Bolshoi Gorod claimed that The National League had 750 members, was international, had rules and so on. You almost expected concession stands and little silk robes the way they wrote about it. Like so many things in Putin's Russia, the truth was far less respectable, far less impressive and much gorier than the official version. This was bardak, pure and simple.
I left the bloodbath in the first ring to scope out the second ring just ten meters away, where a fresh cock fight had just started. They called one bird "Russian" and the other "Ukrainian". Many of the cocks and their "trainers" had come from Ukraine. Another I met came all the way from Novosibirsk. "We have many fights in Siberia," he told me earnestly.
The two birds' heads in Ring #2 were still fully intact, almost free of blood. They jumped at each other with wings spread and claws forward, almost like Thai kick-boxing -- in this case, kick-pecking.
Behind us the crowd at Ring #1 grew more abusive towards Grishakov. They wanted him to call the winner. It was clear that the losing cock, named "Flint", with its exposed head dragging in the dirt, was a goner. Its eyes had been pecked out, its bleeding comb hung in tatters, and it was unable to hold its head up. Every once in awhile, it would lift its head to feebly peck, which brought on a torrent of head and eye-socket pecks until Flint's head dropped to the ground again. But Flint, to its credit, wouldn't quit. The winning cock, "Sergei", stood over Flint, pinning him against the blood-spattered canvas. But Flint wouldn't keel over.
"There are rules!" Grishakov yelled.
"Come on, Flint is blind, it can't even lift its head!"
"Rules are rules, we all know what the rules are."
"And facts are facts. Flint is as good as dead. This is a massacre!"
"The rules state that in such a case as this, where there is no clear winner, everyone present must unanimously agree on the winner," Grishakov said, removing his glasses. "We don't have a unanimous decision here."
"Yuri, you're the only one who's holding out!"
"Five more minutes," Grishakov said.
By the skeptical laughter, it was clear that Grishakov was more interested in salvaging a losing bet than in the rules. The fight had been going on for one hour and ten minutes already. The birds were exhausted.
Over at Ring #2, the fight was picking up. I followed a few of the old track-suited villagers to see what was happening. The Russian cock lunged repeatedly into its opponent's head -- the Ukrainian cock turned and tried to flee. It could no longer hold its ground. Suddenly it let out a cry, not at all like the usual rooster crowing but more like a hoarse, horrible scream, its head turned away. This, I learned, was the cocks' signal of defeat. The winning rooster raised its head and flapped its wings, but somehow knew to leave the loser alone. All the other roosters, tied to the dirt field around Pavilion 22, crowed in unison -- the loser's cry had set them off in a frenzy, like drunken Dutch soccer fans. The villagers in attendance smiled -- the trainers pulled the cocks out of the ring, paid off the winners, while others ran to their prize birds and fussed over them. The bets generally ranged in the 200-500 ruble range.
So this was how cock fights were won: either one bird let out a losing scream, or it dies, or gets disqualified by unanimous decision of the humans in attendance.
Back at Ring #1, Sergei had now opened up a gaping hole in the side of Flint's head, just behind the pecked-out eye. Every thirty seconds or so, Sergei, panting even more heavily, would peck into the hole and flick another piece of Flint's brains against the canvas. Blood and meat dripped out of Flint's eyeballs. It was hard to tell if the cock was courageous or the walking dead, like something out of Pet Cemetery. Even so, Grishakov was hopeful.
"Its brains are pouring out, fuck!" one of villagers yelled.
"Five more minutes," Grishakov said calmly, marking something on a sheet of paper.