The scene is set: The pit, the crowd, the beer, the betting. No question about when the cockfight begins. The tension level goes up and noise soars with it. There is a violent explosion, a blur of fury and feathers, bad birds flying at each other, trying to stab and peck in an angry, bloody duel to the death.
It is shocking. This is not a Sunday school picnic.
Colorful Leo Dietz, tall, lean and leathery with Carolina blue eyes and crazy blond hair that blows in the wind, has been 50 years in the cock-fighting business. He started raising rambunctious roosters as a boy in Washington state. His mother thought it a wholesome project. It kept little Leo out of trouble.
In another life, Leo manufactured pizzas but he’s happier with chickens. He was a recent partner in importing 35 young cocks into Mexico from Oklahoma. They cost $100 each, delivered to a Texas border town. A coyote was paid $30 per bird to smuggle them across the border. They grew and developed on a 300-acre farm outside Chapala in the beautiful state of Jalisco. In a recent tournament, Leo had seven winners in eight fights and won more than 30,000 pesos. That ain’t chicken feed.
Dietz says some Mexicans, especially young, inexperienced macho-types who have had too much lemonade, do not accept home-court losses graciously.
“I had one tough, young fellow come at me with a bottle,” said Leo. “I picked up a metal folding chair with every intention of defending myself but I didn’t have to swing. Others in the crowd picked off the angry man and took him away. He is no longer admitted to the arena.”
Dietz says pros respect success. They know when somebody is doing something right. You can hear the admiration when they say “Hey, Gringo, that rooster for sale?”
Indeed it is, for a proper price, in a private setting. Leo knows that too much money showing is dangerous bait anywhere in the world. In Mexico, it is an open invitation to robbery.
“I’ve been followed to my pickup truck with winnings in my pocket. So far, I’ve made it home.”
Dietz considers the payoff system safer in the U.S. You come back next morning and get your winnings.
There are bigger and better arenas than Chapala. Leo has been in tournaments where the entry fee was $9000. He’ll hit the road to compete in the biggest events in Mexico.
Leo thinks maybe he has a small advantage: a better breed of bird to begin with and a more modern plan for development. He has faith in scientific feed formulas, vitamin and mineral supplements and a healthy exercise environment for development of stamina and strength. He considers rigorous physical training routines still practiced in much of Mexico to be non-productive or even harmful.
“We have cocks with natural fighting instincts that have been properly cared for since they came out of the shell,” said Dietz. “We aren’t trying to train a Mike Tyson and we certainly don’t want to waste competitve edge on the practice field.”
Cockfighting is not for the squeamish. Cocks are armed with razor-sharp knives or spears, added where natural spurs grow. Once the war begins, it rages on even if a windpipe is slashed, an eye gouged, a wing broken or lungs pierced. Blood squirts and flows and stains. Losers go into the garbage dump. Depending on their injuries, winners may be sentenced to flop and die in the same scrapheap – – or they may live to fight again.
Leo says really good roosters sometimes fight their way into retirement and a breeding program. He certainly doesn’t give up on cocks without trying to match their determination.
“I’ve sewed up my share of cuts and tears — and missed sleep to administer anitbiotics.”
Cockfighting may be the world’s oldest spectator sport. It almost certainly predates another blood game, human gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, fighting to the death for the entertainment of the rich and drunk.
Cockfighting was once the national sport in England. America’s founding fathers raised and fought roosters. Legend has it that President Lincoln earned the nickname “Honest Abe” as a fair and honorable judge of cockfights.
Massachusetts banned the sport in 1836. Delaware put it away in 1852, long before PETA. Vermont outlawed cockfighting in 1854, Connecticut in 1862, Iowa in 1868, Pennsylvania a year later, District of Columbia and Minnesota in 1871, Nebraska in 1873, Arkansas in 1879, Mississippi and New Jersey in 1880, New York, Tennessee and North Carolina in ‘81. Animal rights rolled on and on. State after state outlawed cockfighting. Only Louisiana is holding out.
Cockfighting is not only legal in Mexico, but widely accepted, relished, even honored. Fathers bring young sons to introduce them to tradition. Leo has heard that when an earthquake shakes a Mexican home, the man of the house first rescues his gamecocks, then his wife, then his children. If he has time, he moves his pickup truck.
Critics lash out at cockfighting, calling it cruel and brutal. Defenders say chickens dying is part of the game, just as chickens dying is part of Kentucky Fried Chicken. One features plump breasts, meaty thighs, white gravy and biscuits, the other gorgeous plumage, arrogant posture, a perfect fighting machine with a surly disposition, eyes burning, feet clawing at the ground.
Broilers live 42 days, until beheaded. Gamecocks live until they die in the arena. Think about it.