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On June 9, 1891, bare-knuckle boxing champion John L. Sullivan tried his (probably) battered and bloodied hand at acting, marking his debut with a performance at the Lobero.

Sullivan has been aptly described as the world’s first sports superstar, earning the title after he went undefeated in 47 fights.

John Lawrence Sullivan (1858 – 1918), was an Irish American boxer and cultural icon who was considered to be the last heavyweight champion of the brutal sport of bare-knuckle boxing. Although no formal gloved boxing title existed during his day, Sullivan is also generally recognized as the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing (1882 – 1892).

Sullivan’s fight with Jake Kilrain in 1889 in Richburg, Mississippi is considered to be a turning point in boxing history because it was the last world title bout fought under the London Prize Ring Rules, and therefore was the last ever bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout. These set of rules meant that fights were fought to the finish – there were no judges present, and no limit to the number of rounds that could be fought. Thus, fights ended when one man could no longer continue-either by being counted out or because he simply couldn’t fight anymore. It was also one of the first sporting events in the United States to receive national press coverage.

In Richburg, Sullivan and Kilrain fought an unimaginable 75 rounds, lasting two hours and 16 minutes before the matter was resolved, leaving Sullivan the winner and reigning champion. They boxed in stifling 100-degree heat, fighting fatigue as the sun beat down on their backs. About 2,000 heavily armed spectators were huddled around them, most of whom had traveled all night by train from New Orleans, to get to Richburg by the early-morning hours.

After the historied fight with Kilrain, John L. Sullivan took a 3-year break from boxing, during which his managers convinced him to try out acting. In 1890, Sullivan was cast as the star in a five-act melodrama called “Honest Hearts and Willing Hands”. The play, set in Ireland, featured Sullivan as the muscular village blacksmith James Daly. The action followed the stock melodrama plot line – virtuous hero defeats the dastardly villain and wins the hand of the leading lady.

Critics hated the play, and apparently Sullivan’s acting was horrible. But audiences loved it, and “Honest Hearts” set off on a year-long national tour. Everyone came to see the famous John L. Sullivan. A San Francisco newspaper wrote that the audience “screamed with delight when the action of the play indicated that Sullivan might have to use his fists on the villain.”

While we wait in the wings for things to return to normal, we hope you enjoy a peek into the Lobero archives.

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