Page 5 of 6

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Plank