Is Ronnie O’Sullivan Snooker’s GOAT? Ranking the game’s top five players in history, including World Championship stars

The 2022 World Snooker Championship is underway at the Crucible Theater in Sheffield and much of the attention, as ever, is on Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The Englishman can match Stephen Hendry’s modern record of seven titles if he prevails at this year’s event, which culminates on May 2.

He began his latest campaign against David Gilbert, battling from 3-0 down to win 10-5 with a highest break of 122. Mark Allen or Scott Donaldson await in round two.

But where does O’Sullivan rank among the sport’s greats? Here is a look at where Sporting News rates him in the list of snooker’s finest ever players.

MORE: When is Ronnie O’Sullivan playing at the 2022 World Snooker Championship? Route to final, date, TV times

5. John Higgins

Age: 46

from: Wishaw, Scotland

Turned pro: 1992

Career titles won: 47

World Championship: 4 (1998, 2007, 2009 & 2011)

Higgins has proven to be one of the most consistent performers in snooker for more than 20 years.

He won his first world title in 1998, beating Ken Doherty 18-12, and since then he has reached the final seven more times.

The Scotsman’s last of four titles came in 2011 (beating Judd Trump 18-15) but even entering his forties he has remained a force in the game and the fact he was a runner-up three times in a row between 2017 and 2019 shows how close he has come to a fifth championship.

He was a finalist at the World Tour Championship event earlier in April, losing to Neil Robertson, which highlights that he is a genuine contender again in 2022 to triumph 24 years after his first championship.

4. Alex Higgins

Age: Died in July 2010, aged 61

from: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Pro from: 1971 to 1997

Career titles won: 31

World Championship: 2 (1972 & 1982)

Higgins, of Northern Ireland, is the only man in our top five to only win the title once at the Crucible and not to be ranked No 1 in his career, having never gone beyond second in the standings.

That’s because statistics don’t tell the whole story with Higgins. His maverick ways on and off the table helped make snooker a mainstream sport in the media.

Spectators and TV viewers never knew what they were going to get with the man nicknamed the Hurricane. One minute, he could be rowing with an opponent or a referee; the next, he would be clearing the table in quick fashion with a display of stunning play.

He won his first world title in 1972 as a qualifier, beating John Spencer 37-32 in Birmingham. His second crown came at the Crucible 10 years later when he defeated Ray Reardon 18-15.

MORE: 2022 World Snooker Championship betting odds, favorites and sleeper picks

3. Steve Davis

Age: 64

from: Plumstead, England

Pro from: 1978 to 2016

Career titles won: 84

World Championship: 6 (1981, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1988 & 1989)

Davis was the dominant force of snooker in the 1980s. While not as dynamic a figure as Alex Higgins, his sheer consistency at the top of the game made him a famous face to people who were not only fans of the sport.

From 1981 to 1989, he only failed to the reach the final once, a success rate not matched by anyone else in the Crucible era of the World Championship. His 18-3 victory over John Parrott in 1989 remains a record for the biggest winning margin in a final.

Ironically, perhaps Davis’ most memorable match was one of the few finals he ever lost. In 1985, he was beaten on the final black in the last frame by Dennis Taylor, with a reported 18.5 million people watching the BBC’s coverage live at the time.

Those people were tuning in to a thrilling finale but also to see if Davis, the most imposing figure in the sport at the time, could be beaten in a fairy-tale manner by underdog Taylor. Without the success and reputation Davis had, the match would never have generated such interest.

2. Stephen Hendry

Age: 53

from: South Queensferry, Scotland

Pro: 1985 to 2012 & 2020 to now

Career titles won: 75

World Championship: 7 (1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 & 1999)

The fact his nickname was the Iceman during the peak of his powers tells you everything you need to know about Hendry.

He became the sport’s youngest world champion when he beat Jimmy White in the 1990 final at the age of 21 and that is a record he still holds.

For the first two thirds of the 1990s he was almost unbeatable, certainly at the Crucible where, between 1992 and 1997, he had a 29-match winning streak that remains the longest in the era of the tournament being held in Sheffield.

A mixture of magnificent potting from around the table along with a strong safety game set new standards for the rest of the field to try to reach, as Hendry became not only the record-holder for World Championship wins but the only man to win all three Triple Crown events in the same season on two occasions.

The success began to dry up in the 2000s as O’Sullivan and John Higgins began to take center stage and Hendry retired in 2012, before returning to the tour two years ago. The fact he hit a 147, his third at the Crucible, at the 2012 event highlights the level of performer he was even then.

1. Ronnie O’Sullivan

Age: 46

from: Wordsley, England

Pro from: 1992

Career titles won: 75

World Championship: 6 (2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013 & 2020)

O’Sullivan lost his very first match at the Crucible in April 1993 to Alan McManus as a 17-year-old but, ever since then, there has been no looking back for the Rocket.

Like Alex Higgins, he almost transcends the game. His name is known across the sporting landscape, even to people who have never seen a snooker ball potted in anger either live or on TV.

His unpredictable nature makes for compulsive viewing and it has seen him pick up all the major prizes in the game, with six world titles spread out over 19 years.

The only criticism of O’Sullivan is that he arguably should have won more with his talent. To win six World Championships, and for that to be considered an underachievement, tells you what a remarkable player he is.

MORE: 2022 World Snooker Championship prize money: How much money does the winner make and what is the 147 bonus?

Why Ronnie O’Sullivan is snooker’s GOAT ahead of Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis

So, O’Sullivan is our top guy despite having the same number of World Championship titles as Davis and one fewer than Hendry, although that latter point may change come May 2.

There are a number of reasons why O’Sullivan takes the top spot but the biggest one is longevity.

O’Sullivan is the only player to win world titles in three different decades and remains the youngest player ever to win a professional ranking event, having triumphed at the 1993 UK Championship at 17 years and 358 days old. When he won in 2020, he became the second-oldest player to become world champion in the modern era, and he has now competed at the World Championships a record 30 times in a row.

There have been times, both visually and vocally, that O’Sullivan has seemed in despair with snooker. But that may well have helped him stay involved in the game. He often looked to distance himself from the challenges of being at the top, unlike other past greats who lived and breathed the sport and possibly suffered fatigue and burnout later on.

You could argue O’Sullivan has not dominated an era of snooker the way Hendry and Davis did, but O’Sullivan has come up against probably the strongest depth of talent the sport has ever had during his time in the game and still set a record or 20 Triple Crown titles.

Among others, O’Sullivan has had John Higgins, Mark Selby, Mark Williams, Judd Trump and Neil Robertson to contend with in his era, all players who have been world champion.

Beyond the trophies, it is the manner of how O’Sullivan plays the game that still stands out. His 147 in only five minutes and eight seconds at the 1997 World Championship remains a record for a maximum break, and given just how rare it is even to do it in the first place, it is unlikely to be broken.

The fact that he has an online shop and there is a store in Sheffield at this year’s tournament selling his merchandise only further illustrates his overwhelming popularity with the public. It’s box office. He’s snooker’s GOAT.

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