Fighting is the original sport, an animalistic connection between two humans -- eyes locked, arms out, circling before the pounce under the spell of something biological and deep. From ancient Roman gladiators to Oscar de la Hoya, fighting for sport has never gone out of fashion.

For the past decade in America, the discipline du jour has been mixed martial arts (MMA), an anything-goes form of combat that blends martial arts, boxing and wrestling to create matches made to mimic a real-world quarrel.

"It answers the age-old question of who can beat who, and what fighting style will win," said Eric Aasen, owner of the American School of Martial Arts in Savage.

Dubbed "human cockfighting" by opponents, MMA has for years struggled for legitimization. Early fights matched such improbable opponents as massive sumo wrestlers against lithe kickboxers. The sport's bloody, bare-knuckled duels, which took place in octagonal cages, appalled public figures as prominent as Sen. John McCain, who contacted state governors in 1996 in an attempt to stomp support.

Mixed martial arts is also called extreme fighting, no-holds-barred fighting and ultimate fighting, although Ultimate Fighting is actually the name of a leading MMA organization. The sport was banned from broadcast and vilified by state sports commissioners. New York outlawed the sport completely in 1997, with a district attorney in Brooklyn threatening assault charges for competitors if fights continued.

But the sport has matured in recent years, with new rules, imposed weight classes, and industry consolidation that has helped to standardize competition format. Government sports-sanctioning bodies now regulate mixed martial arts matches in many states, including Minnesota, which last summer passed a law to put MMA under the jurisdiction of the state's Boxing Commission.

All in the family?

The sport has also been embraced by a wider demographic. Now at area gyms, average Joes jab and kick alongside the thuggish Muay Thai masters and jujitsu provocateurs. Even families from the suburbs have jumped into the MMA mix.

"Minnesota produces top national competitors in the sport," said Aasen, who trains about 130 students out of converted warehouse space off Hwy. 13. "But there's a growing grass-roots movement of MMA students who don't compete, who do it for fitness and exercise."

Dan Ball, a 40-year-old Internet consultant from Prior Lake, is part of that recreational class of fighters. He signed up at the American School of Martial Arts four years ago to try something new. "There is no better mental and physical exercise than grappling and kickboxing," he said.

Ball's wife and two daughters, Lindsey and Ashley, ages 6 and 9, joined the gym to stay in shape and to learn coordination and self-defense. Adds Ball: "It gets the wiggles out of my kids, especially in the winter."

On the other end of the spectrum are people like Patrick Quinn. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound son of a professional boxer signed up at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy in Brooklyn Center to step into the world of competitive fighting.

"I'd been in my fair share of street fights as a kid," Quinn said. "I got my old man's left hook."

Quinn, 28, who owns a residential fencing company in Golden Valley, trains five to six days a week, up to three hours at a time.

"I want to be fighting by April," he said. "I'll start locally and build up from there to bigger venues."

Human Pez dispenser

At the American School of Martial Arts, Aasen has 15 active fighters in training, including Derek Abram, a 23-year-old competitor from Savage who spends more than 35 hours a week in the gym. Last month, on a frigid Tuesday evening, I joined Abram and 10 other students in an hourlong mixed martial arts class. Aasen led the session, which focused on grappling moves and close-range clinches.

I was paired with Austin Judge, a 28-year-old concrete worker and champion fighter at the gym. He moved in close and put up both fists, eyeing me on the mat as Aasen yelled out a drill.

But Judge promised to be gentle after I confessed my cluelessness. He smiled before wrapping two hands behind my neck, pulling down and "shucking" my head into a pinch.

"Don't be a Pez dispenser now," Aasen shouted from up front. "Keep your chin down."

As the big bodies kicked, grabbed and twisted around us, Judge showed me several basic Muay Thai moves, including the skip knee, the Thai clinch and a neck-tweaking hold called the guillotine. "You don't want to be here in a fight," Judge said, wrenching me helpless and immobile in a grip.

A half-hour into the session, I was sweating and sore, waiting desperately for the automated siren blasts that signaled the end of each training round. Judge and I switched off pulling moves and playing the submitter role.

The final practice move was something called the knee mount.

"This is a very dominating position," Aasen shouted, demonstrating the chest-crushing procedure on a volunteer.

"Be nice," I pleaded with Judge as he moved in.

For the next three minutes I flexed my abdominals and winced as he leaped back and forth above my supine frame. My gut felt squeezed, and it was hard to breathe.

"Just a little conditioning of the sternum here," he said, a knee coming down with each leap to rest solidly on my chest.

There are rules, sort of

Mixed martial arts is often cited as a modern-day incarnation of pankration, an ancient Greek sport of full-contact brawling that sometimes ended in death. Judge was holding back on the practice mat with me, landing with just a small bit of pressure to demonstrate brutal moves like the knee mount.

But in a fight there's no holding back. There are rules -- no eye gouging, no blows to the back of the head, no hooking loose flesh like a cheek to tear -- although most any combat move is legal.

I asked Judge, the father of five children, about the risks of a sport that requires such things as "conditioning of the sternum."

"You can handle it," he said. "The human body is strong and amazingly resilient."

On my back, under the pale lights of the gym in Savage, I told him I'd have to take his word on that one.

Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column