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Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples and watch the racial harmony flow.

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Pugilism and Poultry: Even the Chickens Can Box in Phnom Penh

by Antonio Graceffo

Sunday is usually the day that I go to watch Khmer kickboxing in Phnom Penh. But on this particular day, my driver, Sameth, promised to take me to see something really exciting. We turned down a dirt road, about twenty minutes outside of the city, and ended at a dubious looking arena in a rural farming community.

The big foreigner with the notebook received a lot of odd stares and a portly Khmer in a dirty T-shirt gave us the third degree. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Who told you about this place?”

I felt like a spy, sneaking in on some illicit activity that was to be kept secret from outsiders. After I had answered all of the questions to his satisfaction, the man gave me a stern warning. “If you take any pictures, I will take your camera.”

A crowd of Khmer men stood around the waist-high fighting ring animatedly shouting, gesticulating and waving their bets in the air. We pushed to the front to get a better view, just in time to see a cock with a blue stripe leap onto the neck of a cock with a red stripe, tearing into his flesh with the sharp metal blade attached to his foot.

The blue rooster was clearly the superior combatant. He grabbed red’s throat in his beak and dragged him to the ground, kicking and pecking at his face repeatedly. The dirt floor was stained black with the aged blood of fights past.

As a professional boxer it is easy for me to look at cock fighting as an extension of boxing. There are two opponents; blue and red, in a ring fighting for the glory of their handlers. Spectators bet money and cheer for their favorite fighter. They even use a gong to signal the beginning and end of each three-minute round, as in boxing.

But cock fighting is different. First off, the roosters don’t get any of the money they win. Secondly, there are weapons involved. In many matches, the roosters have metal spurs strapped to their foot. In other fights, called natural-spur matches, the cocks use the spur of a dead cock as their weapon. The only analogy to professional boxing at this point would be if the opponents were allowed to hit each other with broken beer bottles. Another major difference is that where natural spur fights often end with one or both cocks sporting injuries, the metal spur fights often go to the death.

Thinking red had died, I was reviewing my chicken CPR techniques when the gong sounded, signaling the end of the round. Interestingly, instead of using a clock, the rounds are timed using a bowl with a hole in the bottom placed in a large vessel of water. It takes approximately three minutes for enough water to seep into the bowl. When the bowl has sunk to the bottom, the round is over.

The handlers separated the combatants and took them to their respective corners. When I fight I am used to getting a massage between rounds. But in cock fighting the handlers worked feats of voodoo magic. Red’s handler began by kissing his beak and kissing his wounds as he washed the limp corpse. The handler’s lips were now coated in chicken blood. Next, while mumbling some secret words, he spit first one, then another mouth full of water directly into Red’s face. The water spewed pink from the handlers mouth mixing with the blood of the wounded animal. The magic apparently worked, dragging Red back from the point of death. When the handler lovingly blew the third mouthful of water in Red’s face, Red suddenly perked up. Not only did he return to life, but he was able to answer the bell for the next round.

In the end Red lost.

Some of the gamblers began grumbling about my camera again. I hadn’t taken a single photo and yet people apparently wanted me to leave. An older Khmer man signaled for me to come sit with him. “Anything you want to know, you can ask me.” He said in passable English. The crowd backed off. I learned later that he was a high ranking general and that I was to remain under his protection for the rest of the match.

“Fighting roosters are generally between eight months and a year old,” my new friend explained. “Fights last for four three-minute rounds. Metal spur fights are much faster than natural spur fights, which could go on and on with no clear winner.” He went on to explain that there were various species of chickens. “The cocks from Vietnam have spurs, whereas the ones from Thailand don’t.” For this reason they fought in separate rings.

After the fight special doctors worked on the birds, stitching the wounds and caring for them so that they would live to fight another day. All of the men crowded around the medical table, arguing and replaying the exciting moments of the fight. Money changed hands and it was clear that betting was a huge part of the game.

“Did you bet any money?” asked my new friend.
“I would have, but I heard someone paid the red cock to take a dive.”
“Take a dive?” he asked in astonishment. “Do you mean someone paid the red cock to throw the fight?”
“Oh yeah, I heard he owed money all over town. Throwing the fight was the only way out.”
My new friend didn’t know what to make of me. In real boxing if a fighter is suspected of taking a dive once he will lose credibility and never be able to fight again. “Maybe Red will give up fighting and get a job in the movies,” I suggested, thinking of a good friend of mine.

“Maybe you should go back to Phnom Penh and watch the kickboxing,” he proposed, not unkindly.

I was glad to have seen the cock fighting once as a cultural experience. But in the future I think I will stick with boxing.

Contact the author at: Antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

Writer Bio, Antonio Graceffo, BA, Dip Lic, AAMS, CMFC, CTC, RFC

Originally from New York City, Antonio spent much of his childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. He spent seven years in the United States Military, in both the Army NG and the US Merchant Marines. Antonio is fluent in German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese. He holds diplomas from Tennessee State University, University of Mainz, Germany, Trinity College, England, Heriot Watt University, Scotland, Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, as well as advanced degrees in business and Taxation from various universities in the United States. Antonio has studied and competed in martial arts and boxing for over twenty-five years, and has studied at the Shaolin Temple, in Mainland China. He works as a full time adventurer and writer, and currently lives in Taiwan.

Antonio's writing has appeared in the following publications: Escape Artist, Travel in Taiwan, Taiwan Ho, Travelmag (UK), Good Morning Chiang Mai, Travellers Impressions, The Chiang Mai Mail, Marco Polo, The Huahin Observer, Centered on Taipei, The Pattaya Trader, Life Style Taiwan, Canoe (Canada), Views Unplugged, Kung Fu Magazine, Yellow Times, Bike China, Small Boat Forum, Holiday Times (Thailand), Writing World, All Things Global, The Write Market, The Rose and Thorn, Blueberry Press, The Elizabethton Star, Go Nomad, Close Quarters Combat, Hack Writers, Go World, Bike League of America, Martial Arts Planet, The Travel Rag, Black Belt Magazine, The Bristol Herald Courier, Radical Adventures, , The Investment Advisor, I Soldi, America Oggi, The Italian Tribune, Pagina Uno, and The Italian Voice, Tales of Asia, Buddha Fist, Canoe (CA),

Antonio's book about his studies at the Shaolin Temple, "The Monk From Brooklyn," has been accepted by GOM Publishing, and will be available in 2004.

His book, "The Desert of Death on Three Wheels" is currently under review for publication, in 2004.

His book, "Adventures in Formosa," will be published in Taiwan, in June of 2004.

Contact the author at: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

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