The plot begins in medias res with a mute Frank Mansfield (Warren Oates) locked inside a trailer preparing his best cock for an upcoming fight. He slices the chicken’s beak slightly so that it looks cracked in order to obtain higher betting odds in the upcoming fight. He bets his trailer, his girlfriend, and the remainder of his money with fellow cocker Jack (Harry Dean Stanton). Mansfield loses the fight (ironically because of the cracked beak), almost all of his belongings, and is set on a rambling path to win the Cockfighter of the Year award.
Frank visits his home town, his family farm, and his long-time fiancée Mary Elizabeth (Patricia Pearcy). Mary Elizabeth has long grown tired of Mansfield’s cockfighter ways and asks him to settle down with her. Frank decides in favor of cockfighting, leaves Mary Elizabeth, sells the family farm for money to reinvest in chickens, and starts a partnership with Omar Baradinsky (Richard B. Shull). The partnership takes them all the way to the cockfighting championships.