John Wayne Once Refereed a Fight Involving ‘The Shootist’ Actor Hugh O’Brian During Visit to the Marines

by Keeli Parkey

John Wayne is famous for his many iconic film roles. In a scene made for one of his many military-based films, the Duke once served as a referee for a boxing match.

That boxing match was between Hugh O’Brian and another United States Marine. O’Brian recounted this event which took place during his military service during a 2005 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. O’Brian passed away in 2016.

“… (John Wayne) refereed my first fight in the Marine Corps and I’m the last guy he shot in ‘The Shootist.’ So, I got to know him pretty well,” O’Brian said. “The fight in the Marine Corps was very typical John Wayne and his thinking.”

For the story of the Duke serving as a boxing match referee, we have to flash back to 1943. O’Brian said that on Friday nights while he was in boot camp boxing matches took place between cadets.

“The way they selected the guy from one platoon to fight the guy from the other platoon was very much like what you would find in combat and absolutely nothing to do with weight, size, or how you look. I think there was about 12 or 14 platoons going through boot camp at the same time,” O’Brian explained. “Let’s say there were 14. So, there were seven fights. There was a guy this platoon would fight a guy from this platoon. And, the way they did the selection, say they had 64 pieces of paper that they would put in a pith helmet. All of them blank except one, which was marked boxer. So, you picked out the piece of paper in this particular, I guess it is about the third or fourth week of boot camp, I picked out the one marked ‘boxer.'”

John Wayne Refereed Boxing Match Between O’Brian and Much Larger Opponent

Eventually, O’Brian who was six feet tall and only about 155 pounds at the time, was selected to fight. His opponent was around 6’8″ and 325 pounds. They were slated to fight for three rounds. Each round was supposed to last for one minute or a minute-and-a-half.

While O’Brian is preparing to fight his much larger opponent, he finds out that John Wayne will be serving as the referee for his match.

“(In) 1943 John Wayne was really emerging. He was not the kind of star that he became … But, everybody knew who he was, but he was still kind of the fresh thing,” O’Brian recalled. “To make a long story short, he gets into the ring and he looks at this skinny runt and he looks at this other giant. I think it’s one of the few times I ever saw John Wayne look up at anybody.”

Wayne Asked Boxers to Abide By His Rules During Match

According to O’Brian, John Wayne wanted to know if the boxers would be willing to abide by his rules instead of the standard rules of boxing. They agreed and Wayne then exited the ring. What happened next proved to be to O’Brian’s advantage.

“He climbs out of the ring instead of staying inside the ring to referee,” O’Brian recalled. “(John Wayne) goes down and he goes to where the timekeeper is. He picks up the gong. Rings it – rings the bell – to start the fight and that was it for almost 15 minutes.”

That extended round allowed O’Brian to tire out his opponent.

“Hey, I just kept my left out and I had a little boxing experience, and one way or the other the guy chased me around the ring and he finally collapsed from exhaustion,” O’Brian said.

You can watch Hugh O’Brian talk about his boxing match that was refereed by John Wayne below.