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A true gamecock is a perfect fighting machine. Back of him are centuries of breeding which have preserved his gameness, his lightning quickness and his ability to strike with power far beyond what might be suspected in a chicken. His plumage glistens with a radiance unknown among his cousins of the barnyard. When conditioned for the pit his endurance is mighty. In his prime he is the spirit of arrogance and in combat the only thing that stops him is death.
These traits, embodied in this descendant of the wild Asiatic jungle fowl, are why cockfighting is still one of the world's most widespread sports. Scenes such as those in the photographs on the following pages, taken at a Puerto Rican cockpit, are duplicated with variations in Europe, Asia and North and South America.
To many outside the cockfighting fraternity it is not a sport at all but a cruel pastime which should be stamped out. In this country almost every state has laws against it. At the same time its presence in almost every state makes it one of the most thriving illegal sports in the U.S.
To most people in the U.S. cockfighting is like a summer breeze. It is all around them but they never see it. Once in a while they hear a rustle when the authorities raid a cockpit and haul the chicken fighters and their birds off to court. The usual result is that the game cocks are seized and their owners fined. The latter shrug their shoulders with the attitude of an oppressed minority and look for a safer place to hold their fights.
Despite its illegality, members of the fraternity know that in this country their sport is experiencing a boom. Cockfighting has several successful "trade" magazines (among them The Gamecock and Grit and Steel) which openly advertise forthcoming tournaments. Mains and hackfights are being held in barns and cockpits over most of the nation. At a recent tournament in Florida 128 battles were staged over a four-day period to decide the ownership of $11,000. This purse, of course, was in addition to the pitside betting.
Cockfighters take a deep pride not only in the gameness and prowess of their birds but in their lineage. There are strains which have been handed down through generations in this country; among them are such great families as the Allen Roundheads, the Shelton Roundheads and the Clarets.
The breeding, rearing and fighting of gamecocks is as complicated as the racing of Thoroughbreds. Given a successful breeding program it is still a long way from the shell to the pit. Most game chickens are raised by hens, the fraternity feeling generally that a natural upbringing is best. Once the young males, called stags, begin to reach maturity all tarnation breaks loose. One day a man will have a yardful of stags which have lived peacefully together all their lives. The next morning he will find them fighting all over the place. At this point they are separated and from then on their only contact with other males will be in sparring bouts with boxing gloves, called muffs, or in deadly combat in the pit.
The most important phase in preparing a cock for battle is the conditioning or "keep" period. Standing before a padded table, the feeder, as the conditioner is called, tosses the cock into the air to exercise his wing muscles and cross-walks him by pushing him back and forth across the table. This exercise is increased each day until the cock is tossed into the air as many as 50 times. Meanwhile a most elaborate feeding program is in force, including such items as chopped beef, cooked grain and chopped nuts.
If all goes well the cock arrives at the pit bursting with energy and crowing almost incessantly. He is matched against another cock within two ounces of his weight for a specified wager. A short time before the fight the handlers are told to heel up.
In this country the weapons with which cocks are heeled are gaffs—round, curving, steel needles which are fastened over the natural spurs by means of leathers and waxed string. In Puerto Rico they often use artificial spurs glued over the stubs of the natural ones.