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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.

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Dave Plank