By Joseph Campbell
BEIJING (Reuters) - Goaded with small sticks, the fighters went into battle, pushing and shoving until Red Tooth overpowered Black Foot to win the match and cheers from the crowd.
In Beijing, autumn marks cricket fighting season, a traditional Chinese sport with more than 1,000 years of history.
Similar to cockfighting but without the blood, the contests put two crickets into a ring the size of a shoebox to determine which is the more aggressive. The reputations of the owners are on the line and there is plenty of betting on the side.
This year, more than 20 teams from across China competed in the two-day National Cricket Fighting Championships, putting forth their most prized contenders - which are named for their physical characteristics - as fans packed into a small, smoky hall to watch the matches broadcast on a screen.
"I raise crickets as a hobby because I admire their positive spirit," said Man Zhiguo, a truck driver who has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years. "They never admit defeat, they have a fighting spirit, so we all like them."
Man, 54, has a diverse collection of at least 70 crickets from all over China, some worth more than 10,000 yuan ($1,600).
They are kept in modest clay jars on the shelves of his cricket room in a traditional Beijing courtyard. He feeds his fighters a mixture of bean paste and water as part of a high-protein diet and trains them regularly.
Cricket raising and fighting are associated with Beijing's old timers but Man said the sport still has a devoted following.
The insects have a lifespan of 100 days or so and are in their prime in the autumn. Every year, 25 major cities in China hold regional fights and the winners advance to the prestigious contests in Beijing.
At the national championships, each team was allowed 35 crickets and each insect was weighed and labeled the day before the competition.
"We must have crickets within the same weight category compete, just like what we do with wrestling, weight-lifting and boxing," said Zhao Boguang, the organizer of the championships.
In the fights, the handlers poke and prod their insects with a piece of hay or a small stick to irritate them. A judge then removes a divider between the two crickets so they can tussle with each other.
Loud chirps indicate the crickets have been significantly riled up but getting them to fight is not easy.
Judges follow a set of strict guidelines, most dating back to the 13th century, to determine match points. Results were tallied by gauging which cricket was able to overcome the other and then posted for viewing just outside the match hall.
Winning teams moved through elimination rounds over the two days, with points deducted for failing to abide by rules such as delivering the crickets to the organizers six days before the competition.
As for Man, his crickets did not lose a single match but his team placed fourth overall.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)