In the more glamorous era of players like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry, few remember the founding fathers like Joe Davis. At a time when snooker was still developing its identity, Joe Davis, and his brother Fred, were dominant in every sense of the word, helping give the sport credibility as a professional venture.
Such were his abilities that Davis also translated his skills in snooker to the billiards table. By the time of his retirement, he had acquired no fewer than 15 World Championship titles and also held the World Professional Billiards championship 4 times between 1928 and 1932. Eat your heart out, Ronnie!
Davis was born in 1901 in the mining village of Whitwell in Derbyshire and, befitting his rather legendary figure, not much is pertinent before his amateur career kicked off in the billiards circuit. However, one notable contributory factor was his father or, more specifically, his father’s profession.
A former miner, he took over a local pub and made the decision to introduce a billiards table on the premises. The young Davis found himself whiling away the hours with a cue and thus began one of the great careers. Needless to say, he excelled at a remarkable rate, winning the local amateur billiards championship at the tender age of 13.
Within just five years, Davis made the move into the professional circuit, again focusing on billiards. Indeed, it was during this early period in billiards that the great man tasted defeat, losing to Tom Newman in the World Professional Billiards championship in 1922.
By this stage though, Davis was looking at the game of snooker, at this stage little more than a niche activity. He set about organising the first World Snooker Championship in 1927, hosted at Thurston’s Hall. Reflecting the game’s prestige at the time, just 10 participants were involved and the skill level left something to be desired, as the highest break proved to be a paltry 60.
Unsurprisingly, Davis himself was dominant and eventually took the tournament after a 20-11 victory over Tom Dennis, picking up the grand sum of £6.50 (roughly £250 in today’s currency) for his troubles.
Many years of supremacy
Fresh off the back of his victory at Thurston Hall, Davis took his newfound confidence and abilities back to the billiards table and, this time, was highly successful. After he took the title in 1928, so began a remarkable period of victory after victory in both snooker and billiards, taking the snooker World Championship each year and also picking up the World Professional Billiards championship on a further three occasions.
While his majestic run of success continued unabated in snooker, his form in billiards was arguably as good, considering the competition. In the ten years following his victory in 1928, he won no fewer than 10 further titles, either at world or UK level.
However, it was in snooker that he was really making the serious strides. In the process of taking the championship each year, Davis was honing his craft and arguably increasing the gap between himself and the rest of the field.
His cue action developed, becoming the standard by which all players to this day follow, and the rewards were near immediate. Davis made his first century break in 1928 and broke the record with almost the same regularity as he won the championship, culminating with the first 147 maximum break in 1955 against Willie Smith in London’s Leicester Square. By the end of his career, he had made 687 century breaks.
Meanwhile, his dominance was doing much to publicise the sport. Davis undertook a series of charity exhibition events which boosted both his and snooker’s profile, even playing venues like the London Palladium.
In the championship, Davis was rarely troubled from year to year, the chief problem being the imposed break caused by the Second World War. Having taken all 14 titles between 1927 and 1940, the tournament was cancelled until 1946, when Davis again showed he had not lost his winning touch. However, even in 1940, there were signs that the gap was being closed, courtesy of his brother Fred. In the final that year, the two brothers embarked on a titanic tussle, with Joe only coming out on top by one frame, winning overall 37-36.
Finally Davis said goodbye to the World Championship, going out on a high after the 1946 final. However, it was certainly not the end of his involvement per se. As well as being a regular spectator during the 1960s and 1970s, Davis attempted to popularise another form of the game known as Snooker Plus.
This innovative spectacle included two extra coloured balls but, ironically, Davis was a victim of his own success in popularising the original form of the game, and his version never reached the same heights.
Davis eventually received suitable recognition for his efforts in the sport, being awarded the OBE in 1963. This was followed by his retirement from active play in 1964. Rather poetically, his only loss on equal terms was to his brother Fred (he lost four times officially in his entire career).
There was also further poetry in his eventual death, collapsing while watching his brother in the 1978 World Championship semi-finals. Two months later, he passed away at the age of 77.
Davis was married twice. The first walk down the aisle was for Florence Stevenson in 1921, with the couple divorcing in 1940. Five years later, Joe became remarried to June Malo.
Outside snooker, Davis was a keen supporter of Derby County FC. He was also well known on television, courtesy of the Pot Black television series and was even turned into wax form for Madame Tussauds.
- World Snooker Championship – Winner (1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1946)
- World Professional Billiards Championship – Winner (1928, 1929, 1930, 1932)
- News of the World Championship – Winner (1950, 1953, 1956), Runner-up (1954, 1955, 1959)