FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECTS
8t Petersburg, Florida 7/
oomPlete, QCak Fighting.
2500 Words. / Seember 13,1936
/ Roland Phillips
The referee steps into the pit. He raises an arm and waits for
the crowded stands to quiet.
"First fight--between Blue Falcon--weight four-ten--and Irich
Gray--weight four-eleven and a half."
A roar of applause and cheers greets the announcement. Harried
bookies accept their last wagers, catching signals from every part
of the house. The doors and windows are open to the bright Florida
sun. The blue haze of smoke is stirred by a warm January breeze.
From a side entrance the cocks are brought in under the arms
of their handlers. The men step down into the pit. The referee ex-
amines the birds as critically as he would inspect the taped hands'
of a prize fighter. The weighing-in has been done an hour before.
The referee nods. The handlers take positions on opposite sides S
of the line that divides the raked pit. They swing the birds, still
tucked under their arms, close to each other.
The ooks glare and bristle and peck. One seizes the other's
comb, hangs on viciously. The crowd laughs. The handlers gently
shake them apart. At a command from the referee the men move back
and drop to their knees. The birds are set just so on the measured .
lines of the pit floor, facing each other. Each man has a hand
Of F1A WIEM <
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under the rump of his fowl. The cocks are bright and arrogant, their
eyes gleam wickedly. Their curved, polished gaffs shine.
'FightlI the referee shouts.
The released birds advance warily, necks outstretched, feathers
ruffled. For a monmnt they crouch and shuffle and feint like boxers
sparring for an opening. Suddenly they leap into the air, tangle in
a flurry of beaks and wings and gaffs. The spectators roar approving-
ly and the cypress rafters tremble.
The referee moves deftly about the pit so as not to obstruct the
view. He is the calmest man under the domed roof.
Down the birds drop; then up again savagely. In that flurry Blue
Falcon tops his riyal, strikes with lightning speed. Both thud to
the pit floor, locked together. They lie there panting. The referee
leans over, notes that Blue Falcon has sunk his steel deep into
Irish Gray's side.
"Handlel" he calls.
The alert handlers dart to their birds, expertly separate them,
'stroke them, flex and rub their legs and thighs, cleanse feathers
from their beaks. The referee looks up from his stop-watch at the
end of the ten-second period.
Once more Blue and Gray rush together. But Gray doesn't respond
L before. He is slow and rises awkwardly on his spiked wing. Blue
ttaoks fiercely; flies and strikes again and again as the audience
Again they lock in midair. Another ten-second recess is called
while the anxious handlers separate and work over their fighters.
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Gray doesn't look so pert. There is a rattle in his pierced throat.
The handler slips the bird's beak into his mouth and blows, endeavor-
ing to force the clotting blood down into the cock's lungs. An old
trick. Sometimes in the excitement he reverses the process.
For the third time "Fight!" is called. The birds are pitted. The
Gray, revived, comes back surprisingly. It brings cheers from his
worried backers. ne rises and strikes and Blue Falcon takes it and
gives in return. Feathers fly. Half the spectators are on their feet,
their voices thundering. The cocks are up and down, up and down,
like bounding, furry balls. Their spurs are like mirrors flashing
in the sun.
Now they're on the floor, crouching, feinting, shuffling. Their
long necks thrust and withdraw with incredible speed, the grace of
a striking rattler. The powerful beaks tear wattles and combs.
Gray is putting up the brand of fighting expected of an Irishman
and the pitside is rooting for him. But suddenly he falls, tries to
get up. Blue springs at him, bowls him over. Gray beats his wings
upon the tan bark and Blue Falcon strikes at them. The gallant
Irishman doesn't retaliate. His handler eyes him sadly.
Blue Falcon pecks distainfully at his floored foe, struts and
flaps his burnished wings. The vanquished cock must struggle on in
the pit until the fight is lost by ruling, until all bets are de-
cided, unless its handler acknowledges defeat while his bird still
breathes. That isn't likely. Irish Gray's man is glum but adamant.
Perhaps through some miracle. .
Watch in hand the referee counts up to twenty. Gray is still
limp and blood trickles from his head. It darkens a spot on the tan
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,bark. Other spots will be there before long.
The referee lifts his arm. He can scarcely be heard above the
"Fight won--by Blue Falcon!"
Prolonged whoops from the Blue adherents rattle the boarded sides
of the stadium. The winner's handler skips off, cuddling his feathed-
ed gladiator. Gray's man shuffles from the pit with his dead bird.
The betting begins once more with renewed fervor.
From the open windows bac of the topmost tier one glimpses a
blue lake. Close by a tiny, weather-beaten church lifts its shingled
spire to become a part of the freize of pines against a sky dappled
.with puff-ball clouds. In a clearing endless rows of cars are parked.
The referee methodically stamps down the rough places in the
pit and consults his card. Presently his arm goes up.
"Second fight--is between. "
Promptly it is underway. One after another, strictly on schedule,
the fights proceed throughout the warm afternoon, the evening. Ex-
-citement never abates. A few spectators straggle out, but only a few.
t cost a five-spot to witness the day's card; a bargain price. In
he pre-panic era it was $15--and more.
A pit show of this caliber is staged once a year. It takes place
he last week in January on the Deer Island Game Club grounds near
rlando. It has been repeated for 17 consecutive winters. As an in-
ernational event it ranks as the only one of its magnitude in the
rld. That's something for devotee and cocks to crow over. In the
ealm of roosterdom, it corresponds to the famed Kentucky Derby
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in the horse-racing world.
The cream of the birds from the United States, from Canada, Cuba,
Mexico, many South and Central American countries are entered. And
entrance fees are $500. It's no place for dunghills. The top purse
is $4000. Fifth money is 100 of the gate, not to exceed $500. All
over that sum is divided equally among the other prize winners. Not
so far back purses were twice as big. You paid $2000 to enter your
birds and the box office nicked your bank roll for $25 for a day's
Two mains, for long or short heels, are scheduled as a prelim-
inary to the tournament. Your roostersibetter be good. Some owners
fly down by plane from Canada and the Pacific coast with their en-
tries. Others roll in on private cars from the big-money belt. It's
noroompany for tin-horns. Cockgers of the world are here; the loyal
fanciers, the playboys, the millionafles. There's only a casual up-
raised eyebrow when a five-grand bet is made.
There is no State law against the sport in Florida. It is con-
ducted openly and aboveboard, and in permanent pits. Although not
advertised in newspapers and over the radio, or referred to in the
daily sports columns, the trade papers carry half-page announcements
months in advance of the tournament along with stories of past per-
Sformanoes, display ads of numerous leading breeders and all those
Swho cater to the profession.
Through some unwritten agreement, contests are not referred to
as cook-fights, but as mains and hacks and meetings. Those interest-
ed do not mind the trifling camouflage.
Miami has announced its first international tournament to be held
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in February, with entrance fees and purses similar to Orlando's.
Jacksonville holds its big mains on an upper floor of a downtown
office building. Organized game clubs with permanent pits operate
/n Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Gainesville and Tallahassee. The majesty
of the law are among the rabid fans, and sports writers grow jittery
over the 'gentlemen's" agreement that padlocks typewriters.
Florida pits abide by McCall's rules, and only conical gaffs, re-
strioted to a two and one-half inch length are permitted. The State
ranks high in breeders, in purse-winning birds, and is tops in gate
receipts as well. The season is from Thanksgiving to July.
The approved pit is about 16 feet in diameter, and regulation
fights run from 20 to 30 minutes. Prolonged matches are transferred
to a 'drag" pit where cooks battle to a decision under another refer-
ee. Tournaments are governed by bird weights ranging from 4.12 to
6.02, although there is a give-and-take allowance of two ounces.
Heavier fowls are "shakes' and fall into the heavy-weight class
where, as in the squared circle, poundage is unlimited.
The jargon of cookers is as picturesque as that of baseball and
equally as cobnounding to the uninitiated. "Stags" are rookies yet
to pass their first cook moult. A "blinker" is a bird blinded in one
eye and usually given a four-ounce handicap. A dunghilll* is a mon-
grel, a term contemptuously applied to all barn-yard fowl.
A "main" is a contest between individual owners, fought with odd
numbered pairs and won on the odd. Wagers are generally placed on
each fight, however; so that the loser of the main either must pay
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off on the remaining contests or fight them out.
The artificial spurs that replace the cook's natural ones, known
as "gaffe" or "heels",.are of infinite variety. They are handmade of
tool steel and prices begin at $7.50 a pair. Needle-pointed and curv-
ed, these weapons have a socket that fits over the cut-down natural
spur and are held in position by a soft leather strap secured to the
leg with waxed thread.
The "slasher" type, used abroad, but banned in the United States,
has razor-keen edges, in addition to its points, and results in mur-
derously short fights.
Heeling a cock is an art attained by long experience. A bird's
build, stance and fighting form, together with the curve of its
natural spur, all must be considered.
In the arduous training necessary to produce able feathered war-
riors, a challenger is worked, schooled and dieted as religiously
as the pugilist. He is "walked" by skilled conditioners on a range
to harden muscles. He is "tossed" and "flirted" to develop extra-
ordinary wing power and perfect balance. Some are trained with a
realistic chanticleer on a stick that the duped cock delights to
attack. Miniature boxing gloves, or "muffs", are used in sparring
matches. Florida birds are shipped to Kentucky and Carolina farms
during the summer to escape the heat.
The business of handling birds just prior to and during a fight
is termed "setting". The operator is a pitterr', a *setter" or a
handler. In America, regulations do not permit a bird being touched
during a fight except upon referee's command. In India, a handler
may take up his bird at any time during a contest, but he is
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A* limited to ten "pants" in any one match. Throughout Japan and
Siam, no handling is permitted and cocks fight to the death.
Although generally held to be illegal, cock fighting continues
to flourish. There has been a vast improvement in'the sport, in the
attitude of breeders and the deportment of the devotees at the pit-
side during the past quarter century. Full credit is due organized
game clubs and higholass refereeing.
Once held covertly in barns of the back country, with male aud-
iences exclusively, it is now conducted in permanent pits and at-
tracts an orderly clientele of both sexes.
Fanciers maintain the contests are not so inhuman once the na-
ture of the game bird is understood. Belligerency is so predominant
in the cock, due to centuries of breeding, that battle to the death
is its prime delight. Along the slopes of the Himalayas natural pits
where the wild cocks hold their battles, are to be found. Travelers
have been fortunate enough to witness these matches held without
benefit of man-made rules.
The varieties of fighting cocks are endless. In America, origin-
ally, names were applied to real strains as derived from some re-
markable breed; but today they cannot be taken seriously, being more
or less a trade-mark. There has been a uniformity in breeding, type
and color, but the American bird is the equal of any in the world.
It is the man behind the strain who is responsible for the superla-
tive quality, be they Shufflers, Warhorses, Roundheads or Mugwumps.
The United States inherited the game-cock spirt from Spain and
Merry England, whose early sailors brought over their birds along
with their cannon and cutlasses. Throughout the South the haughty
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Don~jhPe prompt to introduce their national fowl. Florida, popular
then as now, doubtless saw the first mains of the New World.
Cockfighting is so old that any attempt to establish its age
seems futile. That it is the oldest entertainment of man is unquest-
ioned. It probably originated in India, the birds snared and tamed
wild jungle fowl. In Institutes of Manu, written 30 centuries ago,
laws and regulations governing the sport were mentioned.
Early Egyptian drawings show cooks in natural feather, where
Persian sculpture portray them trimmed. Greeks have immortalized the
bird on coins and vases. Gaffs and slashers of gold and other metals,
the tempering of which remains a long-lost art, have been uncovered
in ruins of cities whose inhabitants are unknown to scientists.
The earliest volume in English, Commendation of Cocks and Cock
Fighting, by George Wilson, was printed in London in 1607. Today
scores of books and regularly issued periodicals are to be found.
Leading publications in the United States are Grit And Steel; Game
Cock; The Feathered Warrior; and Knights of The Pit.
In 500 B.0, that doughty old Greek, Themistocles, halting his
troops and pointing to game cocks fighting, spake thusly: "Behold,
soldiers, they do not fight for nation, for their gods, nor their
ideals, nor liberty. Only pride animates them to fight so far as
neither would like to suffer defeat. And you, compelled to defend
so much, would you not do likewise?"
And tradition has it the men, inspired by the stirring words,
promptly hopped upon and routed their foes. But tradition fails to
tell us that the Greeks fed their warriors upon the prescribed
game-cock diet--raw meat and garlic.