With heavy steps, the kind only a feeling like disappointment can bring out, Keith Jardine walked through the back corridors of the Palms Casino Resort. Each time his foot pressed onto the floor, it triggered a new -- and frightening -- question in his mind. He had the same job for nearly five years but as he left the Octagon that night, as he made his way backstage for a doctor's examination and to get his wraps removed, an anxious, almost nauseating feeling began to creep into his gut. It's the feeling you get when your boss catches you sleeping at your desk or you screw up a major project and your employment status suddenly comes into question.
How did I get here?, Jardine must have asked himself. Just a year prior he was two rounds away from fighting for the 205-pound title and enjoyed a healthy notoriety thanks to his stint of the second season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). Fighters like those -- the Chris Lebens, the Stephan Bonnars and the Mike Swicks -- don't necessarily need standout win/loss records to keep getting a paycheck with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) logo on it.
But four losses in a row -- and five in six fights -- is a bullet that even the beloved Chuck Liddell couldn't dodge. Five days after the majority decision loss to Matt Hamill, Jardine hit the Octagon cutting block.
How did he get there? And with his first title shot tonight at Strikeforce: "Rockhold vs. Jardine," is he on his way back to mixed martial arts (MMA) relevance?
Jardine had good wins. "The Iceman" being chiefest amongst them but his list of accomplishments also includes finishing another former light heavyweight champion in Forrest Griffin. Sure, his embarrassing knockout loss to Wanderlei Silva will long be a staple of Pride Fighting Championships fanboys' dreams and Jardine was also put to sleep by Houston Alexander but who knew the UFC debutee had cinder blocks for fists?
"The Dean of Mean" almost always found a way to win and almost always frustrated his opponents into settling for a judged victory. He did the former against Liddell and Brandon Vera and the latter against Quinton Jackson and Hamill.
It was the fight against Jackson that would have earned Jardine a crack at the 205-pound title. He had won two of his last three including the career-defining split decision victory over Liddell. "Rampage" had lost his title to Forrest Griffin -- a man Jardine had defeated -- but bounced back with a brutal knockout loss to Silva -- a man who trounced Jardine. MMA math is the most absurd method to help decide who would win a hypothetical fight and the UFC 96 main event served as a classic example of why.
It took Jardine three years -- from when he first entered the TUF house -- to get to that point but it took only three rounds for all of his work to come undone. "The Dean of Mean" achieved come success in the first round but soon the experience, technique and power of his opponent took over. Immediately after the fight, then-teammate Rashad Evans stepped inside the Octagon to challenge Jackson and in the ensuing brouhaha, Jardine was left in the shadows, an afterthought in the light heavyweight division.
Everyone cared about Evans/Jackson -- well, at least a million pay-per-view (PPV) buyers did over one year later -- but it didn't seem like anyone gave a second thought to a man who had defeated two champions -- one former and one future -- and had just taken a third to a decision. But Jardine doesn't seem to have the "it" factor and in a marketing sense isn't viewed as "sexy." The cold, hard truth is there's very little money to be made off a fighter like that. The only fighter who fits that description and has banked -- Fedor Emelianenko -- needed a flawless 10-year span to pull it off.
After the loss to "Rampage," Jardine's career began to free fall. Two knockout losses in a row to Thiago Silva and Ryan Bader put his Octagon future in doubt and the fourth and final loss to Hamill ensured his walking papers. In his first fight outside the UFC -- a bout with another UFC also-ran Trevor Prangley for the Shark Fights promotion -- Jardine suffered his fifth straight loss.
But just like any smart fighter should know, two or three wins on the regional MMA circuit and a willingness to jump into a bout on short notice can get almost any former UFC fighter back into the promotion. That's exactly what happened when Gegard Mousasi's original opponent in Mike Kyle fell to injury and "The Dean of Mean" stepped in a week before the event.
It was another typical performance from Jardine: grinding but ugly in which he took a highly regarded fighter and made him look terrible. A point deduction kept the Armenian from winning the fight and both men had to settle for a draw. Tonight, once again taking advantage of injury and Strikeforce's shallow roster, Jardine takes on Luke Rockhold in what will be the middleweight champion's first defense while also being Jardine's first dip into the 185-pound talent pool.
Jardine will turn 37-years old this year. Time is not on his side. A loss against Rockhold would cement the UFC veteran as a "good but not great" fighter, always within reach of the brass ring but never quite able to come away with it.
If he hopes to rewrite his legacy, it has to start tonight.