MMA marks a new start for a laborer with a checkered past


Jimmy Jennett works two full-time jobs — by his own choice.

In the morning, he installs drywall for Western Partitions, Inc., as a journeyman laborer and member of Laborers Local 737. At night, he runs classes at Checkered Past MMA, the mixed martial arts (MMA) gym he owns in Springfield. 

The gym is Jennett’s passion project. He says MMA helped him recover from drug addiction, and he opened the gym in 2018 to share his story. He wants to inspire children to make better choices than he did, and help adults who might be struggling with addiction, too. 

“I’m able to give what was freely given to me, and that’s a second chance or redemption, and a purpose-driven life,” he said. 

Jennett says he chooses daily double duty because his union wages help fund his business, so he can keep membership fees low. He offers all gym users one week of free classes before they sign up for a $120 monthly membership.

“People ask if I’m ever going to get out of the construction world and run the gym full time, and I’m like, ‘No. I’m not,’” Jennett said. “I’m going to retire out of the Laborers, so I can keep my prices the lowest in town. That’s my commitment.” 

A turnaround tale 

Jennett, 47, says he grew up in a dysfunctional family. His parents used drugs at home, and he didn’t have many adult mentors. He says he started using and selling hard drugs as a teenager and became addicted by age 16. He also grew physically aggressive, often getting in fights with other people. At age 26, he ended up in prison. 

“That’s when I really got a chance to look at my behaviors and figure out that I wanted to do something different,” Jennett said. “I remember looking at myself in the mirror in the cell … and I was like, ‘Jimmy, you’ve got to get into boxing or something, so you can learn to let things roll off your back.’”

When he was released in 2010, he started training as an MMA fighter. MMA is a fighting sport that incorporates techniques from boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, karate, and other combat practices. Training usually combines the physical aspect with a philosophical focus on discipline, integrity, mindfulness, and sportsmanship. In other words, MMA is not just about punching people.

“It also challenges your mind,” Jennett said. “A lot of people train in it for a great workout, and then there’s a fraction of people who train and will actually climb in the cage and fight another person to test their skills and learn about themselves.” 

Jennett stands 6-foot-7-inches tall and weighs 295 pounds. He says MMA gave him that much-needed physical and mental outlet. 

“It gave me some extra discipline and guidance. It was something I could throw my time and energy into positively,” he said.

Around the same time he started fighting, he took his first job in construction, a non-union paving gig in Reno, Nevada. He says the physical nature and team aspect of the work suited a “John Henry type” like him. When he learned about the Laborers union around 2013, he signed up as an apprentice. 

“I was like, ‘Dear God, I can make this much money working this hard?’ It just felt so right,” he said. The idea of joining a brotherhood of workers also appealed to him.  

“It’s what I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.” 

Jennett won his first amateur MMA match on Dec. 10, 2010. But he was still using drugs at the time, so his early success was followed by four consecutive losses. He remembers feeling embarrassed going to work after a failed match, because his co-workers would know he lost. 

That feeling motivated him to get sober once and for all. And when he was clean, he started winning fights again. 

In 2016 he moved to Eugene and joined the professional MMA league. In his three-year career as a pro fighter, he won four title matches, capstone fights where the winner earns the title of “champion” for their weight bracket. He retired from fighting in 2019.

Meanwhile, he continued to work construction. Local 737 business rep Matt Jensen remembers visiting a work site in 2019 and seeing pins coming out of one of Jennett’s hands. When he asked about it, Jennett told him he was in the MMA ring the night before and had broken his fist in a bare-knuckles fight, where the fighters don’t wear gloves. 

“But he was still on the job, working as best he could,” Jensen said. The foreman had modified Jennett’s work assignment so he could continue to support the crew, even if he wasn’t fully hands-on for the day. 

“Jimmy had nothing bad to say. He wasn’t complaining. He was just working hard to stay gainfully employed,” Jensen said.

Free from shenanigans

Jennett says his union job provided a steady routine and living wages and benefits that also helped with his recovery from drug addiction. As he got older, it has helped him afford medical, dental, and vision insurance for himself, his girlfriend, and their blended family of five children. 

“I’m extremely thankful to be in the union,” he said. “It’s really buttered my bread well for my family.”  

Jennett visits schools, mostly in the Eugene-Springfield area, to share his story and run short MMA workshops with kids. He says he wants the story of the turnaround of his fighting career to show children why they should stay away from hard drugs. 

“Here’s this guy having failure after failure and never giving up, then once I got clean and got my priorities and mind right then I started having success,” Jennett said. “I want to see these kids doing something different than I did. Going to work, going to school, playing sports, just staying away from the shenanigans.”

Jennett invites students to Checkered Past MMA in case the gym can be a positive outlet for them. He also tells them about careers in the union building trades. Growing up, he never knew it was an option, so he wants the next generation of apprentices to get the head start he didn’t have. 

Local 737 and Western Partitions, Inc. have supported the outreach projects Jennett runs through Checkered Past. The union sponsored a women’s self defense clinic the gym hosted in 2019, and Jennett’s supervisor at WPI lets him spend one day each month visiting schools. 

“For people like Jimmy to be providing outreach to other people that live in our area … or to offer a healthy outlet for teenagers to go to and better themselves,” Jensen said. “It makes us proud at the local.” 


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