‘I had a gun pulled on me, banned for drugs and I punched Alex Higgins after he said I was s*** at snooker!’ Colourful career of former world No 1 Cliff Thorburn, who is set to hang up his cue at 73 after one last hurrah
- Cliff Thorburn takes on Kuldesh Johal at the UK Seniors Championship
- The 73-year-old is ready to pack away his cue for the last time if he loses
- He has lived an exciting, glorious and occasionally dangerous life to the full
Snooker’s original ‘Grinder’ Cliff Thorburn is ready to pack away his cue for the last time — after a life of turbulence and triumph that merits a Hollywood blockbuster to do it justice.
Thorburn enjoyed huge success on the green baize in the 1980s, winning 20 titles. The moustachioed, gravel-voiced Canadian was also one of the most popular and instantly-recognisable faces at a time when players acquired almost rock star status.
At 73, the man born in British Columbia today takes on a player 32 years his junior, Kuldesh Johal, in the UK Seniors Championship in Hull, in what will prove to be his last hurrah if he loses.
Rivalry between Cliff Thorburn (left) and Alex Higgins came to a head in the 1980 ‘SAS final’
But Thorburn has lived an exciting, glorious and occasionally dangerous life to the full. His early years after leaving school at 16 were spent travelling across Canada playing for money in pool halls, staking himself with jobs as a bin-man and dishwasher.
‘There were certainly some moments,’ he said. ‘I played at a place once in Oakland where I was winning and the backer of the other guy opened up his jacket and showed a gun.
‘He said, ‘Ain’t nobody leaves here with my player’s money’. My friends told me to lose all the money we had won, which I wasn’t happy about. But eventually I saw we had to lose at least some of it — or get robbed.
‘I didn’t play down in the States much after that. In one place two guys were smashing cues over each other’s backs then started throwing the balls at each other. Everyone hit the floor and ducked behind tables. After winning money against a guy called Cornbread Red in Detroit, backed by a nasty piece of work, we had to be escorted to our car.’
The Canadian celebrates the first ever maximum 147 break at the iconic Crucible
Snooker had become the biggest draw for Thorburn and after performing well against John Spencer in exhibition matches he was recommended for the pro tour in 1973. But if the Canadian had thought things might quieten down a little, he had reckoned without the combustible Alex Higgins. A clash of personalities and styles ensured rivalry on the table and confrontations off it.
At the 1983 Irish Open, Thorburn punched the Northern Irishman to the ground, and as peacemakers tried to make them shake hands, he kicked Higgins in the groin. It emerged that Higgins had told his rival, ‘You’re a Canadian c*** who is s*** at snooker!’
This rivalry came to a head in the 1980 ‘SAS final’, with Thorburn winning his only world title at the Crucible with an 18-16 victory. TV coverage of the showpiece was interrupted to provide pictures of the storming of the Iranian Embassy in London after a six-day siege. Higgins had a celebratory cake wheeled to his dressing room at 16-16 — Thorburn later planted his face in it.
‘Alex was a heck of player, but he knew what he could get away with and aggravation just seemed to follow him around,’ added Thorburn. ‘I don’t know why he was the way he was and I still wonder how he could play so well. But I think I bothered him.
‘In many ways he was my toughest opponent — I lost a lot of close matches to him, at least it felt like too many. And then of course I would add Steve Davis.’
Thornburn with stars including Steve Davis (second left) and Willie Thorne (far right)
The 73-year-old has lived an exciting, glorious and occasionally dangerous life to the full
Another Crucible high for Thorburn came in 1983 in his second-round match against Terry Griffiths, when he made the first ever maximum 147 break at the iconic theatre. Much later, he won the epic match 13-12 at 3.51am on a Monday morning.
His biggest career regret? A £10,000 fine, being docked ranking points and banned for two tournaments by the WPBSA after traces of cocaine were found in a urine sample in 1988.
‘People forget that I was world No 1 but they sure remember the scandal, and I’ll regret it for the rest of my life,’ he said.
These days Thorburn is enjoying a peaceful retirement in the town of Markham, Ontario, playing golf, enjoying family time and dabbling in snooker coaching.
The downtime has allowed him to reflect on his trademark mastery of safety play which he still defends to the hilt.
‘You see a lot of flash shots being played by the kids today,’ he said. ‘That’s great, but you need something to fall back on. I always felt safety play was rocket science.
‘And I still think it is a pre- requisite to first turn pro and then win things. Throwing a cue at everything wins you nothing.’