The Fight Begins
“Like me let go of the chicken?” 32-year-old Ryan Valencia, a well-known knife man asks as he and his friend Leonard walk into the dirt pit. He lifts his black t-shirt to wipe the sweat off of his forehead, then his hands. His short black hair glistening under the fluorescent lights that lit the ring.
“Nah braddah,” Leonard says, smiling as he holds his white legged
rooster proudly. He massages the leg and pets its orange feathers before placing a kiss on its head. “You one winnah, yeah?” He asks the rooster, who responds by biting onto his grey beard.
Valencia leaves to go behind the pit and stands tall against the dirty white wooden fence. He pats the back of his blue denim jeans to make sure his money is secure, then checks the time on his sliver Rolex. He watches as the enthusiastic crowd, take their seats.
The crowd is composed of Hawaii’s diverse races such as Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan, Portuguese, Japanese and Caucasian. Of these races, middle-aged men and women, and some children, gather every weekend to watch a cockfight.
Cockfighting is an illegal form a gambling in the State of Hawaii, but it does not stop locals from filling up seats at these events. When there are no seats, they prop up short ladders or stand in the back to try and watch.
As the crowd settles, Leonard’s opponent, a short middle-aged Filipino man wearing a cap, a grey striped shirt with a black sweater wrapped around his neck, grey cargo shorts, and green sneakers, enters the ring with his maroon and black colored rooster.
Before they close the gate, four old Filipino men walk around pit and start yelling odds that the audience wants to take.
“Seven, seven!” the crowd yells. Once these odds are set, they shut the gate.
Leonard and his opponent stand two feet from each other, behind two straight yellow line drawn in the center of the pit. Leonard is centered while his opponent stands at an angle. They raise both of their roosters above the drawn yellow rectangle between them, taunting each other. Leonard’s rooster pecks first and its orange feathers peak. Then, the two fighters take a step back and carefully release their roosters.
With no hesitation, the two roosters fly at each other. Their feathers fluttering loudly as they kick and attempt to penetrate the gaffs, or knives, into one another. Leonard’s rooster flies confidently, pushing the opponent to the corner of the pit. As they navigate back to the center, he makes the mistake of flying too high, allowing the opponent to make his first strike.
The rooster staggers, but quickly finds himself face to face with the opponent, but it’s too late. The opponent successfully strikes him, causing his right wing to dangle. Still, he attempts to fly, but is greeted with another hit.
The two roosters tumble in the dirt and in that commotion, Leonard’s rooster manages to injure the other bird, causing the opponent to lose his balance. As the roosters try to stand, only one manages the strength to balance on one leg, bite the other, and give one last kick before falling limp. That rooster keeps his head high and looks at the cheering crowd, but because he is unmoving he is unable to claim victory just yet.
Just as this rooster struggles to stay alive, so do the hopes of locals that continue to fight the legalization of gambling and cockfighting in Hawaii. Despite failed attempts, there are state officials that see the viability of gambling in Hawaii and believe if gambling were to be legal, there is a chance cockfighting will be too.
House Bill 927
On the fourth floor of the Hawaii State Capitol, Vice Speaker John Mizuno sits behind his wooden desk covered with various documents. His office is slightly cluttered, two
wooden bookshelves against the window holds numerous law books, personal pictures, awards, and memorabilia such as autographed Manny Pacquiao boxing gloves.
Dressed in a formal black and white striped suit, with a polka dot tie, he sits comfortably in his leather chair, turned to his computer desk also cluttered with documents. He lowers his square framed glasses as he intently views House Bill 927 (HB927), that he introduced in January.
This bill would open a commission to analyze the possibility of gambling in Hawaii by assessing the profitability of outlets offered on the island. Unfortunately, the bill did not get a hearing.
“It was dead on arrival,” Mizuno said as he turned around and sighed sternly. He introduced the bill because he believes that gambling can be viable to Hawaii.
“If it’s not viable, why are all of the locals going to Vegas year-round?” he asked. “Nearly $1 billion of local resident’s money goes to Nevada every year, so if we could keep half of that, maybe it’s a good way to not raise taxes.”
Despite his belief, Mizuno purposely did not request a hearing because of the controversy it would cause among the state.
“People get very angry and say that gaming is gonna bring illegal drugs, prostitutions, and organized crime,” he said.
According to Representative Mark Nakashima, chair of house committee on Economic Development and Business, he reviewed HB927 but believes there is little support for gaming in the State House.
Nakashima said with Hawaii’s small population and relative isolation, gaming would not have the same impact which people see in larger commuter populations.
Although, legislatures have been trying to legalize a form of gaming in Hawaii since 2009. The closest the state got to legalizing a form of gaming was through Senate Bill 755. This bill was related to economic development and would have legalized poker and internet gambling. It made its way to Senate, but met its end in April 2012 when the Senate disagreed with House Amendments.
Since then, no other bill relating to gaming has made to Senate, but Mizuno hopes to change that next year when he reintroduces the HB927.
“I will definitely push this bill to have a hearing next year because it deserves to be heard,” Mizuno said.
Mizuno explained with the legalization with gambling, opens the doors to all aspects of gaming, even cockfighting.
“If we open a door for gaming, we got to consider cockfighting, it’s an automatic,” he said.
Being married to a Filipino woman has allowed Mizuno to understand the cultural aspect behind cockfighting. He believes this belief could hold as an argument in court in regards to the legalization of cockfighting. A lawyer could use laws that relate to public accommodations and unlawful discrimination based on race, national origin or culture, and argue the law cannot deprive cultural practices.
“You need to respect their culture, their natural origin,” he said.
“If that’s considered their sport you have to respect that.”
Although the legalization of cockfighting would raise tension with animal activists, such as the Hawaiian Humane Society, Mizuno said if it proved to be a substantial economic benefit to the state, a lot more people would be open to it.
The Man Behind the Knife
Valencia was introduced to cockfighting at the age of 4-years-old. His dad, Reuben, would bring him to cockfights that took place in in Kalihi, Kaneohe, Waianae, and Wahiawa. Valencia was regarded as his father’s mini-me, taking after his dark chocolate skin, big brown eyes, and bright smile. Little did he know, he would also grow to be tall like his father.
He was never interested in raising chickens and becoming trainer, but found himself intrigued by the art of knife tying. As a child, he would watch knife men, tie two-inch steel gaffs to a rooster’s leg. He thought to himself that if they could do it, he could too. So, one day, after a cockfight, he asked his dad if he could take home a chicken leg. His father was surprised, but allowed Valencia to cut off a dead chicken leg to practice on his own.
Two years later, at the age of ten, Valencia was at a cockfight in Waialua, where his dads friend asked him to tie his first live chicken. He had only been practicing for two years, but felt a little confidence, until he learned how much money was at stake.
“Two grand,” he said. “I remember I was so nervous, my hands started to shake because I didn’t want to lose.” Luckily for Valencia, he won that fight.
He started to gain more confidence as he learned techniques from his grandfather, Ernesto, and his father’s friend, Renato. Not only did he learn how to properly place a gaff on a roosters foot, but also learned values.
“I was taught never to lose confidence, never to cheat, and always be humble in victory or defeat.” Valencia said. He tries his best to be humble with everything in his life, especially the money he earns from cockfighting.
According to Valencia, the least he can make on a weekend is $500, but the most he has made is $5,000. He keeps his winnings separate from the income he makes working as a full-time delivery man for the Cherry Company: Sake and Food Distributor.
“I dropped out of Manoa during my last semester as a travel, industry, management major because I got a good job offer at Cherry,” he said. “I don’t regret my decision because at least I can support my family and not worry about loans.”
Valencia currently lives and owns a two-story house in Kalihi, with his fiancé, her family and their 18-month-old daughter. The house originally belonged to his fiancé’s family, until they were unable to make the mortgage payments. In order to help, he took over the ownership.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I would’ve rather helped my own family, but I they were really struggling.”
Family is a very important part of Valencia’s life. He said his parents are his priority because they raised him into the man he is today. Being the man that introduced him to cockfighting, Valencia feels the closest to his dad and wants to maintain that bond with him.
“My dad loves the fights and I need to be there to protect him,” he said. “Anything can happen so I feel like it’s my job to make sure he’s safe.”
Valencia said that he could quit any time he wanted, but as long as his father continued to attend the cockfights, he would accompany him.
Despite his reasons, animal activists like the Hawaiian Humane Society, believes that no reason justifies cockfighting.
The Hawaiian Humane Society is completely opposed to animal fighting of any kind. They believe that blood sports are cruel to animals and have a desensitizing effect on human beings who witness that cruelty, especially children.
According to Stephanie Kendrick, Public Policy Advocate for the Hawaiian Humane Society, the organization has advocated the strengthening in cockfighting laws to include chickens and roosters under the animal cruelty statute. But their efforts failed due to oppositions at the state legislature and opponents have kept it from being passed.
“There are all sorts of activities that you could justify by saying they’re culturally acceptable,” she said. “We don’t feel like that’s an excuse to treating animals in such a cruel fashion.”
As much as the Hawaiian Humane Society opposes cockfighting, there is no way to put a complete end to it. Just like the legalization of gambling in Hawaii.
According to Mizuno, although house bill HB927 was not passed, he plans on reintroducing the bills, along with lottery bills, next term.
“As long as I’m reelected, I’ll bring it up again and I think eventually it’ll pass,” he said.
The two fighters come back to the center and place the roosters in front of each other. In order to confirm the winner, one of the roosters must take one last peck.
But both roosters lay limp on the floor, blood streaming down their legs and their heads lying against the dirt.
“Hang in there Leonard! He’s dead Leonard!” Valencia yells from behind the pit. “Return Leonard, Return!”
Both fighters hold up their roosters and make them face each other. Leonard kisses his chicken, hoping for the winning bite. He presses his rooster against the opponent, but nothing happens. The opponents urges his rooster and he musters the strength to give one final peck, naming him the winner.
Valencia holds his hands up to his head in disbelief and meets Leonard by the pit exit. Valencia grabs the bird to exam it closely, his white palms now crimson with fresh blood.
“Fuck,” he says under his breath as he examines the long cut underneath the roosters right wing.
Leonard shakes his head as he carries his rooster to his tent where his friends take a look at the bird. Valencia holds the bird by its leg to unravel the gaff. Everyone remains quiet as Valencia finishes, discarding the tape and string onto the floor near the bloodstained dirt.
Valencia walks back to his tent to wash his hands, then takes out the bundle of hundred dollar bills in his pocket to pay his debt.
“Looks like I’m down a couple hundred,” he said. “Gotta try and win it back by the end of the day.”