Chicken Man

Parting words from the greatest cockfighter who ever lived

But we won't go down without a fight, Barron says. Call your representatives, write a letter to Richardson, but most important, make your voice heard on the Senate floor if it comes to a vote. "This is your way of life," he says.

When he finishes, he hands the microphone to a Hispanic man, who offers the same speech in Spanish. His voice rising like a tent-revival preacher, the crowd erupts in applause and shouting as he finishes. For a few minutes, there is concerned conversation about the future of the sport and that "son-of-a-bitch" Humane Society. And then the conversation shifts back to the business of the day, because the president of the Legion Club of Jal is about to call the first fight.

In the narrow hallways where the roosters are kept, there's a palpable feeling of tension. The birds might feel it, but they have no idea what they're in for.

Bred to fight--until death.
Bred to fight--until death.
On his farm in Blanket, Texas, Ratliff keeps his birds on tie cords to keep them from killing each other.
On his farm in Blanket, Texas, Ratliff keeps his birds on tie cords to keep them from killing each other.

Over the loudspeaker, the numbers of the first two competitors are called. It's a Texas schoolteacher versus a man with a shaved head. Those who haven't already moved to the main arena rush over, hoping to find a seat with a decent view.

"You ready to see your first chicken fight?" a man named Hector asks. He had been explaining the fine art of the chicken fight when the numbers were called. He is 22, from Roswell, New Mexico. He's a rookie to the sport but learning fast. Animated and quick to smile, he wears a tilted Yankees cap and a gold cross. Perhaps he is the future of the sport.

He leads me through the crowd, and we find a spot to stand near the pit, a metal cage beneath four fluorescent lights. A rusty gate is opened for the handlers, who are carrying their roosters in the crook of their arms, petting them nervously. The schoolteacher kisses his rooster's head. He removes the scabbard from the curved, inch-long blade on its leg.

"Bill 'em up," the referee says. They are beautiful birds. One is an orange-red; the other has a white head, a red body and bluish tail feathers.

They are brought beak to beak. Their handlers rock back and forth on their heels, letting the roosters peck at each other. The feathers around the roosters' heads, called the hackles, flare out like a fan. The referee makes two chalk lines about 8 feet apart on the dirt floor. The schoolteacher stands behind one line with his bird, his opponent takes his place behind the other. The ref gives a signal, the birds are placed on the ground, and then they are let go.

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, or 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.

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