By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At the age of 10, 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. 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 game fowl. 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.
There was a fine in Georgia for killing hawks, the man told him. Ratliff wasn't impressed. "We're just killing the damn things that eats our chickens," he says he told the man. "By the way, I'd just as soon hang your ass on that chain-link fence as one of those damn hawks or coyotes, and I mean it. You're just a bunch of damn people who have no business being American."
The Humane Society would always be a pain in Ratliff's ass. As soon as he finished building the cockfighting pit that now stands in Jal, New Mexico, a woman from the organization got a judge to put a padlock on it. Ratliff had to go all the way up to Santa Fe to argue his case.
"Our lawyer says to the judge, 'I understand you love to fish.' The judge nodded. So our lawyer asks him, 'Which is more harmful, to let two roosters fight in their way of thinking or to put a minnow on a hook?' The judge thought about that for about 10 seconds. He said, 'I put my minnows on a hook.' Then he hit the gavel and said, 'Case dismissed.'"
But things changed over the years. In 1975, cockfighting was a felony in just a few states. By 2005, it was a felony in 33.