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Enter the UFC’s Crossover Dragon

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Georges St-Pierre, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s welterweight king, strides into the Wat, a Thai-boxing gym in Chinatown, sounding like he’s just defied death, though not in the way that’s made him famous. “The driver was crazy,” he says. “There were three times where I thought I was going to die, but he brought me here faster, so it’s good.” St-Pierre, a Montreal native, comes to Manhattan to hone his skills in Brazilian jujitsu and Thai boxing—even though mixed martial arts is banned in New York. So he can’t fight here. But that probably won’t be true for much longer. Bloody, brutal, and, in its way, pure, the UFC has become big business—it sold for $2 million in 2001 and is now valued at over $1 billion—and the company’s lobbying efforts reportedly will succeed in legalizing the sport here soon. With the biggest media market sanctioning it, the UFC will go even more mainstream, and St-Pierre, 28, is poised to be its biggest brand.

The sport that John McCain once denounced as “human cockfighting” has won a rabid fan base if not respectability. The well-mannered St-Pierre (at least out of the ring—to win the welterweight title, he snapped a massive roundhouse kick into the side of the previous champ’s skull, then pummeled him in the face until the referee stopped the fight) is part of an effort to change that. In March, Gatorade announced that he’d appear in the Canadian version of its “G” commercial, calling him “golden, gutsy, and glorious.” He’s signed with CAA and is in two new kung fu–style movies: Never Surrender and Death Warrior.

On July 11, St-Pierre will defend his title against the Brazilian contender Thiago “Pitbull” Alves in Las Vegas (simulcast live at Radio City). At the Wat, preparing for the bout, he and sparring partner Sean Hinds circle each other in the ring. Hinds steps in and buries a few hard punches into St-Pierre’s flank. The champ answers with a combination that dislodges Hinds’s mouthguard. Hinds sticks out his tongue. St-Pierre cocks his right fist and unleashes a knockout cross. Just before making contact, his arm pulls up short, dropping harmlessly toward the floor. The champ breaks into a wide grin.

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