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From the Publisher
By Mike Panozzo
Mike became editor of Billiards Digest in 1980 and liked it so much that he bought the company. He has served on the Billiard Congress of America board of directors and as president of the Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.


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March: Sequels Are Never As Good
March 2018

I guess you can’t go home again after all.

There couldn’t have been too many pool fans out there more excited for Accu-Stats’ “Living Legends Challenge” than I was. The idea of Mike “Captain Hook” Sigel climbing into pool’s version of The Octagon — the Accu-Stats Arena at Sandcastle Billiards in Edison, N.J. — against Earl “The Pearl” Strickland for six two-match sessions over three days evoked memories of some of the sport’s most epic battles three decades past.

The only way this could be better, I remembered thinking, was if Sigel and Strickland — two of the most prolific whiners and chirpers in the history of competitive sports — were mic’d.

Voila!

I don’t recall exactly when Strickland and Sigel last faced off on a pool table. Sigel was out of the sport by the late 1980s, so it has been at least 30 years. But what wars they staged during the ’80s, when Sigel was arguably the best player in the world and Strickland, nine years younger, was establishing himself as the greatest, most powerful shot-making 9-ball player the game had ever seen. Oddly enough, they really didn’t meet in the title match of many big tournaments.

What made watching Sigel and Strickland most entertaining, however, wasn’t just the level of play they brought to the table. It was the sniping and moaning. Both were famous for randomly selecting a “cornerman” from the audience — someone with whom they could commiserate out loud about their misfortune from a bad roll, or about what their thought process was during a run out.

For some fans, the chatter was annoying. I found it fascinating. As a spectator, I always wondered what was going through the minds of the players during big matches. Were they nervous? Confident? Angry? Uncertain? With Sigel and Strickland there was little left to the imagination. Their unfiltered approach to competition was revealing. And for all their talent and accomplishments — 10 world titles and eight U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships between them — their running commentaries often spoke more to insecurity than anything else.

And now, the opportunity to see them in head-to-head action again!

Strickland, of course, was the heavy favorite. Even at 54, Earl is an amazing shot-maker and capable of winning tournaments — as he did in Germany earlier this year. Sigel is 65 and has played only sporadically in the past two decades. But he remains one of the smartest players to hold a cue. And when he slides into that lefty stance, his feet spread wide apart, you just know he’s the favorite to make whatever shot he’s aiming at.

And for a brief period, that delicious match-up delivered everything I had hoped for. Strickland, today more resembling Kevin Costner’s character in the movie “Tin Cup,” with his torso wrapped, wearing sunglasses with tape on the nose, his bridge hand fitted with finger extensions and sporting Timberland boots, was at his eccentric best.

Sigel, trim and tanned, was talking non-stop before they even fired up his microphone. While his game may have been a shade rusty, his words-per-inning average was still world class. “Set it up dead for me,” Sigel told referee Carson Ransom, who was respotting a ball during a one-pocket match.

“You’re like watching paint dry,” Strickland moaned, as Sigel surveyed the table, sharing his shot selection concerns with the crowd.

Strickland won each of the first five disciplines — 8-ball, banks, straight pool, one-pocket and 9-ball — before Sigel finally tallied a win in one-pocket.

Most of the commentary was harmless, but both players became more agitated over time — Sigel at his lack of luck and frequent mistakes, and Strickland at his opponent’s constant misery. “Tomorrow,” Strickland said, “I’m making myself deaf.”

It wasn’t until the pair slogged through their second straight-pool tilt in the last match on the second day that it became apparent that the vintage matchup may have scheduled one day too many. Both players took turns bickering and moaning between missed opportunities at the table. Sigel, seemingly on the verge of heart failure, won the match, 125-122, but the novelty of the event was gone.

On the final day, Strickland, with his bridge arm wrapped like someone training falcons, and wearing enormous noise-reduction headphones, kept his chatter and his missed shots to a minimum. For Sigel, missed chances repeated themselves. The final match score was 8-4.

“Does anyone remember one shot I got lucky on in three days?” Sigel asked to anyone who would listen.

I was listening, but at that point I was no longer hearing. The Living Legends was a great idea, and kudos to Accu-Stats’ Pat Fleming for bringing these two out of mothballs. The event had moments of great pool, great commentary and the occasional snappy remark. But it turns out you can’t pull old memories off the shelf and expect them to have the same effect they did the first time around.

I do hope that event producers encourage today’s players to open themselves up more during competition, because it makes the game — and the players — more interesting.

And if they’re looking for instructors...

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