September 9th, 1994 represents the day police officer Steve Jennum was called into the finals of UFC 3 as an alternate. Due to Ken Shamrock suffering an injury, Steve would face Harold Howard for the $60,000.00 prize. Steve at the time had been a police officer for 2 years, had been trained in Tae Kwon Do at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu under Robert Bussey. Steve says he was always drawn to effective, realistic techniques, if it was practical, effective, and realistic he wanted to learn it.
Jennum, like many of us first learned of the UFC from Black Belt magazine. He had viewed underground tapes of the Gracie family fights and knew if they were involved it would be real. During a get together with several of his friends in law enforcement for the live pay per view UFC 1 event, several guys were speculating that it was going to be like professional wrestling. It didn’t take them long to figure out it was the real deal when a tooth went flying into the crowd from a head kick delivered by UFC competitor Gerard Gordeau. They were hooked after that.
Jennum, whose only experience in fighting was on the job as law enforcement and the occasional challenges from other martial arts schools, started noticing ads for UFC III and that they were looking for fighters. Jennum, along with his friend Joe Baudler, put their applications in and soon Steve got the call that he was accepted as an alternate. Jennum and Baudler trained together while working together for the Omaha police Dept. They both felt it was good to challenge yourself to become better martial artists and it wouldn’t be long until he got the opportunity.
As a cop for nearly 30 years, he had seen his fair share of changes within the law enforcement system. Technology has changed the job a lot says Jennum and the attitude of the public has changed as well. Not all people, but segments of society now view police in an unfavorable light, some without ever having contact with police. The media seems to push a narrative that is beneficial to a political party. The party seems to keep this negative narrative stoked to garner votes, it’s a sad situation. Finding good candidates has also been a struggle in law enforcement and when asked what he would tell high school seniors who want to pursue a career in criminal justice, “don’t do it,” he laughed.
When asked what the most rewarding aspect of the job is Jennum stated you always hear the cliché’ “to help people but honestly, it is a very rewarding aspect of the job. Helping others is a very satisfying experience, I think most officers feel this way. Protecting others against predators is also very rewarding. Not just people who have been victimized, but the people who would have been victimized had the predator not been removed from society. Proactive policing, not reactive.”
Jennum and Felix Mitchell were both chosen to be alternates at UFC III, if an injury were to occur there would be a coin toss to see which alternate would step in for the injured fighter. If no injuries were to occur the two alternates would fight before the championship match to give the finalists more rest. Unaware of Keith Hackneys hand injury, Jennum was in the crowd watching the event with the rest of the fans and missed any chance of a coin toss with Mitchell. “I was very disappointed to learn I missed my chance,” says Jennum. “I was in the parking lot with my team before the final fight and saw Ken Shamrock coming out of the area where the fighters waited to be announced. Ken had each of his arms around his corner men and they were helping him get to the arena.” My training partner, Dennis Clark, overheard Ken say he didn’t think he could go on and they turned around and headed back to the dressing room. “Ken was limping really bad, and I thought it had to be a knee injury,” said jennum. “We hurried back to the staging area and got my chance to compete in the UFC.”
Jennum would face Harold Howard in the finals, Howard had one earlier win against Muay Thai fighter Roland Payne and was to face Royce Gracie in the semi-finals, but Gracie’s corner threw in the towel prior to the fight due to injuries Gracie received during his war with Kimo Leoplodo . It would now be Jennum vs. Howard for the championship match of UFC III and the winner would be crowned the champion of the UFC and receive $60,000.00. This would sure come in handy for a young police office so early into his career. Fellow police officer, “Big John” McCarthy would be the ref.
Most of the people in Jennums corner were law enforcement including his wife. “She was very supportive of me, trained with me and quite a fighter herself,” said Jennum. Most of his family thought he was crazy, some had come to several of his blackbelt promotions so they knew he had a screw loose. Those black belt promotions were just as crazy as the UFC. Upper command at work was a little skeptical of him fighting in the UFC, in those days it was not so mainstream. The thought of an office participating in a bare knuckle, no holds barred cage match ruffled some feathers. “However, to their credit they reluctantly let me do it,” Jennum went on to say.
The fight was no easy chore for Jennum, Howard came out swinging and connected with a right hand to Jennum’s left eye, splitting him open. Jennum avoided a second strike and closed the distance with Howard. The fight soon went to the ground with Harold obtaining a front headlock. Scrambling back and forth, Jennum was able to get back on his feet while still trading heavy shots with Howard. Jennum shot and pulled off a take down and went into full mount where he began some major ground and pound on Howard, soon Big John McCarthey stopped the action at 1:27 just as Howard’s corner was throwing in the towels… Jennum made history and became the third ever UFC champion and would soon receive his large $60,000.00 check from co-promoter Art Davie. It was a great test of will and no matter how few fights he had to fight that night he went in and tested himself, that’s a lot more than most people would ever even consider.
When asked when his last professional fight was and what made him decide to stop fighting professionally, Jennum responded, “I never felt like a professional fighter, my chosen career was law enforcement. I got drawn into early MMA through UFC III and after an unpleasant scare at Ultimate Ultimate 95 and the threat the fighters could be arrested, I felt my enforcement career might be jeoparidized. “Getting arrested in another city fighting in a NHB contest was looked down upon at the time,” jokes Jennum.
Jennum would fight again in UFC IV and UU95 where he faced a much heavier opponent Tank Abbott. Jennum got his head pinned between the fence with pressure from Tank’s head and fence grab combination which proved to be too much for Jennum. Tank had nearly 50-60 lbs. on Jennum which he gives no excuses for. He loved the idea about big fighters vs. small, or one style against another. It made for truly memorable entertainment, and he wouldn’t have changed one thing about it. The foundation of what is today called MMA was solidly laid down in those early events, “and I feel so proud to have been part of it,” Jennum states. Although Jennum has never attended any reunions he did meet most of the fighters that were involved in the events he was part of. Almost all of them were respectful to each other, something he thinks seems to be missing from later events. Jennum tried to speak with Tank Abbott after the fight but Tank ignored him, Jennum thinks he doesn’t like cops much. After reading Tanks book, I think I agree.
It was sure a pleasure catching up with Steve Jennum, he’s been out of the fight game and spotlight for a long time now. Steve is a true professional in every way. He served his community for 30 years and will soon retire. Steve is a pioneer of the sport and I wish him many years of safe and healthy retirement. I hope the UFC will someday acknowledge Steve with an invite to a reunion or simply honor him at an event along with the others that built this sport to what it is today. This is our sports history and these guys shouldn’t and won’t be forgotten.