John L. Sullivan

The world’s most popular boxer performed onstage… in a Richmond opera house!

John L. Sullivan was one of the greatest American boxers ever.

In 1889 he defended his crown against Jake Kilrain in a grueling 75 round fight that was the last bare-knuckle championship fought. Thereafter bouts were fought under Queensberry Rules requiring padded gloves.

After retiring in 1892 he went into ventures that included early vaudeville stage shows with Kilrain. They traveled the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, promoting themselves.

Omar Murray, future owner of the Murray Theatre [the Richmond Civic Theatre], operated the Phillips Opera House on the northeast corner of Sixth and Main. In 1893 he set his sights on the world famous ex-champion and lured him to Richmond.

The Feb. 1, 1893 Richmond Palladium reported, “The well known, original John L. Sullivan appeared at the Phillips Opera House last evening with his company in ‘The Man From Boston.’ He performed a sketch based on the life of a popular boxing champion from Massachusetts, which was no stretch for him… The house was well filled, the audience being mostly of men. There was nothing objectionable in the play and more ladies should have witnessed it. Sullivan as an actor is better than one would suppose… In the last act he proved himself to be exceedingly quick and he got in his extra blows every time.”

Sullivan was 35-years-old and a former world champion. He and Kilrain were the Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier of their time. The two icons performed in Richmond at the Sixth and Main Opera House to a room packed mostly with men, reliving their glory days.


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June 19, 2012