Master Cockfighter

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I explain that I've heard a lot of bad things about cockfighting, and that I've come to hear the other side. Hurst nods, not quite convinced.

"We have nothing to hide," Ratliff says, shrugging his shoulders, like a plea to his old friend. He pops a throat lozenge in his mouth. He's got a lot to say.

Mike Ratliff first discovered cockfighting in Cross Cut, Texas, when he was five years old. "My mother gave me a set of gamecock eggs, and I learned to count by counting them baby chicken eggs. One morning I went out and they had hatched. They was in a little pile, and their heads were real bloody. They had just been pecking each other, fighting, you know? And I was just fascinated by them. I wanted to know what it was that made them fight."

At the age of ten, he and his brother, who were out on horseback hunting for raccoons in the Texas brush, rode up on a circle of Model Ts down by a creek. Within the circle, a group of men were gathered around a pair of roosters fighting. It was the first cockfight Ratliff ever saw, and he was hooked.

Shortly after, he was given his first fighting rooster by a man named G.C. Byrd. The rooster won his first fight, to a chicken a pound heavier, which was an extraordinary achievement. Ratliff was so proud he says he named the bird after the man who gave it to him and kept the bird until the day it died.

He would never name another rooster.

Ratliff was always asking other chicken fighters their secrets, but they would never share them. He eventually found an old man who would. "Son," he said, putting his arm around Ratliff's shoulder, "on the fight day, give them all the yeller corn they can eat. He'll eat all he can hold. Give him all the water he can drink, too."

Ratliff was thrilled. He thought he'd never lose another fight. But he was wrong. The old man was lying to him. Filling the bird with corn and water didn't make him strong -- it made him weak. He could barely hold his head up to fight.

When Ratliff realized he'd been lied to, he decided he'd figure out for himself what made one fighting rooster superior to the other. After fights, he cut the losing roosters open to determine what they were eating that had made them weak. He learned how to recognize the best fighting birds on his farm. He looked for cocks with a natural tendency to fly above their opponents and strike them with their spurs, a claw-like appendage that grows naturally from the side of a rooster's leg. Cocks that struck their opponents on the top of the back, where the vital organs are, were selected for the official rooster-fighting competitions, called derbies.

Ratliff won his first derby in 1951 in Carlsbad, New Mexico. By 1968, he had won more derbies than any man alive. So he started a school to share his secrets.

It wasn't a cockfighting school, Ratliff says. It was a school to teach beginning cockers how to care for their birds, how to condition them and how to help them heal if they survived a fight. Classes were two weeks long. Instruction was detailed to the point of teaching the proper way to pick up a bird (one hand on the leg, the other on the breast to avoid hurting them). He even taught a technique for birds that became aggressive toward their owners. Feed them out of your hand, he'd say. At first, they'll peck you, but after a while they will eat the food, be it apples or grain or millet, and you will regain their trust.

Roosters overshadowed every part of Ratliff's life. He worked jobs -- from meat cutter to oil-field pumper -- that allowed him time to feed and care for his chickens. He raised his oldest son, Mike Jr., to become a cockfighting man. Finally, his wife had had enough. In 1974, after 30 years of marriage and three children, she said she wanted a divorce. It's either me or the chickens, she said.

"Well, honey," Ratliff says he told her, "don't let the door catch your shirttail on the way out."

Ratliff plowed on, taking his school on the road. He went all over the South. Once, in Georgia, he ran into two representatives of the Humane Society who protested his habit of killing the vultures and hawks that preyed on his gamefowl. Whenever Ratliff killed a hawk or a fox, he strung its carcass up on a fence around the property where he was holding his school.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde