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Keith Jardine’s journey from the UFC octagon to the director’s chair

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Keith Jardine never used to get nervous much, not even when he was about to face the most brutal, bombastic and fearsome punchers in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Yet a man who stepped into the octagon with the likes of Chuck Liddell (he won), Forrest Griffin (also won) and Rampage Jackson (lost) has plenty of butterflies these days, not that he’s complaining.

“For all the things you can try to control with movies,” Jardine told me in a recent phone conversation, “there’s always a big punch that can land on you.”

Currently, Jardine is embarking upon the latest chapter of a career far away from the world of fighting. Having successfully transitioned into a life of acting at the end of his years in mixed martial arts, he’s now seeking to take his most ambitious step yet and become a leading film director.

Jardine, 45, recently wrapped filming on a small budget neo-noir 25-minute short titled “El Paso 11:55” in which he had to do “basically everything” and where factors like sunset and sunrise times were enough to set him on edge.

With a hoped-for release date of September, the initial goal is to get the film shown at South by Southwest and Sundance, to grab the attention of both investors and the industry’s major players.

“I built all the sets with Cowboy. I wrote, produced, acted, directed, helped with the edit,” Jardine said. “It is a lot of pressure but I absolutely love it.”

“Cowboy” is Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, one of the most experienced and beloved fighters in UFC history. Cerrone is a natural entertainer and an exceedingly proficient handyman. The pair worked for a week building sets, including turning a disused Subway store into a replica bus station, seeing Jardine’s creative vision come into effect.

As the plot was set at night, the filming schedule would begin when the sun went down and would end at first light.

“We got chased out by the sun every morning,” Jardine said.

Cerrone also has strong acting chops, according to Jardine, who was able to land an impressive cast including Hollywood regular Brendan Fehr and fighter-turned-actor Tait Fletcher, who recently appeared in Disney’s “The Mandalorian.”

Perhaps the reason Jardine has taken seamlessly to filmmaking can be found in the way he talks about the film profession, in which, like many fighters, he got his break thanks to stunt work.

He fought during some heady years in the UFC, at a time in the mid-2000s when MMA stars were becoming genuine crossover celebrities. At the end of it – his last UFC fight was in 2010 and last fight anywhere was with Strikeforce in 2012 – movies provided a whole new challenge.

“I wanted to learn the profession, show it respect, pay my dues,” Jardine said. “There are some similarities to fighting in that way. If you have a bit of a name it might get you a couple of roles, or a couple of fights, but you’ve got to put the work in and back it up.”

Yet Jardine can’t leave combat sports behind altogether and his connection to it is as personal as it gets. His fiancée, Jodie Esquibel, will fight Liz Tracy on the main card of Invicta FC 44, the female-only fight company’s latest pay-per-view show.

COVID restrictions mean there is no full corner, so it will just be Jardine and a cutman backing up Esquibel, who is back with Invicta after a stint with the UFC.

“When it is someone close to you it is hard, harder than fighting yourself in some ways,” Jardine said. “I always ask Jodie if she wants someone else in the corner, but she always wants me there.”

Pulling double duty has led to a frenetic schedule. Recently, a typical day has involved working out Esquibel in the morning, heading to a coffee shop to write new scripts in the afternoon and hours of providing editing backup in the evening.

“I’m busier now than I’ve ever been,” Jardine added. “But I’m fortunate. I didn’t want MMA to be the only thing I did and then just kind of drift away.

“Movies are a different world, but I’ll fight just as hard to try to be successful.”

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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