Josh Gross
Friday March 6th, 2009

On one hand, Keith Jardine is a terrible businessman. On the other, nearly everything the 33-year-old mixed martial artist does is geared with an eye toward the future, when fighting can no longer sustain him as it has over the past nine years.

For instance, there are circumstances regarding Saturday's bout between Jardine and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, which headlines UFC 96 in Columbus, Ohio, that don't make sense for an athlete in his position. That is, until those closest to Jardine (14-4-1), alternately and appropriately known as the "Dean of Mean," start talking.

The obvious storyline heading into the pay-per-view card centers on Jardine's refusal to fight Rashad Evans, even if the title shot were to be offered to Jardine. The current UFC light heavyweight champion is perhaps Jardine's nearest and dearest friend. They've said on the record -- and in opposition to their promoter, Dana White -- that a showdown won't happen even if results demand so. It seems, despite one man prospering while the other serves as a perpetual understudy, friendship is not worth fighting over.

"He competes with the end in mind and knows one day fighting is going to be over and all the cheers are going to stop," Evans said of Jardine, whom he befriended in 2005 during the second season of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. "What is he going to have after that? I think he chose to have close relationships that he forged through fighting, versus making some money that he may or may not have."

Close relationships forged through fighting would be the best way to describe Jardine's time spent at Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Before MMA, Jardine's résumé read like a cross section of genuinely American endeavors. He was -- and probably still is, in some respect -- a bounty hunter. Like his father, Keith was a miner. He coached football and was a wild land firefighter. This is the sort of man, said his manager John Madrid, sincerely comfortable with handshake deals and the notion of brotherhood.

"Everything I admire about him he still is," said Jackson, who called Jardine the mentally toughest fighter to cross his path.

"You would have to really dig to find something [negative about Jardine], maybe talk to a girlfriend 20 years back," the trainer continued. "That guy is like Josey Wales says, 'I rode with him and I got no complaints.'"

To hear Evans, Madrid and Jackson, Jardine is a man of few faults and many interests. Art-house films send the 6-foot-2, 205-pound bald-headed light heavyweight's mind in motion, as do the books he regularly carries with him. Old ghost towns and mining communities are utterly compelling to the man from Butte, Montana, and another point of interest he shares with his trainer.

"He's so unassuming, but he's always looking at something intellectual or trying to better himself," Evans said.

Perhaps it would have been easy by looking at him to presume what makes Jardine tick. But Jackson didn't when the stout fighter first walked through his doors.

"It might take you a minute to get there," Jackson said, "but once you're his friend, you're his friend."

Cornering Jardine over the course of his career, Jackson has come to appreciate the Dean of Mean's tenacity and grit. To this day, he remains in awe of Jardine after watching him cut 15 pounds, rehydrate and will his way to a victory in Japan, all within an hour's time. And for as much as he's tried, Jackson has yet to see or make Jardine break, be it in the gym or the 11,000-foot "hill" they traverse in summer's heat or waist-deep snow.

All of it adds up to Jardine being one of the roughest customers in his division, something Evans knows well having sparred hundreds of rounds with him over the years.

"When (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva calls and says you have Keith Jardine," Evans laughed, "you just go 'oh man.'"

Against Rampage (29-7), Jardine faces his third opponent with credentials as UFC light heavyweight champion (Forrest Griffin earned the distinction later in his career). Having knocked out Griffin and out-pointed Chuck Liddell, Jardine and his camp are not at all deterred fighting someone of Rampage's caliber.

In fact, said Madrid, bouts like these give Jardine a sense of purpose to his MMA career, particularly with his close friend sitting atop the division. When Jardine goes through his routine Saturday night, transforming from the man loved as a friend to the one respected for his tenacity and integrity, it's like seeing the light heavyweight portal to an alternate dimension, Evans said.

His eyes bug out. He's aggravated. He yells.

"That nickname suits him better than his real name," Evans said. "But for some reason, as mean as he looks, my 2-year-old loves him."

Kids know best of course, though Jardine is not without his shortcomings as a fighter.

In his second-to-last bout, against Wanderlei Silva, Jardine was rudely disposed of with a vicious knockout in just 36 seconds. This came two fights after suffering an equally brutal fate versus Houston Alexander. But true to his nature, Jardine recovered from both setbacks, setting himself up for what would be an enormous victory over Liddell, the kind that could help define his career even if it never means having fought for a championship in the UFC.

Bad for business, good for friendship. That is a trade Keith Jardine has already made.

MORE UFC 96:

FOWLKES: Regardless of outcome, UFC 96 has a lot at stake

CONTENDERS: Evans' next foe narrowed to two

GROSS: Predictions for UFC 96, Dream 7

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