QUEENS — It's a very popular, very profitable sport worldwide, but mixed martial arts, or MMA, is illegal in New York state.
Legislators, judges and fans of the sport are trying to figure out the reason for New York's MMA ban as they prepare for a potentially intense legal challenge to it, and for a controversial tournament that's currently being planned in the world's most famous arena.
There are thousands of American athletes who practice MMA, including hundreds of men, women and children at Progressive Martial Arts in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
Its owner and sifu, or master teacher, Nick Sacoulas, trained under a protege of martial arts master Bruce Lee. He called MMA a fitness regimen, with origins in ancient Greece, that combines sports like wrestling, jiu jitsu and boxing into a disciplined, healthful practice.
"Just like I've run a successful academy for 20 years," Sacoulas told PIX11 News. "We have rules and regulations to keep you safe. MMA does that as well."
The sport, he said, has come a long way from its modern, Western Hemisphere roots in Brazil, where at one time it was known as human cockfighting.
Still, the difference between MMA at a training gym and in the bright lights of an arena with thousands of spectators is stark. Some critics call the presence of the sport in the professional realm brutal.
"This is, in my humble opinion, not a sport," said State Assembly Member Deborah Glick, (D) West Greenwich Village/Chelsea. Glick is one of the main reasons professional MMA is legal everywhere in North America except New York.
She said that injuries happen in a variety of professional sports, as hazards to the various games, but in MMA, she said, "The point is to make your opponent hurt themselves."
For that reason, Glick has succeeded with every opportunity to ensure that a 1997 state law banning combat-oriented sports like MMA not be overturned.
Now, because the New York legislature won't legalize the sport, its professional governing body, Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is taking action into its own hands.
First, it filed a lawsuit against the state.
"It was just recently dismissed," said Huffington Post legal analyst Amy Dardashtian.
Dardashtian said that the judge in the case dismissed it flatly on all points but one, involving a claim that New York had prevented the UFC from doing business.
The judge ended up making a recommendation to the plaintiff, the UFC.
"She suggested," said Dardashtian, "'Do business in New York, [then] re-file your suit."
That's why the UFC recently booked an MMA event for next spring at Madison Square Garden, despite MMA being illegal in New York, which could potentially become the country's largest market for MMA.
"If they plan this event for April, which they have," Dardashtian told PIX11 News, and if the State of New York contests it, "the judge will have to hear this lawsuit."
That is the clear intention of the UFC. It is officially organizing the event in alliance with the National Kickboxing Association, which is permitted to legally operate professional matches in New York. However, if any MMA activity is expected to happen or happens at the MSG event, a lawsuit is all but certain.
Dardashtian, the legal analyst, said that she would most likely rule in the organization's favor because the judge in the case had first suggested the course of action that the UFC has already taken.