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Keith Jardine: UFC 96 Will Show I've Stepped Up to the Next Level

Keith Jardine is getting ready for what may be the biggest fight of his MMA career when he takes on Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 96 on March 7, and when I talked to him on Tuesday he sounded focused and confident about what lies ahead of him.

He also said he already considers himself among the top light heavyweights in the world, and he thinks beating Rampage would only cement that status. But he said fighting for the UFC light heavyweight title doesn't appeal to him -- at least as long as his close friend Rashad Evans is the champ. The full interview is below.

Michael David Smith: When I look at the stylistic matchup between you and Rampage, I think the advantage you have is that you can use kicks effectively to pick him apart from distance, whereas the advantage Rampage has is his punching power. Do you think that's true?
Keith Jardine: I don't know, we'll see who has the better punching power. He's put a lot of guys to sleep, but I've done pretty well myself, so we'll see about that. I look forward to finding out. I'm not ready to concede that he has better punching power.

So you think if you and Rampage are exchanging strikes, you can come out of that exchange ahead?
Absolutely.

If you were to beat Rampage, where do you think that would put you among all the UFC light heavyweights?
If I beat Quinton I think it keeps me where I am right now, which is in the top five, or around there. I'm not really worried about that, but I suppose beating him would keep me where I am right now or move me up a little bit.

Would your friendship with Rashad Evans prevent you from fighting him for the title?
Absolutely.

Well, let's say you beat Rampage, and then, just talking hypotheticals, maybe you beat the Chuck Liddell-Shogun Rua winner, and Rashad goes on a run, maybe he beats Lyoto Machida and keeps defending his title a couple more times after that, you win a few more fights, and you two establish yourselves as the top two light heavyweights, and Dana White, Joe Silva and Lorenzo Fertitta all sit you down and say they want you to fight Rashad for the title. You'd tell them no?
You know, a lot of things would have to happen for that to take place. That's a great problem to have. I hope that happens. We'll see what happens then. That'd be a great problem to have.

Have you been training with Rashad this week?
Oh, yeah. He's been here (at trainer Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque) the last few weeks, beating me up pretty good.

What kinds of things do you work with together?
Everything. Wrestling. Kickboxing. Rashad, Nate Marquardt and Joey Villasenor, we're all training partners.

Think back to when you fought Rashad in the Ultimate Fighter house. If I had told you at the time that within three or four years, you'd both have wins over Chuck Liddell on your record, what do you think you would have said?
You know, I've always been real confident. That wouldnt' have been outside the realm of possibility. I wouldn't have been too surprised, to tell you the truth.

After you fought Wanderlei Silva at UFC 84, the athletic commission reported your purse as $10,000, and a lot of people were saying that the UFC wasn't paying you enough. Are you satisfied with your contract, and do you think you deserve to get paid more?
That was the contract I signed at the time, and because I signed the contract, I wasn't going to complain that I wasn't getting paid more. But Dana White has given me bonuses besides that, and after that fight we renegotiated, and I got a better contract than that. I'm making a fine living right now. I'm pretty lucky. I geta lot of money to do what I love to do.

I think you had about 10 pro fights under your belt before you were on The Ultimate Fighter. What kind of money were you making back then?
Oh, I was happy to make a couple thousand a fight. That was big then. My first fight I think I made $200. So I can't complain.

Are you motivated by money?
You've got to separate money from fighting. If money is motivating you to fight, then you're not fighting with your heart, for the love of fighting. On the other hand, money is important. I'm over 30 now and I've made the commitment to fighting for my career, and I would like to retire some day so money is important for that reason. But when you're walking into practice, or when you're going into the Octagon for the fight you can't have money be the reason.

I talked to your friend Nate Marquardt last week and he said something similar, that if you're fighting for money you're fighting for the wrong reason. Is that something you guys have talked about?

Yeah, we've all been struggling before, not making money. And there was never any guarantee that we'd make any money doing what we're doing. We were just doing it for the love of it and the hope that some day down the line we'd be able to make a living. If I was taking fights just to get paid, I don't think my heart would be in it.

Back when you were fighting MMA fights just for the love, how did you first get into the sport?
I saw the first UFCs when I was playing Division II college football (at New Mexico-Highlands) and I was coaching for a couple years, and after my football days I found Greg Jackson's gym and started training.

Did you have any favorite fighters from the early days of UFC? Ken Shamrock or Royce Gracie?
No, I never really looked up to fighters when I was just a fan. Although I did look up to BJ Penn when I was first trying a jiu jitsu tournament because he was the big jiu jitsu guy. And Randy Couture, I admire, of course.

And you've gotten to know them personally now?
Yeah, and they're all great people. I'm disappointed in what happened with Georges St. Pierre and B.J., but I don't really know the whole story, what's really going on there, so I'm kind of withholding judgment on that.

Who do you think is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world?
You'd have to say Georges right now. He just has all the skills. His kickboxing, his wrestling -- he's the best wrestler in the sport. He's a great athlete. But a guy to look out for is Nate Marquardt. He's really similar to Georges. He's an incredible athlete, very well rounded. He's probably one of the best boxers and one of the best wrestlers. He's a real up-and-coming force.

So you think Nate Marquardt could be in the conversation of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound?
Oh, yeah. No question.

He certainly looked good on Saturday at UFC 95.
He just keeps getting better. I keep thinking there's no room for improvement but he keeps finding ways.

Do you have any particular goals you've set for yourself?
Not really. It's hard to set goals right now because I've got a big fight in a week and a half. I don't want to look past that. Right now I love what I'm doing. I hope I have a much longer career.

With a week and a half to go before the fight, are you going to have any trouble getting down to 205 or 206 pounds?
It's different every fight. This fight it's looking like it's going to be a little bit difficult. But it's nothing I'm worried about. The final two weeks is just finishing up the game plan.Training at the hardest pace is behind me and I'm just trying to have fun and enjoy it.

In developing that game plan, have you watched a lot of Rampage's previous fights?
I watch a lot of film, but how he matches up with someone else doesn't mean he matches up with me the same way.

If things go right for you next Saturday, what will people be saying about you on Sunday?
What I hope for is that everyone will say that I've stepped up to the next level. There's a lot that I haven't shown -- a lot of skills I haven't shown yet. I think people are going to see me do well.