01/04/2012 05:56 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Keith Jardine looks to pick up title as he returns to MMA spotlight

Keith (The Dean of Mean) Jardine, who headlined UFC 96 and holds a win over Chuck (The Iceman) Liddell, saw how the other half lived after he was cut by the UFC.

The veteran mixed martial arts fighter said he hit rock-bottom in December 2010 when he beat Francisco France before 100 people in the Dominican Republic.

"It was incredible," Jardine said. "Man, no timekeepers, no proper rounds. When the fight started, we walked in and it was just a disaster.

"It would make a good movie, I tell you that."

Jardine, an avid film-goer who has had small roles in movies from "Gamer" to "Crank: High Voltage," returns to the spotlight Saturday night some 18 months after being released by the UFC in the wake of his fourth straight loss and sixth in eight fights.

The 36-year-old Jardine (16-10-2) makes his debut at middleweight with a title on the line as he challenges Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold (8-1) in Las Vegas.

"Wait until you see the fight," said Jardine. "You're going to see a different Keith Jardine."

It's the first title defence for the 27-year-old Rockhold since he won a decision over Ronaldo (Jacare) Souza to win the 185-pound Strikeforce championship in September.

And it's a new beginning for Jardine, who is 2-1-1 since being released by the UFC in June 2010.

"It's a great feeling. I'm loving being back here in Vegas, fighting at the Hard Rock (Hotel & Casino) — that's where I started my UFC career after the TUF (Season 2 of 'The Ultimate Fighter'). It just seems like it's all meant to be here."

Jardine moved down from heavyweight to light-heavyweight after the reality TV show and won five of his first seven UFC fights, defeating both Liddell and Forrest Griffin.

His herky-jerky style made the former wildland firefighter, miner and bounty hunter a tough nut to crack. He punished Liddell with leg kicks at UFC 76, leaving the former champion's torso looking like a blowtorch had been applied to it.

But for every big win, there was a big loss.

Houston Alexander stopped him in 48 seconds while Wanderlei (The Axe Murderer) Silva need just 36 to knock him cold.

And consecutive losses to Jackson, Thiago Silva, Ryan (Darth) Bader and Matt (The Hammer) Hamill signalled the end of his UFC career,

"I felt like I fell into sort of a rut there in my last few fights in the UFC," Jardine said. "I was kind of banging my head against the wall. I was training hard, too hard sometimes. I just fell into the same patterns.

"I think maybe it was almost a blessing that they let me go and I got to wok on my game and work on new stuff, drop my weight and everything.

"I feel like I'm a new person now, starting a whole new career here and I'm blessed to have the title shot in my first fight at middleweight."

Jardine acknowledges there were times when he was less than positive after being cut by the UFC.

"I was down but you've got to look at yourself. I'm a very fortunate guy to be able to be fighting for a living. With our economy and everything right now, people have a much worse go of it so I try to stay positive."

Jardine was so eager to get back under the Zuffa banner — the UFC also owns Strikeforce — that he took his last fight against Gegard Mousasi on eight days notice.

"I've never been so tired in my life," said Jardine. "I'm very proud of that fight just because I made it through that."

He still managed a draw in a gruelling fight that saw him emerge looking like he had been in a car crash.

"I was a little bloodied up," he said with a laugh. "But that just happens to me. Unfortunately it doesn't go well for the judges. But I think I start bleeding before I get in the cage sometimes."

Jardine believes his experience could be key Saturday.

He had 17 fights under his belt by the time Rockhold made his pro debut in July 2007.

"Most of my fights have been main event, co-main event. I've been here so many times. I've fought the best in the world, I've fought so many champions. And now finally I get to fight for the belt. It's really a dream come true for me."

Jardine, who started his weight cut at 215 pounds, says he has faith that diet guru Mike Dolce will help him get down to middleweight without affecting his game.

A motorcycle aficionado, Jardine has also taken up biking to help stay in shape.

On Saturday's undercard, Canadian welterweight Jordan (Young Gun) Mein (23-7) fights welterweight Tyron Woodley (9-0). The 21-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alta., won his Strikeforce debut in September, stopping Evangelista Santos by third-round TKO.

In other action, former middleweight champion (Ruthless) Robbie Lawler (18-8 with one no contest) takes on Adlan Amagov (9-1-1) and former light-heavyweight title-holder (King) Mo Lawal (8-1) faces Lorenz Larkin (12-0).