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Note: This is in no way an endorsement of cockfighting. Cockfighting has deep roots in many cultures across all hemispheres. Something that deeply engrained in human culture seemed worth a look.

At 8 o’clock on Christmas Day, most people are having Christmas dinner. I was at a cockfight. To be specific, the biggest cockfight of the year in all of Nicaragua – the playoffs and Super Bowl all rolled into one. Between  the hours of 6:00 PM and 4:00 AM, Leon’s Rosera is filled to the brim with fans screaming bets as literally scores of roosters fight to the death – two by two.

Seeing a cockfight on Christmas was not my first thought when we determined that we would be spending our Christmas in Nicaragua’s progressive former-capital. The cobblestone streets and 18 massive catholic churches hinted at a more ladylike municipal demeanor. Yet, as soon as we crossed the threshold at our hostel, we were greeted with a sign reading “Cock fights on Sundays.” Surely not on Christmas Day. Wrong.

Carlos, who normally runs the Sunday excursions let us know that not only was there a cockfight on Christmas but that it was the largest of the entire year for the entire country. Got me. 

Those who know me know that I’ve been trying to go to a cockfight (ideally, legally) ever since I failed to make it to one of Cuba’s notoriously large, high-rolling, and highly secretive cockfights during our time there.  While Christmas Day wasn’t what I had in mind, Nicaragua’s long history (read: obsession) with the brutal bloodsport is legendary.

With Patricio (a Leon native and fan of the sport) as our guide for this admittedly sketchy endeavor, we arrived at Leon’s Rosera by a $1 cab around 8:00. The festivities were well underway. We paid $5 each to get in where hundreds of Nicaraguans gathered around beer stalls, food vendors, roulette tables, and entrenadores showing off their birds. The crowd is overwhelmingly but not exclusively male.

The Setup

In the middle of it all, stadium-style stair seating is recessed into the ground. We snuck into a few of the remaining seats close to the center just as the fights were changing. Entrenedores (trainers) come out with their birds ahead of the fight, taking a few minutes to get them riled up. One unlucky rooster is folded into a purse-like bag with two handles that is then shoved into the face of the competing bird. The helpless purse-bird is then submitted to scratching and pecking in addition to swinging around and rough drops from the trainer.

The first thing you notice as the roosters flail is a sharpened metal spur called a gaff is attached to one leg . Apparently, roosters actually grow their own spur in Nicaragua, but it gets removed when they’re young to prevent them from killing each other. The new artificial gaff is added to give them their weapon back, and help accelerate the fight. The trainer attaches the gaff by wrapping it to the roosters leg with wire first, then with electrical tape.

Each fight is overseen by a sort of referee and la Rosera didn’t disappoint. The night’s fights were being overseen by Pablo Escobar himself – or at least his look alike. Pablo would begin every fight by swabbing the birds’ breasts and wings with a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol – apparently to ensure there were no foreign substances there that could give the bird a competitive edge in the fight. Once complete, the trainers knock their birds together a few times before letting them loose to begin the fight.

The Betting

Anyone who has ever been to a horse race knows that the sport is nothing without money on the line. La Rosera was no different. What seemed like 80 percent of the crowd would yell their bets at bookies (also in plain clothes and in the crowd) ahead of each fight. Many of the birds weren’t famous enough for well-known names, so shouts like “La Gallina” (the hen), “El Colorado” (the red one), or simply the waving of hands to one side of the ring or the other to indicate the trainer would suffice. Fingers went up into the air to indicate the number of Nicaraguan Cordobas (in hundreds). Upon finishing the fight, bills would be passed through the crowd so that winners, losers, and bookies all seemed satisfied.

The Fight

Cockfights in Central America are generally a fairly drawn-out affair. Multiple rounds of 15-minutes can mean fights lasting up to an hour. For this evening, however, it was a four-minute death match that would end in a tie if no competitor managed to finish off his opponent.

It all begins with a standoff. Heads low. Necks outstretched. Crowns of feathers fanned out. The roosters have to strut their stuff before the once white feathers become bloody and matted.

This act lasts just a few seconds before the clawing and kicking begin. With their knives strapped to their legs, the next minute or so belongs to flurries of feathers as they aim for an early slash to a vulnerable stomach or neck.

Then first blood is drawn. And the crowd goes nuts. The roar is more audible than anything else throughout the match – including the kill. The momentum is decided by who draws blood first.

Once the blood comes, it spreads. The once-brilliantly colored, plumed birds quickly transition into a mange of blood-soaked feathers. Their energy begins to wane and the flying kicks progress to pecking and scratching. If one bird appears to get too much of an upper hand, Pablo would whistle for a pause.

The trainers grab their birds and nurse them back into fighting shape. They wipe blood from their eyes and smooth their feathers if all is going well. If not, trainers often give mouth-to-mouth to keep their injured birds breathing into the next round. Their shirts – many of which were (inexplicably) white – become covered in the birds’ blood.

As one bird begins to gain the upper hand, Pablo continues to parse out the remainder of the fight into shorter and shorter “rounds” until one bird is finally the victor or both manage to survive the four minutes. Victories are met with raucuous cheers from the increasingly festive crowd while ties are met with groans and complaints from the fans and bookies alike.

Is it right?

Cockfighting is brutal. There is no doubt about it and seeing more than a dozen fights in a row hit this point home better than any amount of PETA propaganda could have. However, it’s also a piece of cultural heritage – across the world – older than most religions. While tradition is not necessarily an excuse, Nicaraguans clearly do not take each animals death lightly nor does it breed some sort of blood lust. To the contrary, the appreciation for the birds’ skill as a fighter earns the birds an appreciation here closer to that of a thoroughbred than that of a value pack of supermarket chicken thighs.

So I don’t know. While I can certainly see why many western countries have outlawed cockfighting altogether, I wouldn’t call our nation’s relationship with violence or poultry any healthier than those in Nicaragua. Seems like Jesus said something about taking the log out your own eye before the speck out of your neighbor’s. That might apply here.