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A few minutes after pulling into the dusty parking lot of a huge barn just outside Goodyear, Raimondo Fontana puts down the tailgate on his ancient Ford pickup and starts checking his roosters. He has brought four of them for tonight's derby, two red ones and two blacks, and darting heads and anxious clucking indicate that none enjoyed the ride out from South Phoenix. The birds are kept in small, separate pens in the truck (if they were held together, they would kill each other during the trip). Fontana takes out one of the blacks and busily sets about grooming him, swabbing him with rubbing alcohol and smoothing his feathers. The feathered guy seems to enjoy the attention, quickly settling down and holding still.
This bird has the body of what cockfighters call "a good hitter." As he stands, his legs are straight up and down in line with his chest. If the legs were tilted forward, as they are on some roosters, he would be called "dry-heeled." Dry-heeled birds are not as well-balanced and cannot strike as powerfully or fight as well.
The black rooster bears a scar on his head from an earlier fight; it's about two inches long, beginning behind his left eye and crossing over his beak, to the other side of his face. Fontana says the wound was stitched up by a "chicken doctor," a man present at cockfights who uses needles and thread to repair nonlethal wounds the birds receive.
Once the black rooster is cleaned up, Fontana performs a similar ritual on each of the others. When all are clean and safely put away in their cages, he opens a large, yellow fishing-tackle box to check his equipment. Spreading a piece of flannel cloth on the tailgate, he empties the box's contents: about a dozen long pieces of leather string, two rolls of black electrical tape, more rubbing alcohol, a couple of sponges, some razor blades and a pocketknife. Then he sets down a small, black, lacquered box with a picture of two brightly colored fighting roosters inlaid in the top.
Opening the box reveals several blue-velvet bags with gold drawstrings. Inside the bags are sheathed steel blades, each about two and a half inches long. They resemble blades of farmers' scythes. These are the knives Fontana will fasten to the backs of his roosters' legs before they are pitted against other cocks. About 200 people are gathered here tonight to watch nearly 100 birds fight--most of them to the death.
Cockfighting may be the world's oldest spectator sport. Archaeologists say it began in Malaysia about 1000 B.C., when brightly colored jungle fowl were brought home by explorers returning from Africa. The birds had a natural disposition to fight over hens and territory, and the Malaysians quickly organized contests between them. From there, the activity spread to India, Persia and eastern Europe.
Ancient Greek art often depicts Ares, the god of war, in the company of fighting cocks. By the time cockfighting became a major pastime in the Roman Empire, it had come to symbolize not just bravery, but sexual potency, as well. Eros, the Roman god of erotic love, is often pictured with gamecocks, and ancient Latin texts indicate that cockfights were often staged as preludes to orgies.
It was in Europe, after the fall of the Romans, that cockfighting enjoyed the height of its popularity. It was a common pastime for royalty and commoners alike during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when the "English style" of fighting, in which the bird's natural "spur" is cut off and replaced with a spike, was developed. The sport was banned in England in 1849, but is still widely (if surreptitiously) practiced there today.
Fights in which the roosters have knives fitted to their legs are most common in Asia and Latin America. Cockfighting is the national sport of Puerto Rico, and is still rabidly enjoyed by fans in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.
Fans proudly say cockfighting in the United States is as old as the country--older, even. It began in the 1600s, and by the time of the Boston Tea Party, the sport had already been passed down through two generations.
It is a long-held belief among cockers that, when not busy leading shoeless troops at Valley Forge or penning the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson bred game fowl, often traveling to each other's homes to fight them. That claim is roundly dismissed by most biographers of the two presidents.
Andrew Jackson, however, often held cockfights at the White House, and took his share of abuse for it in the press, even then. Cockers contend that Honest Abe Lincoln got his nickname because of the integrity he displayed judging Illinois cockfights. Actually, Lincoln only attended one or two fights in his life, and was one of the leading animal-welfare voices of his day.
Historical infobits about cockfighting presidents and other notables regularly are tossed around in legislative chambers by cockfighters defending their sport against attempts to ban it in the few states where it remains legal.
In response, animal-rights activists say that the Founding Fathers also owned slaves and employed child labor, and that the time for Americans to enjoy the sight of two animals ripping each other to shreds is long past.