ENTER THE DRAGON that's devouring boxing.

"You know who the grandfather of mixed martial arts is? Bruce Lee," Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, was saying of the incredible growth spurt of mixed martial arts.

"Let me tell you how the original UFC started. A bunch of television guys got together in 1993 and said, 'Let's answer the age-old question of which fighting style is the best. Would a boxer beat a wrestler? Would a kung fu guy beat a karate guy?' So they put all these styles together in what was supposed to be a one-time-only, pay-per-view event to answer that question.

"But it did so well, they ended up doing another, and another, and another. What they didn't realize is that they were creating a sport. Because the answer to that age-old question is, no one fighting style is the best. You need a little piece of everything to be a complete fighter. That's what Bruce Lee was preaching back in the '60s. He was just ahead of his time."

The mixed-martial-arts athlete Lee espoused is getting closer to mainstream acceptance every day. Showtime already has televised MMA, and HBO has announced it will do its first UFC show this summer. After UFC 69 in Houston earlier this month, ESPN's "SportsCenter" ran a highlight tape, another first.

Plans call for expansion into Europe. UFC announced yesterday that its first-ever event in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is scheduled for June 16.

UFC also recently purchased Pride Fighting Championships - its biggest rival - in hopes of arranging megafights between the two groups' top stars, expected to garner huge pay-per-view audiences.

Marc Ratner, the vice president of regulatory affairs for the UFC, noted that the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission recently gave its seal of approval to mixed martial arts and, he said, the hope is that UFC before the end of the year will do a show in Philadelphia or in Pittsburgh.

Mixing and matching is hardly a unique concept. The Ironman Triathlon was first staged in Hawaii in 1978 as the result of an ongoing debate among premier swimmers, runners and cyclists as to which athletic discipline required the highest level of physical fitness. To answer that question, U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Collins devised a torturous competition that consisted of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile marathon. In the 29 years since the first Ironman competition, the term "triathlete" has become a part of our sporting lexicon.

Except that the popularity of triathlons has not increased so much that the hybrid sport is a threat to put the Tour de France and Boston Marathon out of business. UFC, on the other hand, is pressing boxing hard for the upper hand in an increasingly crowded field of what is now euphemistically known as "combat sports."

In a manner of speaking, Lee, the late Chinese-American martial artist whose action films made him a cult hero around the world, begat such chop-socky movie heroes as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who in turn begat Chuck "the Iceman" Liddell.

Liddell, 37, is the UFC light-heavyweight champion (205 pounds) whose runaway popularity suggests Pink Floyd more than Floyd Mayweather. He is the reigning king of UFC's younger demographic, a veritable rock star whose fan base probably exceeds that of every boxer, with the possible exception of Oscar De La Hoya. But even the "Golden Boy's" global appeal might not eclipse that of Liddell, as least with young people.

"I can go to any high school in America where they have a wrestling team and I can guarantee that Chuck Liddell would draw a bigger crowd than Floyd Mayweather," says Ratner, the much-respected former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who raised eyebrows when he left that post after 13 years for the UFC in March 2006. "A lot of kids wouldn't even know who Floyd is. Some of them might not even know Oscar, but they all would know Chuck Liddell."

Says Liddell of the recognition: "It's a little strange . . . different. But it shows that people like our sport."

Joe Hand Jr., who with his father has been the Delaware Valley's primary distributor of closed-circuit and pay-per-view events for nearly 3 decades, said UFC already has eclipsed boxing as must-see TV in this area.

"It has for us, by a lot," Hand said when asked whether UFC has leapfrogged over boxing. "I've worked with my dad for 27 years and I've never seen anything like it. We've had other sports, or forms of entertainment, that have been popular, like WWE. But nothing has compared, on a consistent basis, to what the UFC is doing now. It's unbelievable.

"What I'm finding now is that the core group of fans for UFC is from 18 to 35 years of age. Boxing fans, for the most part, skew older. The kids are very passionate about UFC. They attend live shows, they buy it on pay-per-view, they watch it on Spike TV. We really haven't had that kind of enthusiasm for boxing in a while."

With the May 5 megafight between pound-for-pound king Mayweather (37-0, 34 KOs) and WBC super welterweight champion De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KOs) fast approaching, it almost seems as if boxing's biggest event in years is not so much competing against the success of heralded boxing matches in the past as against the MMA interlopers. And why not? Hand said there will be "more eyeballs" watching UFC 70 tomorrow night, which will be televised back to the United States from Manchester, England, via Spike TV, than are likely to see De La Hoya-Mayweather on HBO pay-per-view for the pricey subscription fee of $54.95.

Spike TV is available on most basic cable systems, making UFC 70 free, or as close to as it ever gets these days.

"If UFC was a stock and we were charting it on a graph, if you went back to when they made the deal with Spike TV, that is when that stock started to rise off the charts," Hand says. "They put their product out there for mass consumption. That started the rocket-ship ride that UFC is on right now."

So apparently threatened by UFC's rise is Mayweather that it sometimes appears he would prefer to mix it up, at least verbally, with White and Liddell more than with De La Hoya.

"UFC ain't bleep," Mayweather said a few weeks ago, with no apparent provocation. "It ain't but a fad. Anyone can put a tattoo on their head and get into a street fight.

"We should put Liddell against a good heavyweight and if Chuck wins, then I'll give him a million dollars out of my own pocket. These are guys who couldn't make it in boxing. Boxing is the best sport in the world and it's here to stay."

Considering the growth of the sport, Liddell can afford to keep any emotion out of his response to that challenge.

"I laugh it off," he says. "It's no big deal. That's what he thinks. A lot of people think otherwise."

White, who with Nevada casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the financially strapped and controversy-plagued UFC in 2001, refuses to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Mayweather. He is a lifelong boxing fan whose mission is not to eradicate the more tradition-encrusted sport.

"There's a place in the market for boxing and a place for us," White says. "It's like comparing apples and oranges. Just because you like mixed martial arts doesn't mean you're precluded from liking boxing. I was - am - a huge boxing fan. I used to box. It's what I still do for a workout. I know a lot of times I come off as a guy who bashes boxing, but I love it. But how I built my business is by using boxing as a road map of what not to do.

"Floyd's talking a bunch of trash about us, but I'm going to watch De La Hoya-Mayweather. I think it's an interesting fight. Interesting fights still pop up in boxing that capture people's imagination."

White's fascination with boxing, at least the professional variety, comes with a caveat, however.

"A lot of people in boxing have sucked the life out of it," he says. "Its fans are tired of the politics, the b.s. The guys who have controlled boxing for the last 35 or 40 years, mostly [Don] King and [Bob] Arum, have done nothing to secure the future of their sport. It's been about how much money can I put in my pocket right here, right now."

When White and the Fertittas purchased UFC for the seemingly rock-bottom price of $2 million, their wisdom in acquiring the franchise was questioned. UFC had previously marketed itself as "no holds barred" and "anything goes," prompting Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to denounce it as "human cockfighting." McCain went so far as to call for the abolition of mixed martial arts, which seemed a more likely outcome than a growth cycle, given the fact that few states sanctioned what many believed to be a gratuitously violent enterprise.

A reform initiative was launched that included a meeting with Larry Hazzard, head of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, in July 2000, at which time Hazzard outlined rules modifications that would make UFC more palatable to nervous pols.

"The unified rules now in place were hammered out at that meeting," Ratner says. "If that hadn't happened, I know Nevada never would have approved the UFC doing events there. The format for the UFC shows was still going to be fast-paced and exciting, but what few loose rules there were became more structured and formalized."

Goodbye to knees to the groin, eye-gouging, hair-pulling, rabbit-punching, throat-punching and head-kicking. Hello to, well, what true martial artists such as Bruce Lee considered a spiritual calling.

At a typical UFC event now, such fighting disciplines as kung fu, karate, taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kempo, Greco-Roman wrestling, aikido and tang soo do are apt to be on display, sometimes all in the same match. Not to mention the good, old-fashioned right cross to the jaw.

"Boxers are good at boxing," White says. "Our guys are good at everything."

But it's not just the combatants' versatility at the root of UFC's exploding popularity. It's intelligent marketing that draws on that most basic tenet of American commerce, the free sample.

In January 2005, when the UFC honchos approached Spike TV with an offer to pay for the $10 million production costs themselves, mixed martial arts found the easy-access outlet that brought it to the masses.

"With pay-per-view, everybody in boxing got greedy," White says. "You didn't see many good fights on free television or basic cable anymore.

"One of the things I made sure I didn't do with UFC was to block great fights from reaching a wider audience. I looked at the boxing model, I dissected it and made a point to eliminate everything that was wrong.

"Look, I could beam UFC 70 back to the U.S. on pay-per-view, as most of our big shows are, and we'd do great numbers. We'd make a lot of money. But what does it do for the future of our sport? You can't just take all the money and stuff it in your pocket. You have to reinvest in your product to grow it. We're going to do six shows in the United Kingdom this year. We're expanding into Europe, Asia, Australia."

UFC's expansion plans included the acquisition last month of Japan-based Pride, for a reported $70 million.

"This is really going to change the face of MMA," Lorenzo Fertitta said when the deal was announced. "We are literally creating a sport that could be as big around the world as soccer."

So, who does win between a skilled boxer and a skilled martial artist?

"It depends on which set of rules you're following - boxing's or the UFC's," Ratner says. "A good boxer, if he doesn't land that first shot and gets taken down, he has no chance against the UFC guys. They get him to submit in a matter of seconds.

"But this really is not about which sport is better. They both have something to offer, and I think each can learn from the other." *