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.
Those activists see cockfighting as little more than a drunken, bloody orgy of barbaric violence, a blood sport played out against a backdrop of gambling, drug trafficking and other criminal activity. How, they ask, can cockers take such pleasure in betting thousands of dollars on the outcome of a bloody contest between two innocent animals?
And what kind of people could invest so much time and money in their birds, then send them into a fight to be ripped apart? Cockfighting fans, they say, are backward, bloodthirsty goremongers.
Legislators in 46 states have agreed. Arizona is one of the Cockfighting Four.
In Arizona and the other states where cocking remains legal, the most common type of fight is a "derby," to which each contestant brings several birds. The crowd at this derby is a mix of working-class whites, Asians and Hispanics. There are surprisingly large numbers of children running around the parking lot; a lot of old people are wandering about, too.
The arena itself is clean and well-lighted, with white benches along the sides and a raised pit in the middle. There is a concession stand on one end. Pinfeathers that birds have lost in earlier fights float in the air, and spectators shout at one another in English and Spanish across the packed, smoky arena, placing bets as new roosters get ready to fight.
At the end of the night, the owner whose cocks have won the most fights will take home the pool of entry fees. Because it costs between $100 and $500 to enter a derby, the pot can easily amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Although most cockers have blue-collar backgrounds, the sport is expensive. Cockers will pay upward of $2,000 for a well-bred "trio" (a rooster and two hens) of chickens descended from fight-proven bloodlines. Pens cost hundreds of dollars more, as does the pharmacy full of drugs it takes to keep the birds healthy. And the feed that gamecocks eat is significantly more expensive than that given to normal chickens.
Most shockingly expensive of all, however, are the weapons cockers outfit their birds with. Gamecocks naturally grow spurs on the backs of their legs--these are the weapons they use to fight in the wild. Occasionally, the birds are fought this way--"naked-heeled"--in derbies.
Usually, however, the spurs are sawed off and replaced with knives or gaffs--curved, needle-sharp implements that resemble the business end of an ice pick and vary from one to three inches in length. Knives and gaffs are usually stainless steel, and can cost more than $100 per pair.
Most cockers prefer gaffs to knives--saying, obtusely, that the knives are too deadly. Gaffs do less damage, meaning that in order to prevail, a cock must make a lucky hit--sticking the spike in his opponent's skull and piercing his brain, for example--or work more slowly, stabbing him over and over.
Fights in which knives are used are considered less reliable when it comes to testing the "gameness," or fighting will, of a bird. In knife fights, which rarely last more than two or three minutes, one lucky hit by an inferior cock can kill a superb one.
The roosters fighting tonight will be armed--or, rather, legged--with knives.
While a friend holds a red cock still, Fontana places the sheathed knives over the stubs of his spurs, then wraps long leather thongs tightly around his legs to hold the weapons in place. The thongs are in turn wrapped with electrical tape. Once the referee orders handlers to "heel" the roosters, the sheaths are slipped off. From here on, birds are handled very gingerly--it is not uncommon for an anxious gamecock to sink a blade or a gaff into his handler's arm, leg or hand.
Now the two owners face each other in the ring. The cocks are held close together, and allowed to peck at each other briefly to arouse their fighting instincts. Once sufficiently agitated, the birds are placed behind "score lines," six to eight feet apart on the floor. The referee will start the fight with an order: "Pit your cocks!"
Savvy cockers know to watch the referee's lips. A bird released just as those lips are pursed to form the "p" sound has a split-second advantage over his opponent.
Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma are the last four states that allow cockfighting. Everywhere else, the fights are prohibited, either by special statute or broader animal-cruelty laws. In most of those states, being a spectator at a cockfight or possessing a gamecock for fighting purposes is likewise illegal. In 13 states, law enforcement officers do not even need a warrant to enter a property as long as they think a cockfight may be taking place there.
In 16 states, cockfighting is a felony.
Arizona animal-rights groups have spent years trying to get a cockfighting law on the books, but have failed for a variety of reasons.
First, and probably most important, is this reality: Cockfighters--a lot of them, anyway--are not the dimwitted, toothless hillbillies some people imagine. If there is one thing they have learned while watching the number of legal venues for their sport decline, it is how to work the system. In 1993, the last time a cockfighting ban was introduced in the Arizona State Legislature, Senator Ed Phillips of Scottsdale said he received more than 700 calls against the measure from cockfighters all across the country.
Another reason that cockfighting continues here is the vague language of the state's animal-cruelty statute. The first (and last) serious test of whether cockfighting constitutes animal cruelty in Arizona came in 1958, when three men who had been arrested at a cockfight in Scottsdale won a decision before the state Supreme Court.
The high court ruled that under Arizona law, birds, including gamecocks, are not "animals." The court ruled that in order for cockfighting to be illegal, there must be a specific statute that makes it so--and there is no such state law.
Cockers say a third reason their activity has yet to be banned here is its strong ties to Mexican culture, ties they are admittedly not above exploiting.
"They use that excuse all the time, and it works," says Jaime Massey of the Arizona Lobby for Animals, an organization that has labored for years to get a cockfight ban passed. "Any legislator would rather be called antianimal than racist."
Not all Hispanics think cockfighting's place in Mexican culture means the activity should be legal, of course. The late Cesar Chvez, for one, was an outspoken opponent of cockfighting.
Still, the cultural tie has had its effect in the legislature.
To counter arguments touting the historical pedigree and cultural significance of cockfighting, animal-rights groups have come up with some slings and arrows of their own. Even in states where it remains legal, they say, cockfighting attracts a criminal element. Prostitution flourishes around cockfights, the matches offer a haven to drug dealers, and illegal gambling is practically the gamecock's raison d'àtre, the activists claim.
It is a fact that in several other states, definitive links have been made between cockfighting and drug activity. In the Deep South, Drug Enforcement Administration policy calls for undercover agents to frequent cockfights. The DEA has had a reasonable amount of success finding large-scale drug traffickers from Central America and South America at the events. Raids on illegal cockfights regularly turn up at least small quantities of drugs. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports that illegal weapons are often found at cockfights, presumably because of the large sums of money participants and spectators routinely bring. Humane Society investigators have been threatened with guns at illegal cockfights, and disputes over rooster matches have been known to escalate quickly into gun battles.
And it is true that without gambling, there might not be any cockfights. At bigger tournaments, thousands of dollars change hands, sometimes on every match. Side bets between spectators may be as small as $20 or as large as several hundred, and most owners wager at least $50 or $75 on their own bird before stepping into the pit. Raids on cockfights in other parts of the country regularly result in the seizure of tens of thousands of dollars.
All of the claims of criminal activity around cockfights, however, have fallen on deaf ears at the Arizona legislature. There, despite more or less annual attempts, no cockfighting ban has ever made it to a committee vote, let alone onto the House or Senate floor. Frustrated animal-rights activists vow that they'll try just one more time to pass a measure in the legislature. If that fails, they will push a ballot referendum on the issue.
A statewide voting drive would be a very expensive undertaking. But after having lost time and time again, cockfighting opponents feel they have no other choice. On the referee's order, Fontana and his opponent release their roosters' tail feathers. Gamecocks are often compared to boxers, facing off against each other in the ring. As these two approach each other, however, they might more aptly be likened to wrestlers. Crouched over, heads held low and bodies squared off with one another, they move quickly but not recklessly. Just as they seem about to run into each other, both jump into the air.
Fontana's bird seems to be a better leaper, and makes it into the air perhaps three feet. It is while the cocks are airborne that they swing their legs out and try to "hit" each other with their knives. The other rooster, a black with gray markings, has not jumped as high, and must turn over backward in the air to slash with his legs. Despite their wildly flapping wings, the roosters do not stay airborne for long, and quickly fall to the ground.
Neither one scores a hit, which is unusual. Many knife fights do not last even this long. As they peck at each other with their beaks, the black manages to turn over; Fontana's red is on the bottom. Holding the upper position, the black rooster scores the first hit of the match, sinking his knife into the red's left wing.
Both birds' handlers have been hovering over them. As soon as they see that the cocks are stuck together, they rush in and hold them to the ground as they pull them apart. The black's knife has driven completely through his opponent's wing; its tip is sticking out the other side.
As the two handlers back away and prepare for the next release, blood oozes through the red's wing feathers from the hole left by the other rooster's knife. In a gaff fight, the damage to the wing would not be so severe; there would be less blood.
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.
"Two flies land on a wall," he says, "and two men will bet on which one will walk to the top first."
Opponents disagree with the meaning cockfighters attribute to a rooster's natural aggressiveness. While it is true that roosters fight in the wild, animal-rights activists say, such fights are almost never to the death. One rooster usually runs away. But the construction of most cockfight pits, which are surrounded by three-foot walls topped with four to six more feet of chicken-wire screen, makes fleeing impossible. Add breeding and feeding practices that are designed to maximize the birds' aggressiveness, the activists say, and claims that the birds are acting purely from instinct fall apart. Besides, chemicals--including steroids and strychnine and other stimulants--are used to enhance the birds' performance, the activists say.
Hodges denies that gamecocks are given stimulants and other drugs to force them into a killing frenzy. Such substances don't work, he says, and even if they did, they would be completely unnecessary.
"A man can't make a chicken fight, or give up, either," he says. "They do what they do naturally. It's all instinct."
And fighting, he says, is what these birds are bred for. He likens his fighting cocks to the animals children raise for 4-H projects. They feed them, groom them, clean up after them--all the while knowing that eventually the animals will go to the slaughterhouse.
"Chickens are not pets," Hodges says. "They are bred for a purpose."
During the break that comes between pittings, Fontana's bird lies on his stomach. If it's possible for a bird to look dazed, this one does. Fontana knows this is not a good sign, and picks the bird up, cradling him, breathing on the back of his neck to ward off shock. Correct handling by an experienced cocker may make all the difference in the outcome of a fight. In a gaff fight, for instance, it is not unusual for a bird's lung to be punctured, causing him to cough up blood. Cockers call such a wound a "rattle," and the sound of the bird's labored breathing indeed can be heard in the stands.
With careful handling, a rattle will often subside after a few minutes. Also, if the rooster's skull is punctured and his brain damaged by a knife or a gaff, the handler may hold him with his legs in the air and his head pointed down. This increases the flow of blood to the bird's brain, and often restores his equilibrium.
Before pitting his rooster again, Fontana cleans the bird's beak off in his mouth. Cockers are often accused of sucking the blood out of a wounded bird's lungs this way, but most say they do it only to clear debris from his beak, to help him stay warm and resist shock. When the judge gives the command to release the birds again, Fontana's rooster barely moves.
The cheering of the crowd has died down by now, and some spectators are even settling up their bets. The outcome of the match is a foregone conclusion, and doesn't take long to come. The black pounces on Fontana's bird, finally killing him with another slash to his back.
Cockers often say that it's always too early to count a bird out. Tales of roosters with punctured lungs and poked-out eyes--who can do nothing but lay on the ground and peck helplessly--coming back to win the match are common. It is this trait, cockers say, this courage and fortitude, that so attaches them to their sport. They love to root for the underdog, and nothing makes them happier than seeing an outmatched or wounded bird, running on nothing but determination, come back and win.
Fontana holds his dead bird by the feet, and it swings back and forth at his side as Fontana shakes hands with his opponent and walks out of the pit. The other bird is wounded and bleeding, too. He will need a visit to the chicken doctor before going home tonight.
Fontana is on his way back to the cockhouse, where he will remove the knives from the bird's legs before tossing him into a pile with the other dead roosters from tonight's tourney. There will probably be 70 or 80 of them. Sometime tomorrow, someone will take the birds away and bury them in the desert.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.