Vegas Guy: Okies gaff cockfighting

By JOE BOB BRIGGS, The Vegas Guy  |  Nov. 19, 2002 at 7:39 PM
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LAS VEGAS, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- I used to think of Oklahoma, land of Will Rogers, as one of the last bastions of independent thinking and a sort of populist devil-may-care I-don't-give-a-flip hardscrabble democracy.

Forget that. Two weeks ago they banned cockfighting -- America's oldest form of competitive sports gambling -- in what can only be called the majority picking on the minority, people in cities picking on people in the countryside, the rich disapproving of the poor, and do-gooders (most of them women) picking on farm people (most of them men) who work with animals and fowl for a living.

After years of trying to get the sport banned by the state legislature, an organization called the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting forced a ballot referendum that stirred up all kinds of passion on both sides. Kelly Barger, head of the Oklahoma Game Fowl Breeders, had always depended on the legislature to protect the sport, knowing that he had no chance against the overwhelming numbers in the population centers of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where urban-dwellers are cut off from cockfighting's history. Even with this disadvantage, the proposal to ban cockfighting passed only by 55 to 45 percent. (There are a few independent Okies yet.)

That leaves only two states where roosters can fight -- New Mexico and Louisiana -- and just to put this in perspective:

Even the Puritans of the 17th century, who were notoriously anti-gambling, did NOT ban cockfighting. (They were paying attention, too, because they did ban bear-baiting and gander-pulling, two other imports from England.)

Why would so many people, who have never been to a cockfight and could care less about attending one, vote to deny the sport to the people who enjoy it, especially when the gamefowl breeders are from a different kind of culture that might have a different set of values? More than anything else, this was a judgment on the people, not the sport itself. The cockfight opponents were saying, "You people shouldn't BE like that."

There was another element to it as well. Lame duck Gov. Frank Keating, who supported the ban, said, "It is simply embarrassing to Oklahoma to be seen as one of a tiny handful of locations outside the Third World where this activity is legal."

And Janet Halliburton, leader in getting the question placed on the ballot, said, "We have been the laughing stock of the nation."

In other words, these rednecks were EMBARRASSING us -- about as lame a reason to pass a law as I can think of. Wouldn't it be more politically correct to say that cockfighting was part of the state's diversity? That we should support it BECAUSE it's a minority cultural tradition? They certainly wouldn't have banned it if it had been primarily an Indian sport, because Indian traditions in Oklahoma are more or less sacrosanct.

What I'm wondering now is what is going to happen to all the breeders. Mississippi and Oklahoma are the states where most of the serious breeding is done, preserving blood lines that go back to 12th-century England and Ireland. Some of the famous old breeds like Warhorses, Fannie Carters, Eslin Red Quills, Arkansas Travelers, Cotton Bolls and Hustlers are still represented among Oklahoma fighting cocks, but in one fell swoop they not only became worthless, but ILLEGAL. Not just illegal to fight -- illegal to OWN.

Overnight the breeders became potential felons, and I'm not sure they can even sell their birds to breeders in Mississippi, Texas or Louisiana without risking a 10-year prison term or a $25,000 fine.

It's true that American breeds haven't been the best in the world for several decades now. It's generally acknowledged that Filipino cocks -- bred in the cities of Cavite, Negros and Iloilo -- are the finest and fiercest internationally, highly prized even as far away as Australia, East Timor and Colombia. The big "sabong" arena in Manila still has fights 365 days a year, making it the world capital of the sport.

But it's actually more a part of our heritage than theirs. The leading birds from England and Ireland were imported here beginning in the 17th century, and to this day we stick pretty closely to Old English rules. (The birds must be within two ounces of each other's weight, the pit must be 18 to 20 feet in diameter, etc.)

The principal innovation of modern times is ultimately what brought the sport down -- the use of metal knives and gaffs attached to the back of the cock's leg.

The gaffs were originally intended as a humane gesture. Roosters will fight forever. A rooster pecked to death dies a long, slow, agonizing death. In Argentina, where they still fight without knives or gaffs, a match can sometimes go on for 50 minutes. With the gaffs, death is usually sudden. The fights are over within five minutes. And if a rooster is totally outclassed,he will turn tail and run, which produces a deathless result.

The common perception in modern times, however, is that the knives make the sport more cruel. It's a cultural divide that's impossible to cross. You either thrive on the blood, dirt and stench of the cockpit, or else you think it's an abomination against nature. There's nowhere in between.

Cockfighting has been slowly dying in America for 200 years. It reached its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when virtually every tavern and every courthouse had a cockpit somewhere nearby. The word cockpit, in fact, was invented by Southerners -- "Cock-pitte" was the originally spelling -- after the sport took root in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia.

In those days it was not uncommon to see the fights advertised and promoted. Here's an ad from the Virginia Gazette of 1768: "At Sussex Courthouse on April Fourth: A match of Cocks, between the Brunswick and Sussex Gentlemen to show 30 cocks a side, for 5 1 a battle, and 50 1. the odd."

I'm not sure what the numbers mean. I think it's either a shillings-and-pence price for entering the competition, or else 50-to-1 odds on the last cock standing. (Presumably the promoter took his 10 percent, then as now.)

But gamecocks slowly came to be regarded as a lower-class sport, and as wealth and cities grew, attention shifted to gentlemen's games -- mainly cards and especially horse racing. In fact, the colonial courts ruled that the laboring classes weren't allowed to participate in horse racing at the big tracks in Williamsburg, Annapolis, Alexandria and Fredericksburg. Only gentlemen could participate, leaving the masses with cockfighting, dice games, wrestling, ninepins and other tavern games. (One exception was New York City, where cockfights were part of the "fancy life" as late as the early 19th century.)

Oddly enough, the sport was hardly regulated at all, even in states where it was legal. This is another factor that led to its downfall. With money on the line, owners will resort to anything, so increasingly in the 20th century, there were allegations of stimulant drugs used on the birds, blood-clotting medications, and dietary formulas that may not have been in the cock's best interest. In horse racing, all these things are regulated -- it's virtually impossible to drug a horse at most major tracks -- but for some strange reason the states never set up agencies to provide similar legislation for the cocks.

No doubt there will always be cockfighting, legal or not. In eastern Kentucky, for example, it's so much a part of local history -- passed down from generation to generation -- that they more or less openly advertise matches and derbies. (A 47-cock derby near Williamsburg, Ky., was surreptitiously filmed by a Lexington television station just last August.)

In south Texas, matches are very common, since in Mexico the sport is not only legal but flourishing. (Twenty gamecocks were seized in late September in a Fort Worth raid.) I wonder what's going to happen to the big gamecock arena in Kingston, Okla., near Lake Texoma, where families from three states have been flocking on weekends for decades. Forcing the fights underground, of course, makes it impossible to control drugs or diet at all.

Among the hysterical claims made by the anti-gamecock forces was that it was a $1 billion a year business in Oklahoma alone. This is a nonsense figure, but if it were true, my question would be: Doesn't that indicate that perhaps a number of Americans think it's OK? Unfortunately, they're not the Americans who write newspaper articles or lead petition drives or get invited to serve on the Chamber of Commerce. Like the laborers of 300 years ago who weren't allowed to enter their horses in races, the followers of this sport are the outcast and the damned -- and now, in 48 states, the dispossessed.


E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at or visit Joe Bob's Web site at Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.

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