Master Cockfighter

Page 6 of 7

Cockfighting has been compared to boxing, but I can see few similarities. Unlike boxing, there is no stalking of the opponent, no tentative jabs to test reflexes and reactions. Instead, the birds break at each other without hesitation. They are vicious, unrelenting and singular in purpose. There is only one boxer I have ever seen who attacked his opponent the way a rooster attacks his, and that is Mike Tyson in his prime. He fought with rage in his eyes, each punch going for the knockout. Roosters fight the same way. It is a blur of color and flapping of wings and scratching and clawing and suddenly one rooster is on its back, or hobbling away in a panic, its wing or leg broken.

It's hard to follow the action, to see the knives do their damage, and usually there is little visible blood. In fights like this one, where short knives are used, it's usually over within minutes. One rooster will strike a lethal blow, and the other will fall to its back. The hurt bird will attempt to keep fighting, and sometimes it will run away. Usually the bird that is hurt first is the bird that loses.

One of the roosters is hobbling around. The other stalks it, lunging in with his beak. The birds flap their wings, they flail in the dirt, their talons are tangled and the referee calls for their handlers to pick them up.

One sucks the blood from his bird's beak, to keep the bird from drowning in its own blood. The other blows into a wound that appears to be under a wing.

"What's he doing?" I ask Hector.

"His bird's going into shock."

One of the birds, the one that appears closest to death, is slapped under its beak again and again by its handler. Finally, its eyes open. I wonder why the referee doesn't stop the fight. Hector explains that even when it appears that all hope is gone, a dying bird can land the perfect shot and cause a mortal wound.

When the fight is finally over and one bird is dead, and the other appears close to it, the two men, their hands stained in blood, shake hands and leave the pit to make way for the next fight.

As Hector talks about the importance of cockfighting in Mexican culture, and how this latest effort to ban it in New Mexico is flat-out racist, my eyes follow the loser as he pushes his way through the crowd. He carries the dead bird by its legs. As he nears the hallway where the rest of his birds are kept, he drops it unceremoniously in a trash can.

I wait until Hector's finished talking and wish him good luck. I walk over to the trash can and peer down at the bird. To my surprise, it's not dead. It looks up, flaps its blood-soaked wings and tries to get out of the bucket. He bobs his head, his beak dripping blood. His eyes flutter open.

Two boys, walking by, notice him. One of the boys picks up a Styrofoam cup and whacks the bird in the head. The bird stops for a moment and then starts bobbing its head again. The boy hits him again with the cup, smiles at his friend and walks away. The rooster looks up out of the bucket one more time, bobs his head and then closes his eyes. His head slowly lowers into the paper cups and the tamales that surround him. He is finally dead.

On and on the fights go, one after the other, long into the night. I see a bird's guts spill out of him like rubber bands. I see another, near death, pull off the improbable victory with a lucky shot that cuts an opponent's artery. I see fights that last for minutes, and others that go to the drag pits and last for nearly an hour. I see birds sprinkled with blood, and birds that are made to fight when they are going stiff and cold.

I meet a third-generation cockfighter, who tells me how much the sport means to his family and his Mexican-American culture. "Who's to say one culture is superior to the other?" he asks me. "What's the difference between this and bullfighting, or horse racing?" Another tells me he has no problem with the Humane Society protecting dogs and cats, but chickens are different. "So you're telling me it's okay to wring a bird's neck and put it in a frying pan, but you can't let it do what it was genetically born to do? This ain't like dog fighting. We don't mistreat these birds, and we don't make them fight."

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde