as much as he needed to win. Early managers remembered having to drag Higgins away from exhibitions because, as long as there was a crowd, he wanted to entertain them.

Davis played Higgins in Romford around 1976 when he was a 19-year-old amateur and Higgins among the world’s elite.

“I’ve never seen so much excitement in a room,” remembered Davis. “Alex was getting stick from the crowd. He would stand up and chalk his cue, as if he’s going to play the next shot and that puts a lot of pressure on you. He’s saying ‘You’re going to miss this one’”.

"Managers remembered having to drag Higgins away from exhibitions because, as long as there was a crowd, he wanted to entertain"

Davis didn’t miss many that night. He won the match and Hearn remembered: “We made loads of money and he (Higgins) stormed out”.

Higgins made a comment to Bill Davis, Steve’s father, that stayed with the winner. Higgins told him: “It’s OK for your son, he’s got Barry (Hearn) behind him. I’ve got nobody”.

Davis said years later: “Someone like that needs someone to protect them, not only from the outside world, but from themselves”.

65-frames challenge match drama

Davis turned professional in October 1978 and five months later, he met Higgins in a best-of-65-frames challenge match, held over four days at the Lucania club in Romford.

Davis remembered: “Higgins was so confident he would beat me that he went off and put a lot of money on himself… what he didn’t take into account was that I know the table and that he was stepping into a minefield. He conceded at the end of the sixth session when the score was 31-18.

"He simply turned to the crowd and told them not to come back the next day because he wouldn’t be there. Then he charged down to Barry’s office on the ground floor and shouted at everyone in sight. When he stormed out, we thought that was the last we’d see of him. When we turned up the next morning, who should be there but Alex, apologising profusely for everything that had happened the day before and raring to do his best on the table”.

Higgins’ best wasn’t enough. Davis won 33-23 and recalled later that every one of the 56 frames played featured a break of 40 or more. The top break was a 132 by Higgins.

Snooker's Bad Boys book cover

Snooker's Bad Boys by Matt Bozeat is available now on Pitch Publishing

Banner photo: Digital Vision

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