Cockfights, the Real Thing

On a drippy Manila weekend, my fellow dayahun*, James, and I ventured out to see a cockfight. We managed to find a ‘stadium’ not too far from our shoebox condos, and when the sun peeked out for a bit, rode there in a jingle-jangle jeepney, got off at an unmarked intersection, with all of a fellow passenger’s vague hand gesture and the power of Google Maps to guide the way.

*Dayahun; Tagalog for ‘foreigner’. Apparently not a commonly used word at all, I found out courtesy a friend and the many relatives I begged him to ask. Proof of the innate openness of every Filipino I’ve ever met.

Walking into the swampy, empty parking lot, I was sure that the rains had killed any chances of us witnessing a cockfight. In any case, I had imagined it would probably be about 20 or so people gathered around a rope arena a couple feet in diameter, watching two cocks squabble it out the entire afternoon. I figured we’d probably get bored in about ten minutes and make our way to some of Manila’s other tourist traps.

It was better than that.

To our right, behind some scratched-up glass in a shaded corner was a friendly Filipino who demanded only a few pesos to let us in, likely to cross-subsidise tickets for all the locals who seemed to be happily walking in with no sign of purchase, presumably with lifetime memberships they didn’t need to flash. The day we went was a public holiday, and fights had started the afternoon before, continuing through the night.

The arena was huge, two floors nearly completely packed with men, some with their undershirts rolled up to their armpits to evade the heat or make room for their bellies, others possibly a bit drunk, and all of them heavily invested in what was happening in the centre of the ring. My first ever chicken fighting tournament.

You can read all about chicken fighting here, here and here, but suffice to say, it is a bloody sport. Matches are fought to the death, and while two cocks fighting can potentially go on for days, ain’t nobody got time fo’ that in the age of instant gratification, so matches are often sped up with the addition of ankle blades, sharpened to kill. With the blades — which are bound to the backs of chickens’ legs, just above their feet — matches last less than five minutes, making way for many more winners and chicken dinners in a single evening than ever before.

Technology was otherwise nearly completely absent in the arena. The entertainment was in front of you after all — chickens, betting, beer. We were strongly warned against betting by concerned colleagues — “Take care, po!”, “Hindi (no), po!”. Apparently, fortunes can be lost because it’s easy to be misunderstood.

But the system of betting at a chicken fight is not quite as complicated as their comments would suggest. Betting is done through mediators, who channel funds to the high rollers in the prime seats around the ring, chalking up their wins in scratches on a nearby pillar. So all you have to do is (1) find your local mediator (look for the guy looking around shouting things to five people at once) (2) make eye contact, (3) point as many fingers as you want to bet multiples of: upwards to bet tens, sideways to bet hundreds, and downwards to bet thousands, and (4) wait and watch.

James, looking to see how far his newfound celebrity as the Only White Person in nearly every encounter in Manila would take him, quickly got into a betting game with our local mediator, a toothless, rolly-polly ’pino who called himself Adobo. This wordless system of betting suited our beginner level of Tagalog just fine, and we left Adobo wincing a bit a few rounds later, the smile very much still on his face even as James bankrolled in enough money to pay for his next dinner. Bless him.

The fights themselves were thrilling. Between rounds, the arena would roar into life, with bets being shouted across the rafters and cock owners bringing their birds into the ring to be matched and prepped. Then suddenly, a hush would emerge, and the birds would be let loose into the ring, flying at each other’s necks with punctuated caws, and rising into an airborne bundle of feathers until they drew enough blood to quieten the stadium again.

The favourites were picked first and brought under a brightly lit sign that said Meron, which in this context loosely translates as ‘with’ it, or ‘to have [it]’. The Merons were prepped by bringing in a partner cock who pecked them incessantly while they were held down, just to rile them up before the fight . The underdogs, (Wala, for ‘without’ or ‘have not’), were brought in a few moments later, judged for size and readiness of the owner, no doubt, to have freshly butchered meat for dinner. (Yes, the losers really did get sent to the meatshop.) For the first half, I could usually pick out the winners: the fatter, black roosters with greater crowd support, standing boldly under the Meron sign. But all my formulas landed on their heads when we moved to a different stall, and the so-called favourites were no longer sure shots in our ongoing betting tally.

The roosters crowed and pecked, dodged and swept, and flailed their bladed feet in every direction till they could nick deep enough under the other bird’s feathers to render it weak on the ground long enough for the referee to count to ten. Just like a wrestling match! Any blood or empathy were only transient spots in the day’s entertainment, and most winning roosters were carried out the same way were carried in, cradled in the nooks of their owners’ arms, and tended to till they could fight again, usually in no more than a couple weeks. Losers were carried out by their feet, often leaving a trail of blood behind them for the old man below to sweep clean for the next match. And then the winnings were counted.

Animal ethics aside, I can see why cockfighting is popular in the Philippines, as among other parts of the world. It has all the elements of a fight: battling egos, ruffled feathers, badass blades and intent to kill. With matches no longer than five minutes on average, it’s quick money and entertainment if you want it, but easily something you can do for hours, over a few beers and snacks with the boys. And even if you own a rooster that loses, at least there’s dinner at the end of the night.

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