By Jesse Sidlauskas
Photography by Mike Mezeul II
TJ holds the red rooster against his chest like a cradled baby as his teenage son Gavin selects the weapon. From a lacquered box, the 17-year-old removes a 1-inch stainless steel blade in the shape of a crescent and tests the sharpness by shaving some hair from the back of his hand. He blows the hair from the blade and walks over to the rooster. Gavin struggles with wax string, trying to secure the blade to the rooster’s left leg. If it’s misaligned by a few fractions of an inch, the knife won’t cut.
For the next 15 minutes, no one talks. Gavin works. TJ holds. It’s like watching a surgery, except we’re standing under a tent by a line of mesquite trees, and there’s a cockfight unfolding 50 yards across a field of Johnson grass and bloodweed. When TJ and Gavin are satisfied with the fit of the blade over the rooster’s spur, Gavin ties off the string and wraps electrical tape around it, then puts a sheath over it.
TJ hands the bird to Gavin, who starts walking to the pit. We follow in a formation behind and beside the fighter, walking like a boxer’s entourage, taking up the entire dirt path that leads to the 8-by-15-foot fighting arena. The walk is a kind of show in itself, as if to announce our support. The crowd clears a path as we approach the fighting pit. A worker weighs Gavin’s rooster and his competitor’s to confirm their weights are within 2 ounces of each other. They match close enough: 4 pounds 5 ounces.
As the two men enter the pit, spectators crowd the sheet metal fence, forcing those in the back to stand on their toes for a look at the birds. The referee removes the sheaths and wipes the blade on each rooster with a wet sponge to prove they are not poisoned. The gamblers call out their bets from all sides of the pit.
“Twenty over here.”
“Veinte en este lado! Veinte en este lado!”
“I bet 10 on this side!”
They nod at one another and pat their chests to confirm their wagers over the noise of the other bettors. The referee draws two lines in the dirt 7 feet apart. He orders the fighters to the center, where they thrust the birds together. The roosters fan their neck feathers, peck and pluck one another before the fighters back up to their lines.
“Pit ’em,” the referee says, and they release the birds. They charge across the pit toward each other, leap and meet midair. Dust stirs beneath their flapping wings. The feathered masses collide again and again. Each collision is like a lightning strike – too fast to see how Gavin’s rooster is faring. Feathers clap against feathers and sound like the shuffling of a deck of cards. Gavin’s rooster starts to jump but ducks to let the other cock fly overhead. But the rooster ducks too soon, and now he’s in trouble.
Before this brush fight, I had never met Gavin and TJ. Another cockfighter introduced us, told TJ that I was writing a story about the sport and asked him to take me to his next fight. He told me to meet him at a gas station the following Sunday at 6 a.m. Cockfighters don’t trust journalists. But a cocker we both trust said it would be OK, and so TJ agreed. Finally, after months of trying to gain entrance into one of the clandestine cockfighting arenas of the Southwest, I would join TJ’s caravan of cockfighters on a trip that would reconnect me with my heritage. My grandpa and my dad were cockfighters. I was raised around cockfighters. Now, at the brush fight with TJ and Gavin, I find myself wondering if time has left the family traditions and culture of cockfighting intact. With laws banning it and newspapers holding it up to public ridicule as a barbaric example of animal cruelty, I wanted to know if everything I cherished about cockfighting as a boy had been turned upside down, and whether the best days of my youth had disappeared forever on the farms and ranches of the Southwest.
Gassing up, TJ and I stand near the pumps, waiting as the tank of his minivan tops out. He’s a thin man with a shaved head. He speaks with a Southeast Asian accent even though he’s lived here for almost 20 years.
“So whatchoo write about?” he asks. “Like, what kind of story is this?”
TJ, as he always does, holds eye contact until I’m done talking, nods his shaved head and looks back at the pump. I try to think of something else to say, but Gavin walks up to the van and TJ asks if we’re ready before anything comes to mind.
“Alright. Jus’ follow me. We be there in maybe two hours.”
I want to trust this mutual friend, but that doesn’t mean faith comes easy. Driving a two-lane Texas highway, we cut through one flat farm pasture after another, gazing at pump jacks bobbing up and down and wheat tops tanning in the morning sun. But as our cockfighters’ caravan careens down the hot asphalt, I find myself pondering a puzzling question: Why should TJ bring a writer he doesn’t know to what is essentially a mass felony? Cockfighters love raising and fighting gamecocks more than anything. They work simply to pay for their expensive hobby. Who’d risk losing that by hauling a writer they don’t know to the cockfight?
The last cockfight I attended was in a barn clearly visible to the world, next to a highway. Inside, people sat in cushioned, second-hand theater seats or ate nachos at the concession stand. It was a tax-paying Oklahoma business. It had a name, Cripple Creek, and there, I had a name. In places where people are better known by their nicknames, the people at the old Oklahoma cockfights I grew up around called me Kid, Caretaker, or more often, I was Jesse the Body because of the loose tank tops that hung from my bony teenage shoulders.
In contrast to the cockfights of my childhood, there is nothing legal about the “brush fight” I’m going to now. Cockfights these days don’t even have real names, only that generic term, brush fight, borrowed from media and law enforcement.
Two days before the brush fight, I was scanning my morning newspaper and spotted a headline: “Sheriff: 3 shot to death at South Texas cockfight.” News stories on cockfighting are so uniformly one-sided that I’m ashamed of the half-truths reported. Journalists arrive at cockfights after the fact, take pictures of dead roosters and seek out lurid quotes from local law enforcement and Humane Society officials.
The first cockfight I remember, I was 5 years old, and my mom took me to watch my dad fight at a place called Blackland in Oklahoma. I got in trouble that day because I got a dollar for the concession stand from my mom, who had a rule against me gambling. I walked around for a while with that dollar, then squeezed into the theater seats behind the old ladies in the front row, who were very good handicappers. When Mom wasn’t looking, I’d tap one of them on the shoulder and ask if they’d bet me a dollar. I always picked the same rooster they did. For a dollar, they never said no, but to spite me, they paid from their coin purses. When we went to leave, I had about $5 in nickels and dimes dragging my shorts down and rattling as I walked. I told Mom I’d only bet on Dad’s roosters, but that didn’t mollify her much. She scolded me all the way back to Texas. Gambling was illegal, she said. The fights were not. Still, she let me keep my winnings.
Over the past 15 years, the fights have been outlawed in New Mexico, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, and, in 2008, Louisiana became the last U.S. state to ban the sport. Some cockers sold their farms, and others left the sport. Others continue to raise the birds; they just don’t fight them. Those that do fight them have moved from the big tin barns where they once fought legally to clandestine arenas thrown together in backyards or tucked away in the woods.
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states. It is still legal, however, to raise the birds. Some cockfighters transport their roosters to countries where the sport is still celebrated, such as the Philippines. The ultimate championship of cockfighting, the World Slasher Cup, is held near Manila twice a year in Araneta Coliseum, where Muhammad Ali once fought Joe Frazier in 1975’s Thrilla in Manila. Cockfighting results are published in The Philippine Star, but in the U.S., the leading magazines of the sport are largely gone. The Gamecock, started in 1937, once had a monthly circulation of 13,000 and 200 pages of cockfighting stories, reportage from fights, photos and cockfighting ads. Today, The Gamecock is a quarterly and its circulation has shrunk to one-fourth of what it was in its heyday, says J.C. Griffiths, the magazine’s longtime editor and publisher.
When I was a teenager, I read The Gamecock every month, poring over training strategies, transfixed on pictures of the roosters and completely absorbed by all the cockfighting correspondence from the arenas a half-hour from our North Texas farm as well as the far-flung islands like the Philippines. But most of what I learned about roosters, I learned from my dad – the way every teenager does. It’s our way of life, as much a part of our heritage as tending a herd of cattle. A young cocker learns that the fight is what roosters are born to do. Will some die? Yes, but at least they’re fulfilling their purpose.
“Do your chores, raise them right and put in all the work you can to give them their best shot.”
That’s what my dad taught me, and most young cockfighters were taught the same thing. After a while, it becomes a custom.
My brother and I fed our gamecocks twice a day. Watered them once per day. The roosters had to be dusted for mites and de-wormed once a month, then rotated to new pens and spots around the yard to keep them active. In the winter, when the water pails became ice blocks and the garden hose froze, my brother and I carried our roosters’ frozen water pails into the kitchen, thawed them in hot water, filled them again and returned them to the yard. Water soaked our jeans and boots and mud caked the linoleum floor in the kitchen. But Dad said we had to do it to give our roosters their “best shot” inside the arena.
My brother and I hated the chickens. But we liked the fights. When I was 11, my dad offered a deal. We would select and help him train some roosters for a fight. If we still didn’t care for it, the chickens wouldn’t be our chores anymore. Plus, he’d split whatever money we won, 50-50. For a month, we woke up before dawn each morning, removed the chickens from the stalls in the barn where they slept at night and massaged their sore muscles from the day before, and put them in broad pens with high roosts to strengthen their wings. We spread hay inside their pens so the roosters worked their legs, scratching through the hay to find their feed on the dirt beneath. At night, we moved them back to the stalls, fed, watered and locked them up for the night. In the morning when I didn’t want to wake up, Dad would say, “You only get back what you put into things.” At night, after feeding the other chickens, he’d stand in the barn and remind us once again: “They’ll give back everything you put into them, and then some.”
We went to the fights a month later and won the derby. I remember walking to the car with one of our roosters. A man stopped and asked me if I’d trained him. I told him I had. He asked my dad if the rooster was for sale. I looked at my dad.
“They’re always for sale,” he said to the man. “But it’s his rooster, ask him.”
“Alright. How much will you sell him for?
I looked back at my dad. He shook his head. “Don’t look at me. It’s your rooster. You make the deal.”
I’d never sold a rooster. Even though I had $500 of the money we just won, I picked a number that seemed high to me. “Thirty?”
“Deal,” the man said, and paid me the money.
I was proud of myself for negotiating the deal. On the way home, my dad taught me a lesson in gamecock economics. “It’s not that big a deal since we didn’t really like that rooster, but don’t sell your worst rooster for less than $50.”
I didn’t care. We’d just won the derby and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to get home and pick more contenders out. I worked over the roosters all that summer through the off-season. I liked the idea that you get back what you put into things, and despite life’s often cruel unfairness, it paid off. We won several derbies the next winter. I always had a hundred dollar bill or two of winnings stashed away in my closet whenever I wanted something. And what I wanted most was a 12-gauge Winchester shotgun, which I won as a trophy at a derby that winter.
So when I set out to find a brush fight five months ago, I had expected to return to the sport to find open doors and offers of iced tea. But it turns out that no one remembers Jesse the Body, or at least, almost no one. I was standing in the middle of a cocker’s game farm on a hot spring afternoon, explaining that I sure would like to see a fight. The owner, a respected cocker with hundreds of roosters, didn’t look up from the rooster’s water dish he was filling to answer me: “They’re here and there,” he said. “Nothing in the immediate future.” The cocker continued to fill his rooster’s water pails. I watched as he watered the roosters, remembering something my dad would tell us when we were watering the roosters: “Ninety-nine percent of cockfighting isn’t fighting roosters.”
The next day Dad and I sat at the end of a dirt driveway in Thackerville, Oklahoma, the location of an old fighting pit that took the town’s name. The owner, Murle Gregory, lives on the land, but no one answered the door to the brown manufactured home beside a yard full of crowing roosters. We’re about to leave when a Chevy Aero, in front of a billow of dust, approaches the house. The car pulls up next to the house and a 6-foot-tall old man in coveralls steps out and stares at us.
“Mr. Gregory?” Dad says.
“Sorry to drop in on you like this. I didn’t have a phone number to reach you. I used to fight chickens over here.”
I ask Mr. Gregory how he feels about the government outlawing cockfighting. He gnaws on a soggy cigarillo and stares at me.
“Well, I don’t know if I can say much about someone taking away my livelihood.”
I ask him to show us around the chicken yard.
“OK,” he says. “Already lost my cellphone, wallet and passport today, might as well look at something that makes me happy.”
Murle’s chicken yard is beside his house in a fenced-off half-acre area shaded by oak trees. He has about 50 young stags in the yard. He limps on one leg as he leads us into the yard, carrying a lacquered cane made of driftwood that he doesn’t actually use. The roosters cluck and drag their wings or rap them against their chests and crow. Some of their families have been on his farm for more than 30 years, he tells us as we stop in front of a red-feathered rooster with red irises. The black rings around its eyelids could have been penciled in with eyeliner. Murle looks at his birds and shakes his head.
“This is my property. They shouldn’t be able to tell me what I can do on my own property. Hell, these are my birds. Who are they to tell me what I can and can’t do with them? I’d die for that. I hope when I die, I’m fighting a good rooster,” Murle says as he walks off in front of us.
We follow him around the yard like this for a half an hour. When we’re done walking around, Murle looks out at his chickens. “They’re beautiful ain’t they?” he asks. “Beautiful inside and out. The way they act; the way they fight, how they won’t quit. I love these birds and that’s something they can’t take from me, can’t run it out of me, can’t beat it out of me because it’s right here,” he taps his left index finger on his temple.
Watching the way TJ and Gavin react when the other rooster broadsides their bird – as if a piece of them was dying in the fight – reminds me of what Murle said: “I hope when I die, I’m fighting a good rooster.” The melee ends with their rooster sliced on the leg, unable to walk. He pecks from the ground, and tries to stand because he doesn’t know what the gamblers know. Some of them forgo the Achillean end game, pay their bets and walk to another fight. TJ watches his son, who cradles the rooster during each break in the fight. He just strokes the rooster’s chest, matching its commitment, doing everything he can. He owes it that much.
The fight is over in a few minutes. TJ and Gavin walk back to their corner of the camp, looking down at their badly maimed rooster with both pity and respect. They simply can’t believe their favorite bird lost. The first time they’d spotted the young stag fighting in their yard, they figured he’d become a champion.
As I watch TJ and Gavin’s rooster get carved up by its rival, I think back to my recent trip to Murle’s game farm and to the news of the dead bodies at a South Texas cockfight. Standing alone and talking to no one, I’m paranoid that some crazy cockfighter will lose one of his prized birds and start shooting up the place. But I’m even more worried federal agents will swoop in and arrest all of us. It would help if I had someone to talk to, but the former cockfighter who rode with me to the fight is talking to an old buddy he recognized as soon as we parked the truck.
“Your name James Small?” he asked another middle-aged man.
“Yeah,” he says, inflecting the word like a question.
“You ’member me? Richard Joy?”
“Yeah, yeah, I remember you. Man, I didn’t recognize you. It’s probably been 15 years since I seen you.”
“I was just telling him,” my passenger says, pointing towards me, “you used to run around with ole Tim Bigg and we all called y’all Bigg and Small.”
“Oh yeah, Tim was always a crazy son-of-a-bitch,” Small says, taking a sip of a 16-ounce Miller. “I mean actually insane,” he tells me, to clarify he didn’t mean another type of crazy.
“I haven’t seen him in a decade, what’s he up to?”
“Oh, he died, I guess about eight years ago,” my passenger says.
“I was told they found him butt-naked in his cockhouse. Think it might have been an overdose or somethin’.”
Small laughs. “That doesn’t surprise me. He always was crazy. Like not right in the head,” the last part, again, an aside for me.
Some of the cockfighters around us have made their camps in the mesquite brush. The sombrero of one bobs above the undergrowth as he uproots a patch of bloodweed to clear the land for his roosters. His wife sits in a lawn chair nearby as his two sons play tag in the tall weeds. Other cockers help each other unload roosters. I consider walking around while Richard and Small share stories, fearing the fighters in the camp will conclude I’m an outsider. I’m relieved when Small finishes his story and he points his beer at me.
“Say, I bet you were related to Chris.”
“That’s my mom.”
“I thought so. I went to high school with your mom.”
Even though I don’t have much to say, this makes me feel welcome to stick around as the two discuss old friends I’ve never met. After a while, I feel comfortable enough to walk to the pit. I pass a man with a cockfighting shirt that reads, “No gano, pero sigue divierto!” (“I don’t win, but I still have fun!”) I sit on a bench by the pit where three older men are telling stories about a notorious cockfighter named Hiawatha. I played Little League with Hiawatha’s grandson and met the old man a few times. A big, gregarious man, Hiawatha was well liked even though everyone knew he was a notorious cheat. I’ve never known a cockfighter who didn’t know a story about him, though I never knew how exaggerated the tales were.
I thought about sharing a story that Murle and my dad had told me a few weeks earlier.
“You remember the day you banned him from your place?” my dad had asked Murle.
“I remember it well,” Murle said.
Hiawatha had been at a nearby pit the day before, Murle told us. He fitted his roosters with rigged gaff spur extensions that looked like steel. But instead of injuring the other rooster, the gaffs would bend. Sure he would lose every fight, Hiawatha had a friend betting against the doomed roosters and winning every bet.
When Murle saw Hiawatha at Thackerville the next day, he warned him that he was wise to the scheme. But Hiawatha walked into the pit for his first fight with the rigged weapons. Murle was waiting, and announced to the crowd that the weapons were fake.
My dad laughed. “And everyone started chanting, ‘Hang’im. Hang’im. Hang’im,’” my dad said.
“And when I turned around, he was gone,” Murle deadpanned. “Disappeared.”
“I did see him a few months later over at [another pit] Texoma. I told him enough time had passed if he wanted to come back. I don’t remember if he ever did.”
But before I can tell the story, a man walks into the pit and announces that the fights will start soon. Everyone starts to crowd around the pit as the first fights are called. I’m standing in the middle of them.
TJ and Gavin have two groups of roosters in the derby. Having lost their first fight, they’ll have to win four straight with their second group of roosters to win the derby. They win the first three fights of the second group, and have only one more to win. If they do, they’ll purse between $2,000 and $8,000, depending on how many fighters win four in a row.
TJ removes the last bird from the wooden carrying stall and places it in a portable folding cage to stretch as Gavin lays out supplies and selects the knife. The rooster, a cherry-red bird with coal-colored legs, is the prettiest one today, we all agree. When Gavin is ready, the two begin to tie the knife – a ritual that I liked to perform as teenager. Now, for the first time in years, I realize just how much I miss preparing gamecocks for what they love to do: fight. I wish they would let me help. When the rooster is ready, we walk to the pit. Being in the entourage gives me little comfort. I want to be a part of it, but I’m not. On our farm, I trained our birds, rising before dawn each day to prepare my cocks to become champions. All I am now is a bystander to a way of life that once meant everything to me
As Gavin weighs the rooster, we find a spot along the pit and wait. The two fighters enter the arena with the referee. Their opponent carries a sunflower-colored rooster with pearl legs. The bets favor Gavin’s red bird, which we take as a good omen. The two fighters flash the birds in the center of the arena, back up and pit.
After two ferocious clashes, the fight is over. Gavin lifts the red rooster, which falls limp in his hand, and turns him over to reveal a 6-inch gash along the bird’s chest. They exit the arena. Gavin and TJ, with me and the rest of their entourage in tow, walk back to the camp.
As we walk, TJ turns to me and asks if I’m learning anything.
I’d been thinking about that question ever since I decided to step back into the world of cockfighting, a world that shaped and defined me as a youth, and taught me lessons that have stuck with me ever since. Dad’s voice: Do your chores, raise them right and put in all the work you can to give them their best shot, has remained lodged in my head ever since I left the game. As a journalist, I struggle every time I sit down to write a story (including this one) because in laying down every word, every sentence, I feel obliged to give it my “best shot.” I don’t always succeed, but I try to give each story my “best shot.”
Besides my dad, many other cockfighters – the ones who won and the ones who lost – taught me lessons that haven’t left me either: lessons about patience, about determination. Others taught me to believe in human potential simply by witnessing their unflinching faith in their roosters flailing away in the pit.
So when TJ asked me if I’m “learning anything,” I stumble momentarily to answer. I learned that in going underground, cockfighting has radically changed. It has lost many of the grams and grandpas, moms and dads, children and grandchildren that once attended the games. It’s always been a sport for diehards, for the defiant, but cockfighting as a wholesome family tradition on the farms of the Southwest is gone, probably forever. What remains is merely a facsimile of what it used to be, a fading remnant of its glory days.
At the brush fight with Gavin and TJ, I’ve also learned something valuable about myself. I learned that I’ve changed. I’m no longer a cockfighter. Did I have fun? You bet I did, and I’d probably go back if given the chance. But I could never again squeeze myself into my old cockfighting shoes and toss a rooster down to fight with the pride I once had. That zeal, that devotion to the game, has disappeared as surely as my youth. What I’m left with are my memories – of feeding and watering my beloved birds as the dew soaked through my socks and shoes on our tiny patch of Texas countryside, of hanging on every word my grandpa and my dad taught me about cockfighting, of the old church ladies placing bets on my behalf, of Mom scolding me for wagering on roosters but letting me keep my winnings. Those memories I will cherish and cling to for as long as my memory holds.
But I don’t feel up to sharing all these thoughts with TJ. I’m not sure he’d want to hear them. All I say is, “I think a lot has changed.”
He stops walking and points his finger at me. “Nothing’s changed,” he says. “Only, we don’t have the right to do it anymore.”