SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Walter Rodriguez sits high in the seats at Isla Verde's Club Gallistico, watching as his bird prepares to fight for its life in the pit below.
This is a bird Rodriguez has nurtured for more than a year, a bird picked from a long line of fighters and meticulously trained for this moment. This is a bird that, according to Rodriguez, carries his own fighting soul with him.
"Their fight is our fight. It is like a part of ourselves fighting in the pit," he says.
Thirty-five seconds later, the bird is carried out of the pit, bloody and near death. Rodriguez's fighting spirit is wounded, too.
"It is very emotional sometimes," he says. "Sometimes you have to be ready to lose in the cockpit."
Rodriguez lost one of his prize roosters in that fight, but he wasn't the only loser. Some fans among the 200 in the club that day lost money betting on the fighting spirit and skill of his rooster, though some won money betting against it.
This scene is repeated every day, in 110 cockpits across Puerto Rico.
During the Montreal Expos' recent 10-game "home-stand" in San Juan, tourism officials provided reporters from the mainland a look at the culture of the island: rum factories, nature preserves, museums and historic neighborhoods.
Never did they mention the part of the culture that truly is a passion in Puerto Rico — far more than is baseball — even though the busloads of journalists passed by Club Gallistico nearly every day.
"It is part of our culture, and we are very proud of it," says Carlos Quinones, who has raised and trained roosters and run cockpits for 50 of his 58 years.
For Quinones, cockfighting also is part of the family history. His father raised roosters and ran cockpits, as did his grandfather. His grandfather eventually became the "commissioner" of cockfighting in Puerto Rico, where the sport is regulated by the Department of Recreation.
"It is very old here. It has been here a long time and is very popular," Quinones says.
How popular? Last year nearly 1.3 million paid to see cockfights in Puerto Rico, a far greater number than paid to watch baseball on the island.
"It is part of our lives," said Juan Carrillo, a former owner and trainer of roosters. "We have grown up with this."
Cockfighting has existed for more than 300 years in Puerto Rico, where it has been legal since 1933. The sport is banned everywhere else in the United States but Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Puerto Rican government licenses cockpits and sends judges to enforce rules at an estimated 100,000 cockfights each year.
"We keep the game under control," Quinones says. "We do inspections. We go to court if there are abuses, and we give out fines to people who break the rules."
As with sports in which humans compete, the use of performance-enhancing substances is one of the chief problems regulators face. And of course, since betting is involved, there always are questions of criminal influence, though Quinones insists there is no organized crime involvement in cockfighting.
Critics say cockfighting is merely controlled brutality toward animals. Even here, it faces opposition from animal rights groups.
The Federation of Animal Protection constantly works toward eliminating the sport on the island, and outside forces chip away at the practice as well.
A federal law that goes into effect May 1 prohibits fighting birds from being transported across state lines or out of the country. That will prevent a number of cockfighting enthusiasts in the United States — World Boxing Association heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. among them — from raising roosters and sending them to Puerto Rico to fight. However, Quinones remains confident that cockfighting will outlast its critics.
"It would be very difficult to do away with it," he says. "It is a big part of our society."
Rodriguez, 57, has about 100 roosters that he raises and trains on his mountainside home and rooster farm in Guaynabo. His father and grandfather both raised fighting birds. He has four children, none of whom is carrying on the cockfighting tradition — though one, a film student in the United States, is making a documentary on the sport. But his 7-year-old grandson, Mishak, has taken a liking to it and hangs around with his grandfather and the birds.
"I think he will be the one to carry it on," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez sees cockfighting as one of the last lines of defense in a struggle for control, not only on the island but throughout the world. It is, as he sees it, a struggle between testosterone and estrogen.
"We know we are looking at the last stages of the agricultural society and eventually cockfighting will probably disappear," Rodriguez says. "But not because men decided that we want it to disappear. But it will be estrogen sensitivity that will not accept cockfighting as part of the culture. It is part of the testosterone culture."
There is nothing but testosterone on Rodriguez's farm.
"We only take what we consider superior birds for breeding, and superior birds are those that show a lot of qualities of combat, a lot of class and disposition," Rodriguez says. "The best way to consider the breeding stock is to fight them and know their ancestors. I won't breed any bird unless I know his father and his grandfather and his mother and grandmother. ...
"If you don't breed the right birds and the right hens, you might inherit some bad qualities. You don't want a runner in the cockpits. You want a bird that fights to win or die."
Rodriguez starts training roosters when they are about 8 months old and works with them for about 10 weeks. Then, they are ready for the cockpit, some of which are ramshackle facilities in small towns. Others are small arenas that might seat 600 people and have bars and restaurants inside.
Club Gallistico is a round building just a few blocks from a row of major luxury hotels on the beach and marked by the word "Cockfighting" on the outside. People started filing in this day long before the first fight. They came to joke, to talk — and to take a close look at the birds they would soon bet on.
Each bird is displayed in its own tiny cubicle behind glass, with its opponent in the next cubicle. As fight time approaches, the birds are brought into another room — also behind glass, in full view of the bettors — where fighting spurs are meticulously put on their legs.
First, the birds are cleaned and tested to make sure there is no foreign substance on them. Then the legs are taped, very much like a boxer's hands before a fight. The spurs then are attached to the tape by melted wax that quickly hardens.
"Putting the spurs on is an art," Quinones says.
A boy about 12 years old, with the help of his father, was putting the spurs on a rooster he had raised. Outside, children played in the fighting pit where the boy's bird soon would fight for its life and, according to those who love the sport, the honor of the family.
The spurs used to be made of metal, and the ones used in underground fights often still are. But the ones used in legal fights in Puerto Rico are made of plastic, though that doesn't make them any less lethal. Fights still often end with a bird being carried out dead.
Owners set up fights between birds of about the same weight and competitive level. Each owner puts down one officially recorded entry bet, usually $200 to $500. Then, if they desire, owners can make side bets with one another.
The birds are placed in a plastic box on an electric pulley — one on each side, separated by a plexiglass divide. The box is sent out on top of the arena to the middle of the building, then is lowered into the circular pit.
This pit, which is carpeted and about 20 feet in diameter, also comes with a sponsor: The padding has "San Juan Marriott" lettered on each side.
Handlers inside the pit take the birds out of the box and put them into sacks. They then pull them out of the sacks and use a fake bird to get the fighters worked up.
"It is an aptitude test," Quinones says. "It shows bettors that the bird is ready to fight."
While this takes place, the bettors — some of whom are members of the club and sit in $35 ringside seats while others sit in $10 general admission seats — yell back and forth, placing wagers as if they were commodities traders. There are no betting windows, no electronic or written records of the transactions.
"It is all done on the honor system," Rodriguez says. "Everyone is honest here — even the gangsters."
Sometimes large sums of money are at stake.
"Once I saw a man bet $17,000, and the bird lasted just six seconds," Quinones says. "Sometimes the bets are very high."
As the bets fly, the birds get one last look from a judge who sits in a special ringside chair. Then the fighting begins.
The roosters flail at each other, pecking and raising their legs and taking swipes with their spikes. There is a 15-minute limit, but fights usually last between five and six minutes. More bets are placed as the match goes on, with some bettors making five or six wagers on a single fight.
"You have to determine whether a blow is lethal or not and how much longer the bird might last and then bet on that," Quinones says.
If a bird cannot fight back for one minute, the fight is ended.
Most often, a lethal blow is delivered. After about four fights, the blood and feathers are cleaned from the pit, and competition resumes.
It will go on all day, sometimes for 12 hours. This goes on across the island, as it has for several hundred years. This is the sports soul of Puerto Rico, and its supporters are proud of it — no matter how cruel and brutal it may seem to an outsider.
"It is a thrill," Rodriguez says. "These birds are born to fight. This is the oldest sport in the history of humankind. There is no other sport that can claim it has been practiced for 3,500 years, since the days of Persia.
"The armies used to use the birds to illustrate to their soldiers how they wanted them to fight. The way they would do it was before the troops would go into a fight, they would put two birds together to fight. At the end, they would tell the troops, 'This is the way we want you to fight. You fight until you die.'"