Thursday, May 21, 2009
By Lester Munson
Michael Vick and Tony Taylor knew they needed expert help if they were to enter the world of dogfighting.
"We both had always had dogs and had a passion for dogs, but we didn't know much about training and feeding and all that goes into a dogfight," says Taylor, who along with Vick and two other co-conspirators pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges and served prison time. "We needed to break into the inner circle and find someone to help us."
So as they were buying secluded acreage for their kennel in rural Surry County, Va., Vick and Taylor connected with a titan of dogfighting named Benny Butts.
"He had been in it for nearly 30 years," Taylor says. "He had a good bloodline of dogs, and he knew everything and everybody."
Butts, who was in his 50s, died of a heart attack after helping Taylor establish Vick's Bad Newz Kennels.
In his first extensive interview since he was charged on July 17, 2007, with conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and conspiring to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture, Taylor provided an account to ESPN.com of the dogfighting operation on Vick's property in Smithfield, Va. He says he ran the venture for four years.
Taylor says he started building the enterprise slowly, buying a few puppies for between $500 and $750 as well as some "prospects," pit bulls that were already 18 to 21 months old and carried prices between $1,000 and $1,500.
Living in a double-wide trailer on Vick's 16 acres, Taylor trained as many as 20 dogs during his four years there, operating under a county-issued kennel license that allowed for as many as 40 dogs on a property of that size.
"We took good care of the dogs," Taylor says. "They had their shots, and we watched their fluids and their electrolytes and their food."
Following advice from Butts, Vick and Taylor put the dogs through rigorous fight training, working them into shape and rehearsing for fights in a process known as "rolling."
The training included long sessions on treadmills. To keep the dogs running, Taylor used "a squirrel hide, a cowhide, a basketball, anything that we could put in front of them to keep them interested and running." At the height of six weeks of training for a scheduled fight, a pit bull would be on the treadmill for as long as two and a half hours a day, in 30-minute segments.
"Rolling" a fighting dog is a process that puts a dog in training in the ring with another dog to measure its abilities and its willingness to fight.
"We would roll a dog for, maybe, 10 minutes to see how ready it was," Taylor says.
As the operation grew under Taylor's leadership, Vick built three sheds for the dogs. The most elaborate was a two-story black structure with a fighting ring on the top floor and stalls for recuperating dogs, puppies and females in heat on the first floor. It was heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer.
The other sheds, Taylor says, were for equipment and food.
In the early months of the dogfighting operation, Vick and Taylor would schedule three or four fights per year in an effort to keep things "under the radar." After Taylor left in September 2004 in the wake of altercations among Vick's associates in two local nightclubs, he says fights were scheduled more frequently.
"This was never supposed to be an open event. If we scheduled a fight, we expected three or four people to be there from each side," Taylor says. "If there were two or three fights scheduled, there might be a dozen people and no more."
To schedule a fight, Taylor and Vick needed a time, a place, a referee, an agreement on the dogs' weight and a deposit on the fight's purse. The referee held the purse money and weighed the dogs as they reported for the fight. If a dog was more than one-quarter pound over the agreed weight, the owner of the dog forfeited half of the purse money.
Once the fight began, it was winner-take-all, with the referee awarding the entire purse to the winning dog's owner. The fights ended when one dog would not or could not fight any longer, Taylor says.
A fighting pit bull became a "champion" after it won three fights. A fight between champions could draw a larger crowd with patrons paying a cover charge of as much as $20.
Taylor tried to schedule fights for the dogs during January, February and March, when Vick's obligation to the Atlanta Falcons were minimal. They tried to avoid attracting the large crowds that might come with Vick's name recognition.
"We were on our way to one fight when word somehow got out that Michael would be there," Taylor says. "We saw a convoy of 12 or 13 cars heading to the fight, and we turned around and went home, giving up the money we had deposited."
Taylor and Vick tried to limit their dogs to two fights per year.
"It was like a boxer. You could only fight so often, and we knew they needed time to recover," says Taylor. The group on the property tried to care for injured dogs themselves, he says, but occasionally took them to an outside veterinarian.
In the two and a half years Vick's dogfighting enterprise operated after Taylor left, it grew to more than 60 dogs. Two days before the raid that led to Vick's downfall, Vick and his cohorts killed eight underperforming dogs, according to the indictment and guilty pleas entered by Vick and two others.
"I was knee-deep in dogfighting, but I never did nothing like that," Taylor says. "We had a passion for those dogs. We loved those dogs."
Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.