Is that a Rooster in Your Mouth?

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Scott Brennan

At a cock fight in Nicaragua, a participant holds sharp metal hooks, which are attached to the bird's foot with string.

When not wearing a tie and working at his day job in the financial sector, Roberto Ruiz spends his time the way a growing number of Nicaraguan men do: training roosters for razorblade battles to the death. It's like training a boxer, he says. A good program includes running the bird to build stamina (hooded sweatshirt optional), putting the bird in the sun to sweat out grease and develop plumage, and throwing the bird up in the air to build wing strength.

On the weekends, it's fight time. Throughout the country, galleros — as folks who raise and fight roosters are known — bring their avian warriors to their neighborhood cockfighting arena. The wealthier galleros show up in pickup trucks and SUVs, carrying their roosters in wooden travel cases. The poorer ones show up on bicycle or by bus, carrying their birds in a plastic bag. After the weigh-in, the birds get razorblades strapped to their feet, the bets are cast, the beers are popped, and the fights begin.

The birds don't have to be told what to do. "They're born for battle," says one gallero. The fights, a frenzied flurry of flapping and fluttering, last 15 minutes, or until one of the birds dies in the ring. The winners — pecked, plucked and bloody — are usually allowed to recuperate for several weeks before training for another fight. The losers get turned into to soup to cure Monday hangovers.

Cockfighting is to Nicaragua what NASCAR is to the United States: to the outsider it might look like a bunch of guys sitting around circular grandstands drinking beers and calling it sport, but a closer look reveals a unique cultural insight that few other events offer. "Cockfighting is a gentleman's sport that was first brought here by the Spanish," says Mario Tapia, publisher of the national bimonthly cockfighting magazine Gente de Gallos. "It's an event that draws all sectors of society together, everyone from doctors to politicians to the rural poor."

Cockfighting is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Nicaragua. Even the smallest hamlet has at least one cockfighting arena, and no town's patron saint festivals are complete without a cockfight tournament. There are 46 registered cockfighting arenas in the capital alone, and many other clandestine ones in people's homes. Managua's mayor recently announced the city's plans to build the largest cockfighting arena in all of Central America. The sport is illegal in the United States, but there are no movements to outlaw cockfighting in Nicaragua. Considering that 22 of the 91 lawmakers in the last National Assembly were galleros, any motion to outlaw it here would probably be pecked to death on the floor of Congress.

Cockfighting is so popular in Nicaragua that it has become part of commercial and political culture as well. One of the largest electronics distributors in the country is called "El Gallo Mas Gallo" (the cock of the walk); and President Daniel Ortega ran unsuccessfully for office in 1996 campaigning on the image of "The fighter cock with razorblades strapped to his feet" — an image he toned down for his victorious presidential bid last year.

Cockfighting is quite violent and — for lack of a better word — Osbournesque, as in shockrocker Ozzy Osbourn, not the playwright John Osborne. The first time I saw a gallero stick the bloody head of a wounded rooster in his mouth, suck on it like a popsicle, and then spit out a thick stream of chicken blood, I thought the combination of beer and sun was playing feverish games with my head. Across the arena I saw my friend Jon's face, and he had the same open-mouth-lost-gringo expression that I imagined my face was showing. No one else seemed surprised by what they were seeing; a small boy drinking a Pepsi was staring up at me — as if I were a more curious sight than the man with a rooster in his mouth.

"That's to give the rooster good life," one spectator commented. He explained that the gallero has to suck the blood out of the rooster's beak-pecked neck to keep it from drowning so it can fight another round. "It's the ultimate sign of being a macho man," another spectator said. Well if that's the test of virility, call me a chicken.