There was something uncanny about Caesar.
That he was named at all—it is the cruel reality of cockfighting that it would not make much sense to name a bird, even a beloved one, too soon—marked Caesar as a gamecock of particular skill. He was a living heirloom, lovingly cultivated, his blood forever belonging to the family of his breeder, “John.”
Caesar was bred, hatched, and raised in the Basketball Belt, one of those state-straddling amalgams more defined by culture and geography than political boundaries and with names like car accidents—in this case, Kentuckiana. John lives where the region begins to roll and distend like the soft leather of a reptile egg; to reach Caesar’s home, one cuts through hills and miniscule hollers, along roads that undulate, dip, and swerve like kraits, through towns where there is no stoplight.
He died here as well—not in a fighting pit, like many of his peers and all of his opponents, but of a sudden, mysterious, and intractable illness. He died among a harem of hens and the nascent bearers of his blood, more beloved companion than battle-scarred warrior.
I only met Caesar once, but he stayed with me for years. It is little wonder; these birds have inspired humanity for centuries—still today we name our sports teams after them and fashion our idioms around them (“cock of the walk”). Fighting cocks supposedly inspired the Greek general Themistocles’s troops, who, properly roused, would go on to rout Xerxes’s Persian navy at Salamis, making a gamecock the savior of the western world, apocryphally.
But oh!, has the sport’s standing sunk since. When Louisiana outlawed cockfighting in 2008, cockers lost their last refuge in the continental US. Local police work closely with federal agencies to apply interstate commerce statutes for gamefowl or the possession of paraphernalia, the mere owning of which—as opposed to the birds themselves—is illegal. Driving a rooster across state lines or using knives made in a different state, for example, can mean getting slammed with a full-on federal offense. Simply attending a cockfight is a crime, and especially so with a minor. Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, if the authorities can prove that you own a gamefowl with the intent to fight it, they can take you in; proving the intent can be as simple as finding a gaff on the property or having eyewitness reports of fighting, and as complicated as sending in undercover agents. Perhaps the greatest opponent of the bloodsport is the Humane Society, which works hand-in-glove with law enforcement and considers cockfighting to be unnecessary and extreme cruelty, the birds merely blood sacrifices to the gambling gods.
The birds, regardless of one’s position on their purpose, have left an indelible mark on society. Cockers—those who breed, raise, and fight gamecocks—and the Humane Society—the organization whose task it is to stamp the practice out—alike find common ground here: both can readily and easily wax upon the beauty of the gamecock when asked, and the animals are, indeed, tremendously fine to behold. Their coloring is resplendent, rich, oxygenated russet reds and British Racing Greens, luxurious soupcons of purple, off-white the raw beauty and animal power of cracked bone. Their tails jut into the air with a proud, martial carriage, and their cuirass breasts and powerful thighs resemble the terrible swells of a recurve bow, all muscular billows begging for conversion to kinetic energy. Finest of all of the dozens of birds I saw at John’s was Caesar, whom we came upon tucked up and away in the back corner of his roost, watching his small kingdom with an imperiousness befitting his name.
Caesar had been tested with steel, as the cockers put it—i.e., fought, with sharp gaffs attached to his legs, in cockfights—eleven times, going undefeated in the process. Here was an athlete who had literally put his life on the line in pursuit of something intangible to him, a pure example of sport red in spur and beak, a perfectly bred creature who knew only victory. Contrary to popular belief, a gamecock mustn’t die for a fight to be over; just as roosters in the wild (or on farms) do not always fight to the death when establishing pecking orders, bouts can be called when one effectively “taps out” by refusing to fight.
None of Caesar’s fights, however, ended this way.
“What I like most about it, is it starts out as a thought in a man’s mind,” John says, easy rural warmth in his drawl, of gamecock breeding.
“Just a thought: ‘What if I crossed these two families?’ Then it becomes an egg. Twenty-one days later, you’ve got baby chicks. A year later you’ve got stags who are old enough to spar, and you can see, ‘Well, that worked out, but this over here, on the other hand, did not.’ Two years later you’ve got gamecocks. But in the beginning, it started out just a thought in a breeder’s mind.”
Caesar’s origins, like those of all highly bred animals, be they horses, dogs, or cats, are in his blood. His bloodlines came from out of state—farther south, John implied, where the gamefowl are better and the tradition stronger—with one of his parents belonging to a close friend of John’s. At least one ancestor was a proven fighter; John does not speak much about the blood, but his smile and knowing looks reveal he knew he had something fine to work with. Besides, a father’s fighting record isn’t everything.
“The hens get … little respect, I guess,” John says. “Because in reality, the hen is the goose that lays the golden egg. They are the ones. Your stags will become more like their mammas, and the pullets [a young hen] will become more like their fathers, you know what I mean?”
According to John, an average rooster and an exceptional hen will make a finer fighter than a pit-proven cock and a dud. He looks for hens that crow and that are exceptional mothers—these he takes to be signs of courage and intelligence, the two most important qualities in a gamecock. Paradoxically, he also looks for birds that are nothing but pussycats when it comes to anything but another cock. Caesar possessed the traits John seeks out in all his gamefowl: “Extremely aggressive, extremely athletic, and yet my little girl could go out there and carry him around like a pet.”
Not only does this sort of temperament make them easier to work with—imagine reaching into a cage to a cannonade, beak! spur! wings! feet! all soundtracked, ruough ruough ruogh ruhruhhhhghhhh, multiple times a day, 365 days a year, year after year after year—but for John, it’s another sign of smart breeding.
He prides himself on his breeding over anything else. Culling the bloodlines—for reasons of, among other things, over-aggression—is, according to him, the most crucial part, and key to understanding how cockers view their sport. That is, as an extension of and availing to the rooster’s natural tendency to fight.11Roosters who are found undeserving of generational immortality are either sold for bargain prices or sent to “freezer camp”—John’s family can attest to their fine flavor (they say his eggs, coming from only the strongest and smartest of hens, taste superior as well). What he is avoiding is indiscriminate hostility, which he takes as a sign of low intelligence and difficulty to work with; think an over-aggressive boxer getting beat by better technique. To him, the bird need not be a wild beserker to want to fight another cock—he’ll do that anyway—so the intelligence is more important.
To John, cockers are not forcing their birds to do something unnatural. Rather, they are, via breeding, rearing, and sparring, simply honing their nature. John says he actually respects and admires the Humane Society in many ways: a former farrier, the sight of ribs on a horse upsets him greatly, as does dogfighting—a dog must be tortured and twisted into becoming an effective killing machine. Roosters, however, can and will attack one another for simple reasons of dominance—that you cannot keep two roosters in one henhouse is not simply an idiom—and that, to cockers, makes all the moral difference.
After hatching, Caesar began his life as a free-range bird, wandering John’s backyard—a forked ridge, separated by a small but dramatic gully, the wire cages complete with roosts and wind-sheltering barrels running along either side as if sentries—and his neighbor’s. Caesar ran amongst the other little chicks, all of them catapulting into each other in mock combat. After he got a little older, he would explore John and his neighbor’s yards. The explorers, in John’s experience, are always the better fighters: if they can fend for themselves against the dogs and hawks and coyotes, they can certainly have the wits and wile to give another gamefowl a run.
“Fear wasn’t—he didn’t know the meaning of the word fear,” John says. Caesar roamed until he began to approach the other’s cocks cages, “getting bad thoughts.”
“Real bad thoughts,” John’s wife adds. (Natural animosity, honed over centuries!)
Within months, a pecking order is established among the tennis ball-looking chicks, which remains undisturbed for six months or so, when the bad thoughts begin and the birds must be penned, lest they tear their own toes off attempting to move up the order through the wires of the cages. They’ll also shake up the pecking order when it rains, as the now soaked roosters don’t look like they did before.
Caesar ate a proprietary blend of feed—“the best feed money can buy,” John says—in order to raise the healthiest and strongest bird. For his animals, he likes soaked oats, racehorse oats and whole oats, supplemented with apple cider vinegar. Corn for energy, wheat, and 14-17 percent protein. You want a lean, muscular bird, not a fat one halfway to the dinner table.
“You want him to have all kinds of body,” John says. “But … you want him to feel like he’s made out of cork. You can pick up a big old cork, that’s got a big substance to it, but it’s light as air.”
Fat can be deadly for a gamecock; their ability to take flight, high and often, can be the difference between life and death. To bring a bird in ill-health to the pit is to sign his death warrant, and it begins with the feed he ingests. Caesar, John says, was never sick a day in his life until he died, a rapid auguring in over three days. All of the antibiotics and other treatments John could think of failed.
Inside John’s cages—Caesar, like all of John’s other gamefowl, was rotated among them to prevent boredom, and tethered outside when weather permitted—was a floor of thick straw, onto which John tosses the feed. This not only gives the roosters something to scratch, which they adore, but the constant pawing of the medium also built up their crucial leg muscles, in the same way athletes flex their fingers in buckets of rice to strengthen their grips. He did nothing but explore, eat, and scratch until he was old enough to spar, at roughly eight months.
To spar, the cocks have their spurs covered by tiny boxing gloves, and they are allowed to go at each other for a few minutes at a time, just to experience combat. Within four or five fights, John knew that Caesar was a derby cock, worthy of competing in big money fights against birds raised by cockers as dedicated as he was; in essence, the cockfighting major leagues.
A cockfight takes place within a pit, usually circular or rectangular, surrounded by a wall and a fence—these fuckers can fly—and marked by pit lines eight feet apart. The pit where Caesar began his career, by comparison, was massive: roughly fifty feet in diameter, with stadium seating all around and a ring of bleachers atop it spiraling up into the sky, in an American region best known as Way Down South. And all up in those bleachers, eyes watching, eyeteeth flashing, minds calculating, were cockers, their family and friends and fans, John’s people, ready to watch one of the world’s oldest sports. The Romans referred to it as “the Greek diversion,” and cockfighting was one of England’s—and her colonies’—most popular pastimes throughout the 17th and 18th century, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Benjamin G. Rader’s book American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. Cockers particularly love to say that George Washington partook of the sport, and that “Honest” Abe Lincoln got his nickname from his calm and steady hand as an official in the pit, though evidence for both claims is limited at best.
His first fight came against a huge gamecock, gray to Caesar’s red. John was worried. His sympathetic nervous system put him into that special overdrive—afflicted him with the same mixture of tension and excitement, he said, one gets watching their kid compete. It is a singular tension and thrill, to see a living, breathing thing into which you’ve invested two years and considerable resources, both financial and otherwise, put its life on the line—and although nervous, he was not surprised at the quality of his opponent. “I wasn’t at a place where they bring second-hand roosters, man. When you show up there, you better have some double-barrel aces, you know? Or you ain’t gonna stand a chance.”
John had seen enough in Caesar to debut him here, with lots of money on the line—John won’t get into specifics, but hundreds of dollars is almost a given, and thousands would not be unheard of—and the finest of competition. You’d better be on, he thought. This is for real.
The birds are weighed, with a colored band denoting their weight attached to their legs and a corresponding ticket given to the cocker. Gamecocks are paired off by weight, and, after getting their weight re-checked, the ticket collected, and the band removed, are prepared to fight.
Moleskin wraps are applied to their legs, and a soft strap featuring their weapon is then attached over top of their natural spurs, lengthening their strikes and increasing the lethality. John refuses to fight with knives, which are exactly what they sound like; he considers them too deadly, too much in the favor of the gambler, who wants one fight over quickly so he can get to another. As such, Caesar was always armed with gaffs, which are long, thin, viperine crescents ending in smooth, round points.
The only people allowed inside the ring are “pitters” and a referee. At the ref’s order to “bill your cock,” the pitters will present their respective gamecocks to each other, who will throw up the feathers around their necks like cobra hoods and begin to peck away, their hostility coming to a boil. If a cock does not peck while being billed, he is deemed a “no show” and loses.
When both birds are suitably fired up, they are released. The opening salvo of a cockfight is equal parts balletic and ballistic, as the cocks launch into parabolic flurry, more than six feet high, each attempting to spear the other with his spurs.
The cocks get their feet and spurs in a poleaxe position, kicking their big tails down to pull their head and neck out of the fray. “You don’t want a rooster who runs in there with his head down,” John says. “He’ll get killed.”
If the birds tangle up, the pitters can separate them under the watchful eyes of the ref—to prevent, say, a plunging in of a gaff, or other forms of subterfuge; as John says, “his life and your money” are on the line inside the ring, and high stakes invite desperation and deception—and a count comes in to play. If the wounded gamecock does not show signs of a fight after the count is over, he has effectively tapped out. If he does continue to battle, the roosters are “pitted”—placed on the lines, again, and allowed to launch attacks anew.
Matches between athletic and accurate—that is to say, well-bred—gamecocks shouldn’t last more than a few minutes.22Slow but unyielding cocks will eventually be moved to a sideline, smaller “drag pit” to finish out their match at a derby—got to keep the card moving! Caesar’s intelligence and blood gave him a cold lethality. “He didn’t have long fights,” John says. “They’re in and out and in and out then one of them falls dead and it’s over.”
Gamefowl, thanks to their powerful breasts, are fairly well armored from the front, so the head and sides are considered the best places to target. John prefers a cock who will hit with speed and accuracy at the thin skin just beneath his opponent’s wings, where the gaff can reach major organs, collapsing lungs and piercing hearts. A shot to the head or neck can end a fight in one move, but those smaller targets are easier to miss; like a sniper, Caesar would aim for center of mass kills.
“I mean, a marksman who can’t hit the bullseye ain’t much of a marksman,” John says. “Caesar was one of them kinds that, when he throwed a lick, it counted.”
Caesar and the gray gamecock launched into their initial conflict, with Caesar getting cut on their first encounter. Still, his aggression and accuracy were simply too much; the combatants were pitted three times, taking to the ground after their second pitting for brutal close-quarters fighting somewhere between a knife fight and kickboxing.
“He put one in that gray and he was dead,” John says. “I shook hands and it was over.”
With two more victories, Caesar earned both his name and his status as an ace. Most gamecocks are tested with steel five or six times over their lives; Caesar, continually killing any and all who came before him, fought twice that many bouts. He was, by any measure and regardless any ethical or moral qualms, an extraordinary athlete in a game that for him was life.
His final fight was a few years ago, against a fearsome fellow red, tall and beautiful, who was nearly his equal from his feathers to his form.
“He could fight in the air, he could fight on the ground, he was a shuffler, he was a powerhouse,” John says of the bird with a mixture of respect and worry. “He had it all, man. Just like me. And when you see that going on, you know one of you’s going to die, and it ain’t gonna take too damn long.”
But it did. This was perhaps Caesar’s longest fight, with five to six pittings, a vicious contest between equally matched birds. John recalls picking him up between bouts and handling him “like an egg,” his bloody body scored across his ribs and back with the kinds of injuries he was used to delivering.
John knew Caesar was in pain, but he still looked stronger than his foe. Caesar pinned him up against the wall, raining blows from his superior position with his beak, his wings, his body, his gaffs. John’s friend urged him to call for a count, fearing that a missed strike could shatter Caesar’s leg against the wall, but John felt this was his last chance.
“We had to finish him, because if we didn’t, he would finish us,” John says. “It had come down to that.”
Flush with the wall, Caesar finally laid his enemy—first ordained by nature and competition, then honed to a fine, flesh rending point by humanity, genetics, and gambling—low, his final kill in a perfect career from which none but he escaped.
“When I walked out of the pit with him then, I was like, ‘This is it,’” John says. “I pushed him. He’s given me more than any rooster’s ever given me.”
Caesar retired to a life of breeding and feeding, unencumbered by any edicts to keep weight or fat content within a certain parameter, with no hazarding of his life on the horizon. His sons roam the ridges their sire used to, a generation already in cages, crowing mightily.
Caesar, after all, knew nothing of the legal and moral maelstrom which surrounded his life; he knew only his home, another rooster, blood, and death, death at his spur.
It is not currently a crime to raise and breed gamecocks, and perhaps it never should be—the birds are tremendous, smart and strong and worthy additions to a genetic pantheon humanity has rendered little more than a mutant laughingstock in most all of its other forms. The mastiff, the bulldog, the terrier, all trace some aspect of their breeding to bloodsport and all are now faithful companions whose existence does not raise much ire or bouts of ethical concern.
John doesn’t fight anymore, though; the penalties are far too steep for a man with a family to take care of. His remaining connection to the sport comes from his breeding, from the cultivating of bloodlines which are centuries old, and Caesar’s blood is his finest, a treasured possession and possibly endless family legacy.
“Breeding’s like breathing,” John says. “Breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out; you’ll keep ‘em strong, man. Healthy. I’ll have some of his blood ’til I—crcshkk—croak.”