Out, Out, Damn Sport!
The referee takes half a fresh lime, pushes it between his fingers to bring out the juice, then runs the pulp along each blade to make them shine. They're called Mexican short knives. One and a half inches of finely honed steel, curved like a scimitar and leather-strapped to the left legs of two gamecocks. Fighting roosters, bred to kill. And on this Saturday night in southwest Phoenix, it's dying time.
The handlers swing the birds toward each other to get their blood up, retreat behind lines in the dirt eight feet apart, and, on a signal, release the furies.
Instantly, the cocks flare their neck feathers, flap like mad, hover for a long second, their beaks, claws and blades clashing like supernatural samurais in Japanese animation. The roosters land, facing opposite directions, then whirl and charge. One of them, a black Butcher-Battle crossbreed, nimbly sidesteps and slashes, nearly severing the right leg of his opponent, a Gray Toppie.
Spectators cheer the decisive strike as the Toppie goes down. It is helpless to rise but nonetheless enraged, pecking from below, rapid-fire. The Butcher hops just out of range, waits for a lag in the Toppie's desperate defense, then pivots on its right foot, and drives the knife on its left in a shallow, flashing arc through the Gray Toppie's skull.
The Butcher twists out the blade, jabs with its beak several times at the head of its crumpled, twitching foe, then prances in circles, raising its wings and crowing as the bleachers erupt with howls.
A young Latina with Down's syndrome enters the fighting pit and mimics the black rooster, pumping her arms, coaxing more energy from the stands.
The Butcher's owner comes in to scoop up and check over his bird, which is "clean," no wounds, a superior victory. The man shakes hands with the Toppie's dejected handler, holds the Butcher aloft, then carries him from the ring, stroking the rooster's back and murmuring accolades in its ear. The lifeless Toppie is unceremoniously dumped into an oil drum that, by night's end, will be half-filled with chicken corpses.
More than 50 gamecocks will do battle here tonight, mostly to the death of one, or both.
The 20-by-15-foot dirt pit where they spill one another's blood is enclosed with chicken wire, and framed by splintered wooden bleachers. The whole structure is covered with a corrugated tin roof and surrounded by chain-link topped with barbed wire. Bare bulbs strung along the perimeter fence and the fluorescent lights that illuminate the fighting pit are powered by a generator. It rattles noisily near a vending shack that spices the air with the cooking smoke of grilled tortillas and carne asada.
This cockfighting pit, one of roughly 50 in Arizona, is medium-size, and, although perfectly legal, hard to find. Its unmarked entrance is a gravel turnoff from 51st Avenue, just south of Baseline, that winds through a rock quarry to a sunken parking area. The pit is only a few hundred yards off a major road, but effectively hidden by the drop in terrain and heaps of broken stone.
On this night, more than 250 cockfighting devotees, including dozens of families with children, have come to watch the feathers--and blood and dust and guts--fly.
The great majority of the crowd is of Mexican descent, a mix of vatos in their 20s, dressed in baggy work pants, sport team jerseys and gold chains, and caballero characters, wearing tight jeans, pointed boots, fancy Western or work shirts, and big belt buckles.
There's also a smattering of Anglo faces, mostly retired working men and their wives, and about 30 Filipinos (including one anesthesiologist) who occupy one corner of the bleachers. They watch the action squatting on their haunches.
Usually, admission to the rock-quarry fighting pit is three bucks or five. Tonight it's $10, as tonight is a fund raiser for the Arizona Game Fowl Breeders Association and Citizens Against Proposition 201--the initiative on the November 3 ballot that would make it a felony to breed or fight gamecocks in Arizona, one of five states where the blood sport is still legal. It will be the first time any state has held a plebiscite on cockfighting.
Twenty minutes and a world away, a separate Proposition 201 fund raiser is simultaneously under way, this one sponsored by Citizens Against Cockfighting, and held in the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel, in the Camelback Esplanade. There's valet parking, and the evening's highlight is an auction of art donated by Arizona galleries, conducted by an auctioneer from Sotheby's of New York.
The event title--"The Awakening of Arizona"--suggests that Proposition 201's backers believe their initiative can pull the state from a backwater slumber. "Come help the people of the Great State of Arizona put an end to the cruelty of cockfighting," the invitations read. "Black tie optional."
Many of the suits and gowns inside the Ritz-Carlton ballroom cost more than most of the cockfighting fans at the quarry take home in a week. The predominantly white men and women who wear them sip $7.50 cocktails and snack on hors d'oeuvres, served by people who are almost all brown, as they preview the art, which includes a movie poster for The Horse Whisperer autographed by Robert Redford.
Working the crowd is Citizens Against Cockfighting campaign manager Jamie Massey, who's worked for nine years to outlaw the sport in Arizona. Massey says he's been to one cockfight in his life.
"The crowd was terrifying," he says. "Just the absolute glee and the expression on their faces when a bird scored a hit. That's what I despise about cockfighting: the mentality it represents. My idea of nice competition is a game of Scrabble. I don't understand people who like to gamble on a fight to the death, and I don't think they should be allowed to do it.
"Cockfighting brings out the worst side of human nature, the barbaric side."
Outside the Ritz-Carlton, about 40 pro-cockfighting protesters--barbarians at the gate--exercise their First Amendment rights, carrying placards with slogans such as, "You can have my cock when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."
The demonstrators disperse long before the auction begins, in time for several of them to race down the highway and get a few bets down at the quarry cockfight, most likely one of the last legal events of its kind in the Great State of Arizona.
Like the Gray Toppie in the final seconds of its life, Arizona cockfighting devotees are down and fighting to the last breath for the sanctioned existence of their avocation. And from all angles, it looks like they're going to lose.
Badly, and finally.
Twenty-three times in the past 45 years, the cockfighting crowd and its conservative backers in the Arizona Legislature have spiked measures to outlaw the sport.
This election season, however, anti-cockfighting activists--backed with big bucks from animal rights organizations outside Arizona--caught the cockfighters unaware.
Polls on Proposition 201 show up to 90 percent of Arizona voters favor a ban on cockfighting. A similar ballot initiative in Missouri is also predicted to pass, which would drop to three the number of states with legalized cockfighting--Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
What happens then? A few Arizona cockfighters will quit in disgust, probably, while most will just go underground, breeding their birds in secret and fighting them in legal territory--New Mexico, or Mexican border towns like Nogales and Agua Prieta--or in covert arenas like the quarry pit, which already has the feel of an illicit operation. (New Times was not permitted to photograph the fund-raising cockfight.)
But they'll be breaking the law. Ken White, executive director of the Arizona Humane Society, says enforcement of Proposition 201 may follow "the California model," under which officers from the Humane Society--a private, nonprofit organization--are contracted by the state to enforce animal-cruelty laws, and given full police powers to carry firearms, conduct undercover operations and searches, and make arrests.
And, if Proposition 201 passes, Arizona will discard yet another vestige of its Western frontier roots. Old Arizona is fading like one of the millions of sepia-tone photographs given over to the sun as glass plates for greenhouses around the turn of the century. The passage of an anti-cockfighting law will be an additional dose of bleach.
"Having spoken to over 8,000 people on this subject, I have heard these adjectives used over and over: 'sick,' 'cruel,' 'barbaric,' and 'backward,'" Citizens Against Cockfighting chairman Massey wrote recently in an essay titled "What Cockfighters Don't Understand."
"More times than not, the people uttering these words have never seen the blades . . . and don't know that small children are often taken to these spectacles. What little they do know is enough for them to wonder how in the world cockfighting could still be legal in Arizona!"
The answer is easy, says cockfighter Eileen Curran: freedom. "That and a tolerance for other people's way of life that's supposed to be an important part of democracy."
Curran raises and fights roosters with her husband, Tom, an immigrant from Ireland, where the government banned cockfighting in 1986, primarily because cockfights were popular meeting places for the Irish Republican Army.
Her libertarianism is stretched by questions about the personal freedoms of, say, marijuana users or homosexuals, but she makes a point nonetheless: a poll commissioned last year by Citizens Against Cockfighting showed that few Arizonans knew that cockfighting was legal.
If they didn't even know, Curran asks, then what can it matter?
"If this thing passes, how's it going to change their lives? Not much. But my husband and I, our livelihood is construction, but our way of life is raising and fighting birds. That's what we stand to lose."
We do not support criminalizing every unsavory act or deed of which man can conceive. But every once in a while an activity is so offensive to civilized sensibilities that a community is warranted in agreeing that certain actions should be against the law. This is one of those times.
--Arizona Republic editorial supporting Proposition 201
The old man sitting in the old chair in the living room of his old home in South Phoenix is Belton Hodges, 78. He's a World War II veteran, retired locomotive engineer and union leader, Shriner, former president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, and the grand patriarch of Arizona cockfighters.
These days, Hodges is also bitter and angry. You can tell how angry by the number of expletives and other uncomplimentary modifiers he employs before the term "animal rights fanatics," which is how he describes proponents of Proposition 201.
This particular morning, Hodges is on quite a roll.
"These goddamned, limp-wristed, urbanized, busybody animal rights fanatics, they like to portray us [cockfighters] as a bunch of inbred, illiterate individuals who like to watch animals get hurt."
Hodges looks like he's about to snort in disgust. And then he does.
"Hell, I don't know any cockfighter who likes to watch his bird get hurt. They want to see the other guy's bird get hurt. You want to know what the motivation is for cockfighting?"
"Winning. Breeding as damn near a perfect fighting bird as you can . . . raising it from a chick, giving it the best of care and the best food, and then watching it win. Because that's the greatest thrill known to mankind, the greatest emotion--winning. When I was a little boy, and my daddy's rooster won, I walked tall in the neighborhood, because my daddy's bird had licked the hell out of the neighbor's bird, and I saw the smile on my daddy's face, and he'd say to me: 'Boy, you remember when that bird was sick and we doctored him, and I made you hold him and he pecked you and you hollered? Well, that's why this is all worth it, son. We raised a damn fine bird.'"
Hodges grew up in South Phoenix two generations before the era of drive-by shootings, when the area was mostly dairy farms and orchards, and he and his daddy trapped muskrat on the Salt River, and pulled trout from its pools, and he climbed the cottonwood and mesquite trees on its banks, and shot from the sky the quail, ducks and geese along its flyway. Norman Rockwell shit. He's old school. Says things like, "My daddy was a cockfighter, and so was his daddy."
Within the brick walls of Hodges' modest home is a museum of cockfighting folk art, trophies and memorabilia. In one room is a framed picture of his daddy at a cockfight in Bisbee in 1909. Hodges proudly announces he used to fight cocks with liquor magnate Kemper Marley, and with the brother of former governor Rose Mofford. He tells of how Arizona's first governor, George P.W. Hunt, returned from an ambassadorship to Siam with a flock of game fowl he kept tethered on the lawn of his mansion on East McDowell.
While Hodges talks, he dips Skoal and spits into a plastic travel mug from a truck stop in Kingman.
Hodges went to work for Southern Pacific Railroad when he was 18, served in Europe during World War II, came back, and worked the same job for 47 years before he retired.
"All I want to do is live out my days in peace, and raise and fight my birds if I damn well please," he says. "I think I've earned that, by God."
Malarkey, says Jamie Massey.
"Belton Hodges is a very effective lobbyist," says the chairman of Citizens Against Cockfighting. "He likes to paint cockfighters as normal, red-blooded, salt-of-the-earth people. But we're talking about a man who has probably watched over 100,000 birds die in violence. Boy, what a life he's led."
Hodges lives with his wife, Allene, who's 72. They've been married only 10 years, although both grew up in South Phoenix, and Allene's daddy fought birds with Belton's. Their first spouses were in the same hospital before they died--his of Alzheimer's disease, hers of diabetes. Hodges calls Allene "mom" sometimes, and "chief" others.
"Mom," he calls from the kitchen to the back of the house, "I'm gonna go see about these chickens."
Hodges keeps about 75 gamecocks and breeding hens on a ranch in Buckeye, and another 25 in his backyard. Every afternoon, he feeds them 30 pounds of powdered milk, yellow corn, green protein pellets, and some truly putrid-smelling soaked oats, mixed in a machine.
He sprinkles handfuls of feed to the hens, which run free, and fills the plastic bowls attached to the front of the three-foot-by-three-foot cages that house the fighting birds. Early fall is molting season for chickens, and the gamecocks sport ragged yet brilliant plumage of brown, white, red, blue and black.
One cock is tethered well away from the rest in grass, not the dirt, free of any cage. Hodges' prize bird. Traditionally, cockfighters don't name their fowl, yet Hodges calls this one Pretty Boy, and says he's a real ass-kicker. Pretty Boy lost his first fight, Hodges says. Just got knocked out somehow. Then he killed the next five roosters he faced.
"He gets in there and does the job quick," Hodges boasts.
If Pretty Boy emerges from the pit victorious three or four more times, Hodges says, he'll be retired as a battle-tested genetic model, a brood cock, allowed to live out his natural life span of eight to 15 years. Like most cockfighters, Hodges says he doesn't fight his roosters until they're at least 2 years old. One of his roosters won nine straight fights before he was retired to sire a line of battle cocks, and lived to be 12.
Before the typical broiler chicken becomes dead meat on plastic in the supermarket, it has been hatched, shot full of growth hormones, and kept alive for just 50 days in the equivalent of a poultry slave ship--unable to move, wallowing in excrement, often diseased--before it's clipped by its feet to a wire to have its throat cut by a minimum-wage worker who then ships its carcass down the line for dismemberment and packaging.
According to the National Broiler Council, Arizonans buy more than 90 million factory-slaughtered chickens a year. By comparison, the most liberal of estimates put the number of roosters that die each year in Arizona cockfights at 9,000 to 13,000.
"I don't know about you, but I'd rather live the good life for a couple years and die in a fight," Hodges says.
And that's another thing, he says. How many of the people who will vote for Proposition 201 eat chicken? And of those, how many have a clue as to the horrific treatment a factory-farmed chicken undergoes before it's slaughtered?
"We all live with inconsistencies," answers Massey. "And the truth is, in our society as it functions today, animals are going to die for our use. My concern is with how and why: Is it a question of sustenance, or joy?"
Hodges, care to retort?
"Hey, I'll tell you what: If you don't like cockfighting, don't go. I don't particularly care for golfing, but I don't think golfers should be put in jail."
Hodges has been in this fight since 1954, about a year after Tucson passed an ordinance that outlawed cockfighting within city limits. Hodges refereed a fight to provoke a deliberate test case, got arrested and appealed his case to the Arizona Supreme Court, which cleared him on the grounds that chickens were not protected under the animal cruelty law upon which the ordinance was based.
Since then, cockfighting foes have induced sympathetic lawmakers to introduce bills to criminalize the sport 23 times, and 23 times Hodges got the word out, packed a hearing room with cockfighters, and got the bill shelved.
The last skirmish was in 1996, when a bill sponsored by Representative Andy Nichols went before the House Judiciary Committee. It was February 14, statehood day. Massey and other animal rights activists remember it as "The Valentine's Day massacre."
Cockfighters outnumbered their foes five to one, according to the minutes of the hearing, and the bill's supporters blew off their own foot early when one cited a Yale University study establishing a link between animal cruelty and violent, felonious behavior. The lawmakers were reminded that many famous serial killers had tortured animals when they were children.
"It was pretty ludicrous," remembers Representative Tom Smith, then chairman of the House committee. "They came in and argued this illogical, quantum leap that cockfighters are turning their children into a bunch of John Wayne Gacys."
Among the flurry of cockfighters who testifed at the hearing was Frank Celaya Jr. of Buckeye, who removed a prosthetic leg and used it like a gavel to punctuate his testimony.
"Mr. Celaya testified that he fought for his country in Vietnam and was wounded while there," the minutes report. "He said that he was fighting for freedom, and trying to ban cockfighting is an attempt to take part of that freedom away."
"He got his point across," recalls Smith.
House Bill 2519, which would have made raising gamecocks a misdemeanor, was rejected on an 8-3 vote.
Determined to halt cockfights, Massey decided on a new tactic. "I realized we needed to get out of the Capitol building, and onto the streets." And so he started raising money and recruiting petition circulators. And he was successful.
The Citizens Against Cockfighting needed 112,961 signatures from registered voters to put Proposition 201 on the November 3 ballot. In July, Massey turned in 188,000 signatures, more than 150,000 of which were qualified by elections officials. (Massey gathered signatures many days in Tucson, wearing a three-inch cockfighting knife around his neck like a pendant.)
"Until now, we only had to deal with state legislators who had good, common sense and understood rights and freedoms," Hodges complains. "Now, enough foreigners have come into Arizona, all these out-of-staters, that they got this damn thing on the ballot."
The 188,000 signatures were gathered by a combination of more than 200 volunteers and $23,500 worth of paid petition circulators. Through August 19, according to the CAC's campaign finance reports, the anti-cockfighting group had received nearly $80,000 in donations, including $5,000 from the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, California; $1,000 from the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Petaluma, California; $5,000 from the Humane Farming Action Fund in San Rafael, California; and $10,000 from the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. The rest of the money is from hundreds of individual donations, mostly in the $15 to $100 range.
"They kill these poor victims for spectator sport, just as the Romans used to set lions against bears in an amphitheater and spectators would delight in the blood and gore," Arizona Humane Society executive director and CAC board member Ken White wrote in a June fund-raising letter.
"[Cockfighting] has remained alive because a small but influential cell of cockfighters has been able to block efforts to ban the activity. Now facing the prospect of trying to influence millions of voters rather than a handful of powerful legislative leaders, the cockfighters are busying themselves to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars."
By the end of last month, according to campaign finance reports, the cockfighters had busied themselves enough to raise a total of $788 (this figure does not reflect money raised at the rock quarry).
"Cockfighters are mostly working people," Hodges says. "We have to bleed our people for any amount."
Knowing it could never compete with the pro-201 forces in a campaign, the 4,000-member Arizona Game Fowl Breeders Association sought to fight on technicalities. It organized regional teams of volunteers to double-check every petition that Citizens Against Cockfighting had submitted to the state.
Hodges shows copies of petitions on which dozens of the signers list the homeless shelter at 813 West Madison as their address. He has three petitions both circulated and apparently signed by Tucson state senator and Citizens Against Cockfighting board member Carmine Cardamone (it's a misdemeanor in Arizona to knowingly sign such a petition more than once).
AGFBA president Dave Harris says his group turned up enough questionable signatures to disqualify Proposition 201, but the organization blew a filing deadline, and a judge threw the appeal out of court on September 22.
"We just ran out of time," Harris says.
Hodges says if Proposition 201 passes, he may not keep fighting his birds, but he's sure as hell going to keep raising them. "What are they going to do to me? I'm almost 80 years old."
Ken White, who has squared off against Hodges in several recent broadcast debates--and was referred to by one critic in a recent answering machine message as "you faggot Jew boy from San Francisco"--seems to feel less animosity toward his adversary than pity.
"Although I don't think it's shared, I have a certain amount of sympathy and affection for Belton Hodges," White says. "I see him as a man whose way of life the world is passing by, and it's sort of sad, in a way."
White has lived in Arizona for three years. Before that, he worked for the National Humane Society in Washington, D.C., for three years, and before that, the Humane Society in San Francisco for 15.
He also eats chicken.
"It's an issue I struggle with deeply. I try only to eat free-range chickens, so I am someone who's trying not to be hypocritical in that respect."
Hodges eats anything that tastes good.
"Hell, I've got a bass boat, a house full of guns, and four freezers stocked with game and fish. I've killed everything from bass to buffalo in my day."
Hodges wonders how many people who'll vote for Proposition 201 have ever killed their own food, as most cockfighters have. How many have wrung the neck of a chicken they grew, or beat the brains from a fish they caught or put a bullet in a deer they stalked?
"All these Easterners and Californians," Hodges says, "they've never set foot on a farm, and in their minds, Miss Piggy sings, and Bambi talks to its mother, and Porky dances. They've got Disney syndrome."
The old cockfighter slurps black coffee from a mug emblazoned with two roosters, flamed with plumage and fighting to the death. "Sport of Kings," it says.
"You know, these damned animal rights fanatics, they all dress immaculately, and enunciate very clearly, and hold their hands in a very pious manner, and look good on TV," Hodges says. "They're just more politically correct, I guess. But I'll tell you what--you go to shake most of their hands, and you get a dead fish in return."
Hodges shakes his right hand and looks at it with disdain, as if some bastard animal rights fanatic has just slimed him with a wussy handshake.
"Oh, those people irk me."
There are many pleasant subjects to close this editorial on, but the Animal Rights Group needs to be Put Down from every angle possible, as they are indeed trying to put our sport clear out of existence!!!
Being a Christian, I believe every word of the Bible, as it's [sic] guidelines are what is right and what is wrong for all humans to follow, as it is the way of righteousness. No other way. The Bible says it in Genesis 1:26: "and God said: 'Let us make man in our images, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'"
--from a recent issue of Grit and Steel, a national cockfighting magazine first published in 1899
Cockfighting is older than Christianity. The blood sport originated in Southeast Asia some 4,000 years ago, with the domestication of the brilliant red jungle fowl Gallus gallus, the direct ancestor of American friers. Many countries in Asia have since banned the sport, as the tenets of Buddhism and Confucianism disapprove of bloodshed, and Islam forbids gambling.
In the Philippines, however, cockfighting remains rabidly popular. There are 1,500 fighting galleras across the archipelago, including a 10,000-seat Maranetta Coliseum in Manila, home to the annual, three-day World Slasher Derby, the World Cup of cockfighting.
Cockfighting also remains popular with the poor of Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, 10,000 cockfights a year are televised, many of them organized by the U.S. commonwealth's recreation department, and the government collects millions of pesos a year in gambling taxes.
Roman legionnaires spread cockfighting throughout Europe, and Spanish conquistadors transported it to Latin America and much of what is now the southwestern United States. Today in Mexico, a cockfight, or pelea de gallos, is the main event at any palenque, or county fair. And this spring, when migrant workers from the interior of Mexico began to put together a new squatter's suburb of Nogales called Colonia Colosio, the first structure they completed was a cinderblock cock pit.
Massachusetts became the first state in America to criminalize the breeding and fighting of gamecocks in 1836 (England banned the sport in 1849). Since then, 45 states have followed suit, most before the Great Depression. Cockfighting is a felony in 16 states, and a misdemeanor throughout most of the south, where rural sheriffs are said to wink at the practice.
The gamecock remains the state bird of South Carolina and the sports mascot for University of South Carolina teams. The magazine Grit and Steel carries full-color advertisements for cockfights and gamecock breeders in North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Hawaii and other states with laws against the breeding and fighting of gamecocks.
Harsh enforcement in other states pushes cockfighting deeper underground. In March 1995, after a two-month undercover investigation, armed agents of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stormed a cockfight in an old Bronx movie theater in New York City and made 394 arrests. Eighty gamecocks were seized and euthanized.
The National Humane Society offers a $2,500 bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cockfighters where the sport is illegal.
"Those are Nazi tactics," says Hodges.
Arizona Humane Society director Ken White says he has personal commitments from 11 Arizona sheriffs, including Maricopa County's Joe Arpaio, to work with Humane Society officers to enforce Proposition 201. White says two of his officers are already working to train an animal cruelty task force Arpaio recently created.
"First it's cockfighting, next it will be hunting," warns Hodges.
White says that's an overstatement. "No matter what cockfighters fear, this is not the first step to a fascist, vegan planet."
At the behest of Citizens Against Cockfighting, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County circulated a letter in support of Proposition 201 this summer to all of his Arizona peers, nine of whom had the letter retyped on their own office's letterhead and mailed back to CAC, who used the letters in fund-raising efforts in corresponding counties.
"I endorse the initiative to ban cockfighting in Arizona," Dupnik wrote. "I believe that cockfighting is a cruel bloodsport whose time has come and gone. In addition, I support the proposed ban because a variety of criminal activities including gambling, drug possession, rape, illegal weapon possession and homicide have been associated with cockfighting." (Emphasis his.)
"I'm surprised they missed arson," says Hodges.
He brings out photographs of the annual picnic the Arizona Game Fowl Breeders Association sponsors for the Valley of the Sun School, a facility for handicapped children.
"You couldn't ask for a better group of people," says Juanita Shaver, director of residential operations for the school. "They're very pleasant, very caring. They help us decorate every year at Christmas, and at the picnic, they cook all the food, and hire a band, and dance with our clients and push them in their wheelchairs. They're just wonderful with them. They bring animals for them to pet. One year they brought a pig dressed like a clown.
"You know, we're right across the street from the Humane Society, and they've never offered to bring any animals over for our clients to pet."
Shaver says this year would have been the 15th annual picnic sponsored by the cockfighters. "They can't do it this year because all their money's gone to lawyers, so this year we're hosting them to our Octoberfest."
The Valley of the Sun school's director confirms that Jamie Massey used to work for her, and showed up to the picnic one year wearing a blood-spattered shirt that read "Ban Cockfighting."
"I told him he had about five minutes to get off the grounds, or I was going to fire him," she says. "He left."
Dear Friends in Arizona: Anytime our freedoms are under attack it is important for each of us to speak up. The people trying to outlaw cockfighting are sponsored and supported by extremists who would like to see us all become vegetarians. . . . Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but no one person or group has the right to impose their beliefs on others. For this reason, I hope that my friends in Arizona take a firm stand against them.
--"Argument against Proposition 201" statement from professional boxer Roy Jones Jr. printed in Division of Elections booklet for the upcoming election. Jones was raised a cockfighter in Florida, where the sport is illegal.
The Mortenson boys never fight cocks on the Sabbath, and they never bet. They're Mormons, and it's against their religion. For the same reason, says Russell, who's 28, one year Ray's junior, if Proposition 201 passes, they'll give up their gamecocks.
"We've been thinking about that issue a lot these days, and I think we've decided it would go against our morals too strongly to break the law, even if it seems all backward," Russell says.
The Mortensons' grandfather moved to Phoenix from Guadalajara and fought birds with Belton Hodges. Their dad took a pass on the tradition, but Russell and Ray picked it up as kids.
"We're Mexican, so I like to say it's in our blood, but it just skipped a generation," says Russell, a rental property manager.
Russell and Ray are the middle brothers in a family of 12. "We raised goats and chickens and rabbits; we ate off the garden. Basically, we're a family of those kind of Arizona people who live in the city, but are country at heart," says Russell.
"Most of the cockfighters I know are like that. They're hard workers, they still spank their kids, they're old-fashioned. They're go-to-church-on-the-weekend, farm-living, family-value types.
"Most of us, we don't believe people are born homosexual, and we'd never say, 'Oh, let's just get a divorce,' or, 'Oh, just get an abortion.' Most of the people against us are pro-choicers. They don't want us to kill chickens, but they think it's fine to kill an unborn baby.
"They're just from a whole different social class, a whole different way of thinking."
Russell and Ray live on a big lot in the shadow of South Mountain, but grew up near 32nd Street and Osborn. Russell played football, wrestled and was on the swim team at Camelback High. During an interview, he spins a football in one hand, over and over. Ray works out almost every day, and fights in toughman amateur boxing contests.
"We're the kind of guys where, in high school, if there was a fight, we'd get in there to watch, but if one guy went down, we'd break it up and say 'Enough,'" says Russell.
"But that's what we like about cockfighting--the athleticism of the birds, and watching a fight where you don't have to say, 'Enough.'"
There are three popular styles of cockfighting: gaff (bloody), short knife (bloodier), and long knife (bloodiest), favored, respectively, by Anglo, Mexicans, and Asian cockfighters ("naked heel" fights, where roosters fight with their natural bone spurs, are rare).
Cockfighters argue that for a fight to be fair, roosters must be armed with artificial metal weapons of the same length, since their natural spikes grow to different lengths.
That defense holds up if you're talking gaffs, which are curved to a point, but have no sharpened edge, and closely resemble a gamecock's natural armament. Short and long knives, however, are clearly designed to inflict greater injury.
Russell says the purest form of cockfighting is a gaff fight.
"Gaff fights last longer, and usually the best rooster wins," Russell says. "One lucky strike with a knife can end a fight real quick, especially if you're talking those three-inch, Filipino long knives."
Russell and Ray keep a couple hundred birds--they sell a lot of them to other cockfighters in Arizona, across the nation, and abroad (the demand for gamecocks in the Philippines and Puerto Rico is intense, because of the volume of cockfights).
"We basically work with three bloodlines," says Russell. "We've got a Spanish Fighter line we bred from these eggs Ray brought back from Spain one time. Those birds are in-and-out boxers. They like to try and pick the other rooster apart.
"We've also got a lot of Kelsos. They're pure power. They like to get in close and stay in there and hit, hit, hit.
"Then we've got Johnny Jumpers. They're a good knife bird, because they're super fast, but they may quit a little early on you."
Russell says most cockfights in Arizona are either gaff or short knife, organized either into "Derbies" (round-robin, usually multi-day tournaments, where cockfighters and their families bring whole teams of birds and camp out together for a weekend), "Hack Fights," one-night events where cockfighters match birds on individual challenges, and "Shade Tree Fights," semiprivate affairs where a few breeders and their buddies get together to knock back a few brews or Gatorades, and match cocks for kicks.
Animal lovers like Massey describe cockfighting as a perversion of the "natural dominance-submission ritual" that takes place in the wild when two roosters meet up and a turf fight ensues.
They point to the cockfighting practice of "billing" the birds--putting them beak to beak before a fight--as evidence that roosters won't naturally fight to the finish.
But there's a reason a barnyard only has one rooster--he'll lay waste to any other, or have waste laid upon him.
Frank Celaya Jr., the Vietnam vet who testified at the legislative hearing in 1996, demonstrated this trait neatly one recent afternoon by simply releasing one of his gamecocks from its tether. Immediately, the bird sought out the nearest rooster and started a fight.
Massey's correct, though, when he observes, "In a cockpit, if one rooster decides he's had enough, it has nowhere to go."
During one fight at the rock-quarry fund raiser, one rooster took a knife in the lung during the first exchange of blows and tried to escape. Frantically, it ran from corner to corner as the other cock gave chase, until their handlers retrieved the roosters and faced them off again.
As soon as it was released, the wounded bird turned tail, and the crowd jeered its cowardliness until the other cock caught up, jumped on its back, and drove in the short knife, over and over, until the dunghill--cockfighter slang for a bird with no spirit--was finished.
A fresh pair of fighting cocks was brought into the ring, and five bookies within the chicken wire took bets from those without, exchanging spasmic hand signals like New York Stock Exchange floor traders. Most bets were for $20, $30 or $40 per fight, and none more than $100. (A spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general says it is not illegal to wager on cockfighting, as long as the house doesn't take a cut.)
The Filipino contingent wagered heavily on a yellow-legged Asil rooster handled by one of their own, and looked to lose heavily when it was nailed with several quick hits to the neck and breast, lost blood fast and collapsed. The other rooster, a blue Kelso, pecked its head a few times, then seemed to lose interest, and walked away.
The Asil's handler picked up his gravely wounded bird, blew on its neck to ward off shock, put his mouth over its beak, and sucked the blood from its lungs. The bird seemed to revive, and the referee ordered the other handler to put his bird back in action.
During the next exchange, the Filipino's bird stuck his foe three times, deeply, the last strike apparently severing its spinal column, as the Kelso went suddenly limp, but was still visibly alive. Exhausted, the Asil collapsed again as well.
The referee ordered the handlers to bill the birds beak-to-beak, to see if there was any fight left in either of them. No go. After a 10 count, the match was declared a draw. The Filipino slapped bloody hands with the Kelso's handler, then swung his dying bird by its feet in wild circles and whooped, celebrating his narrow escape from defeat.
Come November 3, he and the rest of Arizona's cockfighters can only hope for the same.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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