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UFC, Fox ready to put on a show at Garden

Chael Sonnen is the headliner for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 26 card at TD Garden.

josh Hedges/getty Images

Chael Sonnen is the headliner for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 26 card at TD Garden.

When UFC president Dana White was putting together the card for Fight Night 26 at TD Garden — the organization’s return to Boston for the first time in three years — he knew there would be a great deal riding on it.

White, a former South Boston resident with many ties to the area, not only was trying to impress the city, he also was launching the next phase in the growth of major-league mixed martial arts: a television partnership with Fox Sports 1.

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“When we put this card together, the one thing we knew was going to happen was we were going to lose money,’’ said White. “When you put a card like this on free TV, stacked with this many great fights, obviously, we’re launching a network. We wanted people to get excited about this thing. We wanted people to be pumped up.’’

Knowing that fans could stay home and watch on cable or satellite without purchasing a pay-per-view show, White wanted the card to be so dazzling that UFC fans would be clamoring for a seat at the Garden instead of sitting on their couches.

“We had to put together a card we knew would get people out of their homes to go see this thing live,’’ said White. “We want people to say, ‘I have to find Fox Sports 1, I have to find where this channel is.’ That’s what we were thinking when we put together this card.’’

The lineup, which features light heavyweights Chael Sonnen and Mauricio “Shogun’’ Rua in the main event, is an investment in the sport’s future as well as a partnership with the network.

Other matchups pit Alistair Overeem (36-12-0) against Travis Browne (14-1-1); Urijah Faber (28-6-0) vs. Iuri Alcantara (27-4-0); Matt Brown (19-11-0) vs. Mike Pyle (25-8-1); Uriah Hall (8-3-0) vs. John Howard; Bridgewater’s Joe Lauzon (22-8-0) vs. Michael Johnson (13-8-0); Brad Pickett (24-7-0) vs. Michael McDonald (15-2-0); Conor McGregor (13-2-0) vs. Max Holloway (7-2-0); Mike Brown (26-8-0) vs. Steve Siler (22-10-0); Diego Brandao (21-8-0) vs. Daniel Pineda (18-9-0); Manny Gamburyan (14-8-0) vs. Cole Miller (19-7-0); Cody Donovan (8-2-0) vs. Ovince Saint Preux (13-5-0); and Ramsey Nijem (8-3-0) vs. James Vick (4-0-0).

Former UFC fighter Kenny Florian, a native of Dover who fought on the inaugural Garden card in August 2010, will work the prefight and postfight shows from Los Angeles, where he has resided full time since January. Although he is disappointed not to be on hand, he predicts it is going to be a complete success.

“I’m very happy they are coming back to Boston,’’ said Florian. “The fans definitely deserve it.’’

Florian, who is part-owner of the Florian MMA gym in Brookline run by his brother, Keith, has watched as the sport has blossomed. It has meant a lot to him to be a local pioneer.

“I was at the ESPY [Awards] and someone came over to me and said, ‘You’re one of the guys who got me watching the sport. That made it somewhat acceptable to talk about the sport at work,’ ” said Florian.

“I thought about that, and it’s funny, because a lot of people got on board with the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ [during which Florian was on Chuck Liddell’s team]. It’s amazing because I always saw Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, and Oleg Taktarov as the original pioneers.

“It’s amazing to think that and to be a part of that. I never knew how fast and how big this sport would’ve been and it’s only going to [increase] more and more.’’

Even during his pro career, Florian served as a mentor and teacher to many up-and-coming fighters.

“It’s extremely important to me, it’s been a part of my life for a long time,’’ he said. “I never thought I was going to be a fighter. I thought I was going to be a coach. I wish I had someone who could show me the ropes. I had that [later].”

Florian, 37, continues to train, although it’s much different from when he was fighting in the UFC. His last bout was Oct. 8, 2011, a loss to Jose Aldo by unanimous decision.

Asked if he missed hitting people, Florian laughed.

“I absolutely do,’’ he said. “I still feel like I’m learning a tremendous amount. I’m training when I can. I’m training with the purpose as far as learning as much as possible.

“I’m really broadening my martial arts game because I’m able to kind of learn on my own time without any pressures or impending fights, so I’m getting better in a different way. I miss it like crazy, being able to test myself. As hard as it was, I miss it every single day.’’

Sonnen, who often shares the broadcast booth with Florian, said as his career has evolved, the UFC has changed dramatically since the early days.

“It’s totally different from a business standpoint,’’ he said. “It was a losing endeavor my first time through. I was there right at the change and you felt it. It has changed from your transportation and the size of the company.

“When Dana White took over as president, there were six employees, including him. Now, in the Las Vegas office as of two years ago, there were 183. As of last year, I think there are 250 employees just in Las Vegas.

“We’ve got offices all over the world. There are some huge opportunities now.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Elle1027.
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