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."