Tradition of the cockfight

As most everyone knows, a cockfight is a match between two specially trained roosters traditionally held in a ring called a cockpit. The activity has a long tradition in American culture.


First the English and then the Irish brought in their favorite breeds of fighting roosters. Many of the founding fathers participated, including Washington and Jefferson — as well as subsequent presidents like Jackson and Lincoln — all fought their roosters, with the White House grounds being the setting for not a few matches. The activity was widely popular throughout the southern mountains until very recent times, when it was outlawed by state mandates. But I strongly suspect that matches are still held from time to time in remote coves.

Cockfighting can be considered a traditional sporting event or an example of ritualized violence involving animal cruelty. In the United States today, it is legal only in Louisiana and New Mexico. Prohibition is imminent in the latter state, where it has been suggested in the media the reason might have something to do with the race for the presidency being waged by New Mexico’s Bill Richardson. The governor has recently come out strongly in favor of a ban after refusing for years to take sides.

The combatants, known as gamecocks or cocks, are specially bred birds, conditioned for increased stamina and strength. They possess inherent aggression toward all males of the same species. Wagers are almost always made on the outcome of a match, with the winner being determined by various rules. Not all fights are to the death. The birds are often equipped with either gaffs or knives tied to the leg in the area where the bird’s natural spur has been partially removed.

Harold A. Herzog, Jr., of Mars Hill College, noted in an essay in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (UNC Press, 1989) that, “Though cockfights take place throughout the country, a disproportionate number of fans are found in the rural South .... A sociological study of cockfighters indicated that, as a group, they were not psychopathic, sadistic, or in other ways psychologically disadvantaged ... Individual matches vary in length from a few minutes to over an hour, and usually the loser dies from injuries sustained during the match. Surprisingly, the fights are not as visually gruesome as one might expect. The steel gaffs inflict puncture wounds that bleed relatively little, and the birds’ feathers tend to conceal blood ... Because the sport is illegal in most areas, cockpits remain in a location only if local authorities look the other way ... Cockfighting is deeply rooted in southern culture. The mascot of the University of South Carolina, for example, is the ‘fighting gamecock.’ To those outside of the sub-culture, cockfighting may be synonymous with cruelty, violence, and brutality. To the cocker, however, it is a noble pastime that embodies the values of courage, stamina, and competition, and in many areas of the South, cockers proudly display bumper stickers and special license plates proclaiming their involvement in “the sport of kings.’”

Based on interviews conducted by students in Rabun County, Ga., Foxfire 8 (Anchor Books, 1984) devoted an entire section divided into three parts and consisting of over 100 pages of text and photos to “Cockfighting.” The title of the first part is indicative of the content: “”Breeds, Breeding, Selling, Raising, Combs, Conditioning, Fighting, and the Law.” The second and third parts are graphic interviews with two local cockers.

In regard to his stock, Paul B. Stamey of Brasstown noted that, “Our chickens is just tough sluggers. They’re not fancy fighters, but when they get hurt a little bit, they get madder. Then they get more vicious. They go to pushing the fight with him more. They fly straight into the rooster. They don’t fly high, sail over and come down on him and all that stuff. In other words, we just actually breed for power and toughness. And if you don’t hit our chickens in the brain, the heart, or the lungs, they’s no stopping them. The more you cut them, the more they hit, and if they fight an hour or two hours, I guarantee you, one of our Butchers ... is gonna hit them many more times ‘cause he’s exhausted, but he’ll come up with the bustingest lick. They’s a lot of men would rather have a rushing, fighting, fast, slam-banging, hitting-and-missing chicken. They like to get it over, win or lose. But a chicken that does all that damn stuff is not that good. If one of ours ever hits him deep, it’ll take the fancy stuff out of him.”

I’ve known a cockfighter, now deceased, here in Swain County and I’ve seen fighting cocks up close in their pens, but I’ve never witnessed a match in person. Recently, however, I acquired a 12-minute, color video titled “The Feathered Warrior” (1973), which was directed by Ben Zickafoose with Gene DuBey and Bill Hatton. As the blurb advertising the film accurately describes it, “’The Feathered Warrior’ portrays the widely practiced, but illegal, sport of cockfighting. The film opens with a slow motion sequence of a fight accompanied by a traditional tune played on a saw. Troy Muncie, a seasoned cock breeder and fighter who has won over 65 percent of his fights, outlines the rules of the game, describes the breeding techniques and fighting skills needed to win, and talks about why people enjoy the sport. Muncie is shown preparing a prize rooster for combat, and placing the rooster in the ring against its opponent. There the gaffs are installed, the two roosters face each other for the tease and the fight begins.”

It is a fight to the near death won by Muncie’s gamecock. If you want to see for yourself, go to Appalshop’s online catalog and order the video:

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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