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For Cockfighters, ‘It All Comes Down to This Moment’ : Traditions: Once a year, the ancient blood sport is legal in Tijuana. A fan says better to be ‘a rooster with a personality (than) an industrial product.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two cocks are flying at each other. Slashing one another. Scarlet splotches of blood splatter onto the dirt floor of the pit like tiny red stepping stones.

In the shadowy tiers of seats, voices yell as they would at a football match when one of the cocks scores a slash across the other’s breast.

There are more roars when the wounded one has the courage to get up and launch a flying counterattack of his own.

Finally, the gallo with the creamy ruff--the more handsome of the two--is plunked down for another round. His handler strokes him, pats his breast, blows air down his beak and talks to him. The referee starts his 10-count. But at the count of six, the cock drops his beak into the dust.

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A roar goes up. The victorious rooster struts across and stands over his dead adversary. Then his handler picks him up, caresses him, thrusts him forward to take his accolades from the crowd.

Rolled wads of money change hands. Mariachis blast out from somewhere high in the gloom here in La Palenque Barn at Tijuana’s annual fair--the one time of the year when cockfighting is legal.

*

Out back, the first fight’s loser lies unceremoniously on the ground.

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“Too bad,” says Jimmy J. It’s his bird. Jimmy (“Can we keep it like that, because, well, I’m from L.A., and this sort of thing isn’t too legal up there”) is the only U.S. breeder here.

“I didn’t have time to condition my birds,” he explains.

“You have to treat them like boxers. Cut down the food for a couple of days before. Get them hydrated just right. Get their weight just right. Like not only in the limits--between 4 pounds, 11 ounces and 5 pounds and 12 ounces--but also within an ounce of the bird you’re going to fight. Can’t just plunk ‘em in and hope they’ll win. . . .”

The cock that killed his bird isn’t looking too good. The rooster is lying on his back, breast heaving, in the bloody folds of the heavy yellow plastic apron of Dr. Horacio Barbarene Rojas. The vet holds him between his knees, needle and thread in one hand, tucking the rooster’s guts back in with the other so he can sew him up.

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“He’ll live,” he says. “He’ll fight another day--and father plenty of chickens. That’s why they pay me to be here. To protect their investment. One gallo might be worth $350. But with the bets that go on him, the owner might collect $3,000 on him tonight. Besides, he has spent two years breeding him, training him, giving him his vitamins. And love. Lots of love.”

“Yup, there’s a lot of love,” Jimmy says. He’s taking another of his cocks out of a row of express delivery cardboard boxes.

This one has magnificent rusty feathers in the ruff around his neck. Jimmy gives the bird a hug, caresses his ruff down, kisses him on the beak, then puts a light cage over it--right next to where a brown and fawn hen is caged.

The rooster immediately starts strutting and letting out mighty “Cock-a-doodle doos.”

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“The breeds come from Spain and England,” Jimmy says.

“But people have been cockfighting since way before there was an England or Spain. It’s an ancient sport. . . . The Greeks, the Romans, they all fell in love with raising fighting cocks, just like I have.

“First there’s choosing between the 30 to 40 breeds. Then there’s rearing them 18 months. Then you’ve got to train them. Give them the will to fight. This fellow, we’ve been in sparring matches for a month or more. Speed, cutting ability, fitness, guts and personality, they all count. And it all comes down to a moment like this. . . .”

*

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There is a sense of sanctuary here, an unspoken conspiracy to keep this thing--this other Mexico--alive. La Palenque brings with it a truce.

Friends point out off-duty police rubbing shoulders with longtime leaders of Tijuana’s underworld. Society ladies with their families sit a tier away from some of the prostitutes of La Frontera region. They’re here to enjoy, but also to make common cause for a way of life under threat.

“Please don’t write bad things about this,” says Jose Galaza, who hawks cockfight paraphernalia in Mexico. “We love it. It is us. It is older than Mexico. And it gives people like me work. See these? I sell them.” He brings out what look like little black rubber socks. “We put this on the cocks’ legs . . . to hold these.”

In his hand flash the curved claw blades, the artificial spurs that turn cockfights from barnyard scraps into life-and-death battles that make and lose fortunes--and make animal rights activists wince.

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Galaza does not apologize.

“For the cock, this is more honorable than having his head cut off at Foster Farms so you can eat him without the inconvenience of blood and reality. Here at least he is able to show his courage, his intelligence. He knows the love of an owner. He is not raised in a factory like your chickens. He is a rooster with a personality, not an industrial product you only see as dead flesh on plastic trays.”

Galaza looks at his friends.

“These are nights we wait the whole year for. It’s not like movies or discos, those American things where everything is artificial. This is the Mexico we all left down south. Where people are close to the earth, where they know their animals and are not afraid to kill their own beasts for food. Besides, it does happen in America. Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi . . . and L.A.? Ask Jimmy!”

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But Jimmy has other things on his mind right now.

“This is one of my best,” he says, leaning over his crowing rooster. “See how shiny his feathers are? Fit as a fiddle. See how red his face is? I know a good fighting rooster. In 1980, I was named Cocker of the Year--big gold world champion belt buckle, the whole deal. But in the end, it’s your cocks. Not you.”

Someone pops his head around the corner of the entrance to the pit. He nods. It’s time. Jimmy bends down and lifts the cage. His rooster walks into his arms.

“And it all comes down to this moment.” He looks into his rooster’s batting eyes. “This is it, kid,” he says. “Now remember everything I’ve taught you.”

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And he disappears into the roaring crowds and the cockpit. Rocky should ask for such an entrance.


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