BLOOD SPORT

COCKFIGHTING IS ILLEGAL IN 46 STATES. SIXTEEN OF THEM CONSIDER THE PRACTICE A FELONY. IN ARIZONA, IT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

As Fontana sets the bird down on the ground and grabs his tail feathers, preparing to release him again, the wounded wing juts away from his body unnaturally. But the bird seems no less eager to fight.

On release, the black bird quickly gets the upper hand, pinning Fontana's rooster down on his stomach and slashing at him with one leg, then pecking at his face. Unless an eye is hit, such pecking rarely does much damage. The red's left wing is wounded again, and then the black sticks a knife into the red bird's back.

Despite the speed with which the action takes place, the crowd is quick to recognize significant blows. This one is more than significant. By the way the red slumps in his handler's hands as the two birds are again pulled apart, the crowd can see that the red has been "uncoupled," meaning that the knife has hit a large nerve that runs down the center of the chicken's back.

Such a blow is similar to a spinal-cord injury, and causes at least temporary paralysis.

When asked why they have not succeeded in outlawing cockfights in Arizona, animal-rights activists point to one man--Belton Hodges.

It is not as if Hodges wants to convert the masses to cockfighting. Unlike animal-rights fanatics, he says, cockers are not hell-bent on expanding their ranks or forcing their views on anybody. They just want to be left alone to enjoy an activity most of them were raised with.

Hodges, 75, doesn't remember the first cockfight he ever attended, but he is sure he was small enough that his mother had to carry him. He has a soft voice and a gift for the kind of homespun epigrams usually found in Louis L'Amour novels. He can recount enough fond memories of the years he has spent raising and fighting roosters to talk all day. He says it is how he met some of the best people he has ever known.

The network of cockfighters in this country is surprisingly tightly knit. Three national magazines carry advertising and editorial content designed to appeal to cockfighters. In those pages, one can find reference after reference to "animal crazies" and "vegetarian fanatics" and their efforts to outlaw the sport everywhere.

Hodges himself has contributed to such magazines; reading them gives substantial insight into cockfighting and the culture surrounding it. Writers recall spending the night at a fellow cocker's home, where they were treated to huge plates of biscuits and gravy for breakfast. In fact, having friends to stay with in every state is one of the first proud claims many cockfighters, including Hodges, make when talking about their sport.

Hodges keeps some birds at his home. The bulk, however, are kept at a farm he owns just for that purpose. There, the roosters are kept in pens made from plastic barrels, arranged between long rows of pistachio trees. There are also several brood houses made of chicken wire and pipe.

He "knows" each of the 80 or 90 chickens there (they are fed and watered twice a day), and can point to the ones he has fought. "That one I've fought a couple times," he says, pointing to a red with beautiful blue and purple plumage. When asked how the bird did, his answer is short and sweet.

"Well, he's here."
Despite his folksy manner and plainspokenness, however, Hodges is no backwoods rube. Years as a Phoenix Democratic Committeeman have left him extremely accomplished at the black art of politics. He is the kind of Arizona old-timer who knows not just everybody, but everybody's parents, as well. Time after time, he has used long-standing personal connections to torpedo legislation that might endanger his hobby.

"I know I just look like some old man," he says. "But I'm not stupid."
Of notable Arizona cockfighters, he is also the most media-savvy. He has been interviewed often enough that in certain circles, his signature sound bite ("I'm just like everybody else, except I like to watch two roosters fight") can be recited from memory. Other cockers tend to harangue reporters; one once told a television interviewer the first two things Communists do upon conquering a country are to take away people's guns and their fighting cocks.

Hodges, on the other hand, speaks softly about bravery, courage and what it means to be an American.

Besides packing legislative hearings with hundreds of pro-cockfighting spectators, he points out the economic benefits the activity provides: to feed-store owners and purveyors of cockfighting drugs and equipment. He invokes the time-honored Arizona maxim that government should leave people alone to live the way they choose.

His most persuasive argument, however, centers on the people who want cockfighting outlawed. They are, he claims, urban, well-educated professionals, white-collar yuppies who don't appreciate the differences between rural lifestyles and their own.

"Most of these people have never been to a cockfight," he says. "Most have never even seen a rooster up close. They don't know what they're talking about."

Hodges says animal-rights activists have exaggerated reports of drug and other criminal activities at cockfights in order to push their political agenda--and spur donations. Yes, there are bad apples, he admits, but there are in any sport. And gambling is simply a part of human nature.

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