Out, Out, Damn Sport!

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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.)

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse