This article was published in the June/July 1998 issue of EYE.

© 1998. All rights reserved. John Bramhall.


ringside at a Filipino cockfight

by John Bramhall

Illegal throughout much of the Western world, cockfighting continues to thrive in Asia. In the Philippines, it's almost a religion. John Bramhall goes inside the pit to look at one of the most brutal bloodsports in the world.

It's been outlawed in the United States. It was formally banned by the British Parliament in 1849. It's also prohibited thoughout Europe and most other first-world nations. Nevertheless, the matching of fighting cocks --- or sabong, as the practice is called in the Philippines --- is very much alive and well in Asia, where the bloodsport actually originated in the fifth century. While still common throughout Southeast Asia, the ritual has practically become the Philippines' national sport --- if not the second religion.

The ringside tableau

It's a balmy February Sunday, cool for Manila. Sunday is a cockfighting day in Mandaluyong City, an urban area in metro Manila, as is Wednesday; on Thursdays and Saturdays, they're held in San Juan.

Today, the Mandaluyong City cockpit arena has not yet quite filled to capacity. Even so, perhaps a dozen or so fighting cocks have already met their bloody, brutal fate --- a tremendous price paid simply to open the show in this 12-hour cavalcade of death.

Inside the arena, the pit area is contained by four walls of Plexiglas, each about eight feet tall; the whole enclosure measures about 15 feet square. The floor consists of meticulously raked brown dirt. In the center of the pit are two white lines, approximately two feet apart. From the high ceiling hang two squares of plastic, whose electric lights illuminate the words wala ("underdog"), printed in red capitals on the left; while at the opposite side of the area, its blue-lettered counterpart reads meron ("favorite").

A grand entrance

Before the next match begins, two short, bronze-skinned, flinty-eyed, stone-faced Filipinos emerge from the door at the left. Each man nestles a bird against his side, one palm cradling the bird's underbelly, the other stroking the bird's top-feathers --- not affectionalely, but rather in the spirit of a boxing manager rubbing his fighter's shoulders at ringside.

A second pair of men, each also carrying a bird, emerges and stands next to the first two, who are now stationed at either side of the center area. These men hold the fighting birds' sparring partners. It is the role of the sparring partner to peck at the fighter's head, neck, and back side in order to agitate the fighter into a state of violent aggression sufficient to do battle.

Only a few of the cocks who will face combat in the pit today sport the red, pointy comb of their barnyard counterparts. The comb is usually removed from a fighing cock because the extra flesh tends to weigh down the bird's head. It may seem insignificant, but such a consideration is critical when two battle-weary gamebirds are barely able to fight on. The ability to lift one's head enough to make two final pecks, however feebly, can decide the contest.

Playing the odds

While both combatants are provoked by the sparring birds, the audience erupts into a noisy, wildly gesticulating mass of hysteria. Two men in beige jackets enter the ring, looking up repeatedly to note the various gestures as they hurriedly jot down figures in their hand-held notepads.

In the balcony, the men are calling desperately to the bet-takers and to each other. They beat on the seats and walls for attention, toss tightly rolled wads of wagering cash into the cockpit, fervently gesturing their bets. Two fingers held sideways, like open scissors, means two hundred pisos; two fingers held straight down, like an inverted peace sign, means two thousand.

These men know two general rules to follow in betting: Make sure the gaff --- the razor-sharp, banana-curved blade affixed behind the bird's left leg --- is at an angle of exactly 45 degrees from the bird's leg, since any deviation will make it that much harder for the bird to strike a lethal blow; and look toward the younger bird for an edge. So often, youth means more energy to recover from wound and blood loss.

Indeed, the audience is predominantly male, although women are permitted at cockfights. There are, in fact, only three women here among these 800 to 1000 spectators, and one of them is a food vendor.

Chicken shiv

While the betting harangue continues, the referee casually saunters into the pit. The handler presents his bird, and the referee moves to the bird's rear. The handler moves toward the plastic sheath covering the bird's gaff. The gaff is somewhere between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches in length and is precision-crafted to the owner's specification, at an average cost of between 500 pisos (about $12.50 US), from the casings of .50 caliber bullets.

The handler unties the lengthy line binding the sheath which promptly falls away. The referee wipes an alcohol-soaked cotton swab over the gleaming gaff, whose "business end" he gingerly tests with the tip of a finger.

Like the ceremonial disrobing of boxers, the fighting birds are ready to do battle. The crowd's anticipation is excruciating.

The warrior breed

These gamebirds are specially bred fowl; their lineage and nurturing are painstakingly managed to enhance their natural aggressiveness. Surprisingly, many of these birds are imported from the United States and Canada. In one recent incident, some 39 Filipinos were arrested in Burnaby, British Columbia, for taking part in an illegal cockfighting exhibit. The birds' owners protested that they were merely raising the cocks for export to the Philippines, but the birds were confiscated nonetheless.

Superior gamebirds fetch prices of anywhere from 20,000 to 75,000 pisos (around $50 to $250 American dollars), and each cock is trained just like a boxer in the days leading to each match. But fighing cocks really bear more resemblance to the gladiators of ancient Rome than the modern boxer; life expectancy is, after all, very short.

Answering the bell

The exceptional match will see a bird head straight for its opponent, its head thrust forward and its neck feathers ruffled in a fearsome display. But most matches start off slowly, much like a boxing match. Both birds take their time --- sometimes as much as a minute or more --- to strut around the pit, flap their wings, crow, and present themselves, almost as if no opponent were present. Then, without any obvious provocation, one bird will suddenly rush at the other, and the fight is on.

The first match in Mandaluyong begins rather quickly, with the characteristic flurry of flying feathers. Both birds jockey for position, each trying to leap on top of the other. Attacking from above creates the best angle for the talons to strike and, consequently, the optimum position for the bird to impale its opponent with its gaff. Most matches drag on brutally, the valiant cocks battling determinedly in spite of broken wings, broken legs, severe stabbings, cut throats and even a copious, steady stream of blood.

This beginning match, however, is finished swiftly. The triumphant bird is the wala, and he is unable to disengage himself from atop his vanquished opponent because, as becomes clear, when the referee pulls the cocks apart, the winner's gaff is deeply embedded into the loser's chest.

"Scoring" a cockfight

The second match is anticipated with the same cacophony of shouted bets that marked the beginning of the first match. Before long, though, both gamecocks are so broken, bloodied, and drained of any remaining vitality that neither is able to rise from its prone position. The referee lifts the birds simultaneously and thrusts their faces together, but to no avail. Finally, one of the birds pecks weakly at the other; the opposing cock feebly pecks back, and the match continues.

"If neither birds bites at the other, it's a draw," explains Feliciano "Alex" Danao of Lipan, a retired seaman. The 52-year-old Game Bet Commision Manager in San Juan placed his first cockfight bet at the age of 15, and has been an avid fan ever since. "If both birds are wounded," he continues, "and one bites twice, then dies, he will still win."

Similarly, if both birds are able to peck at each other, the battle continues --- until one, or both, cannot.

When a bird is severely wounded, drained of blood, or unresponsive to his opponent's attacks, the referee will pick up the listless cock, lift it three to four inches from the ground, and drop it. If a gamecock is thus dropped three times and does not respond by pecking or kicking, it automatically loses.

The second match ends when the meron is unable to muster a response. Again, the wala has won.

Next on the card

That's what happens in the third match, which is won by another wala. Despite two broken legs, the wala manages to give two pecks to which the meron does not respond.

The fourth match continues the trend. The wala in this one is owned by an 80-year-old Chinese-Filipino sabongero. The meron, blood-spattered, drained, and exhausted, cannot summon the strength to issue the retaliatory two pecks; blood flows in torrents from a deep slash in its neck.

The fifth match, however, produces the most dramatic battle of the day.

A Herculean struggle

The meron in this one is an aggressive bulik gamebird --- characterized by their reddish color and tiny white splotches --- whose beauty stands out from its peers. Yet, for all its imposing features, it is well-matched by the wala in this fight, which is a large, ample, solid-white cock that is already demonstrating a fierce streak in its movements and fiery orange eyes.

Anything can and often does happen in a cockfight, and it is this fifth contest that proves the measure of the cliché. After the initial skirmish, the cocks are separated by the referee to reveal a wala that has already been disabled. It appears to have been a fateful blow by the meron; indeed, some matches end in seconds because of a lucky thrust of the gaff. Even a broken leg or wing can be decisive --- anything that inhibits the bird's ability to leap high enough for a downward attack severely hinders his chances to come out of it alive.

Most gamecocks, thus handicapped, will fail to respond with the mandatory two pecks when dropped by the referee. Not so this white wala, however. Again and again, as the birds are pulled apart, the crippled wala zaps the bulik. Though his legs are clearly broken, the wala's spirit is anything but.

About five minutes into the contest, both birds have been wounded repeatedly, although the white wala shows the splattered blood more vividly. The white bird has held its own gallantly, but those in the audience who've bet on the bulik merely bide their time calmly, certain that their bird will make that lethal plunge for the walas' heart at any moment.

And even if that moment never comes, the wala is so depleted that it's incapable of retaliating in kind. It's only a matter of time. Soon the wala will collapse --- from sheer blood loss, if nothing else --- and then the hard-won victory will be the bulik's.

Or so it would seem.

Heart of a champion

The next charge is vicious, however, and the bulik is met with an awesome counterattack. A fierce peck from the white cock has found its mark; the bulik withdraws from the clench without its left eye.

The clock ticks, the blood gushes, the battle continues. Both birds are badly wounded and exhausted at this point, so the referee intercedes. He picks up both birds, thrusting them at each other and occasionally dropping them. Without fail, the white wala responds by the second drop with a defiant beak-snap at the bulik.

Time marches on; seconds flash away, and those who've bet on the bulik start to question their certainty. In spite of a dangerous loss of blood and what must be unimaginable agony from its broken limbs, the white wala continues to fight with a ferocity that stuns the audience.

As the fight enters its eighth minute, those who've bet on the bulik meron are now openly wondering about the outcome. The meron is still mobile, unlike the bloody white wala, yet the meron is showing every sign of exhaustion. Now it's all the meron can do to return the mandatory two pecks when both birds are dropped.

A general murmur of fresh prognostication now buzzes throughout the crowd. The white wala continues to peck with a determination that transcends all expectation, all reason. The spectators count aloud as the final half-minute ticks down: 28 . . . 29 . . . 30.

"DRAW!" Many voices rise at once as the wala bites the bulik once more, but it is in vain; the match is over.

Surviving to fight again

Both birds, although badly hurt, are still alive as they're carried from the pit. The match will go down as a tie, but it's the white cock that has impressed the throng. Could he survive to fight again?

"If the bird can be saved, everything possible will be done to help him," says "Pancho" Bernardo, a 60-ish restaurateur and cockfight fan. "They will bandage his limbs, patch his wounds, give him vitamins."

The flow of bloodsport

It's not late in the afternoon. The next contest is won by the meron, although both birds manage fatal wounds; sometimes, victory does not ensure survival. In this instance, the "winner" is convulsing in a bloody, spasmodic death as he is carried from the pit.

The matches continue, and the spectators grow more mesmerized by the activity. Each cockfight has the possibility of great drama, and many birds put up a tremendously courageious and fierce battle.

But not all birds.

All bets are off

In the 23rd match, the red cock --- clearly dominating his opponent --- nevertheless turns and runs. Shouts of disapproval and disgust ring out.

"He is not a great cock," remarks Alex Danao. "They will kill him . . . if he ran now, he will run in other fights." Because it is especially trained for physical power, speed, courage, and killer instinct, a bird that prizes its own survival too highly is held in the utmost contempt.

Several other birds meet with better luck; three matches are cancelled before they begin. In the first, the wala begins to limp immediately; in the other two, the walas are so hopelessly outclassed that the bets cannot be matched, and the matches are cancelled.

A nation's bloodsport

Perhaps the Filipino passion for sabong can be attributed to the difficult conditions --- including the biting poverty --- that living in the Philippines too often entails. Or perhaps it owes more to the still-rampant mindset of machismo, or alternately to a fascination with bloody suffering that permeates even religous observances in these islands.

Cockfighting is brutal to most Westerners. Many see in it their preconceptions regarding the mistreatment of animals. even as so many of these same people blithely eat chicken that is produced in conditions far more brutal than these.

Ironically, fans of the sabong, hold these birds in much higher esteem than those who would so readily criticize them. After all, the struggles between gamecocks are the stuff of myth; their sport --- a battle for life and death --- is the sport of a nation.

Whatever its source, the prominence of cockfighting in Filipino culture cannot be diminished. Within its cultural context, and even more so, with its arena, Filipinos remain captive to the pure, unadulterated passion of their most sacred of institutions, the sabong.