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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.

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Dave Plank