Entry 65 - The Philippines: Cockfighting in Manila

cock size

The man next to me grabs my sleeve: ‘You see, he says pointing downwards, if you had two knives and I had one – but my cock was bigger - I would still have the advantage.’ The author of this rather arresting statement and I were in the upper stands at Manila’s Libertad Cockpit. Below us in the ring, a two-bladed rooster has just been bloodily bested by a larger, single-bladed bird.

Prior to this fight - and on a typical day there are up to a hundred - I’d spent a bit of time in the prep area. There the fighting cocks have vicious, razor-sharp blades tied to their legs by a ‘gaffer;’ it is an exacting process and the blades are beautiful, surgical looking instruments many made in Sheffield, England. Thus embladed, the cocks are then bought out into a dirt ring, psyched into a furious rage and let fly. After a few seconds’ worth of circling, the squawking starts in earnest and the feathers fly.

Inevitably blood is drawn quickly and, if a bird is on the deck, he is picked up by the ref. The contenders are then made to face each other afresh. If they both show some fight, then they’re let at it again. If not, a victor is declared.

A cockfight lasts a maximum of ten minutes and, in the highly unlikely event of both birds making it to this point, a draw is declared. ‘Each cock’, said Jhonny Basa, a Manila-based owner and breeder, ‘fights only once in a competition. The injuries are too bad for a second time. But they can usually fight again in two weeks.’

Medical attention, though is a spoil that goes only to the victor. The vanquished, usually by this point a barely breathing pile of floppy feathers gets taken out back to meet a fate that will be familiar to poultry the world over. Indeed, in the gruesome alley behind the cockpit sits a single fat man and a cooking pot. Cocks who’ve crowed their last are beheaded then dunked in boiling water to remove their feathers, leaving their vicious wounds visible for all to see. But in a poor country there is no room for sentimentality: even prizefighters get eaten once they’ve stopped laying golden eggs.

the cock doc

Later that morning, I was lucky enough to shadow Francisco Frederico, a ‘cock doctor’ (his own description). I’d met him outside the cockpit at a roadside breakfast bar where we’d got to talking over a cup of coffee and one of the country’s curious culinary delights – probably some variation on rice, intestines, hog lard and so on. Like so many Filipinos, he was one of the friendliest people I’ve met. And it was thanks, largely to him that I enjoyed unfettered access to the cockpit.

In between sewing up the savagely slashed victors, he’d told me a bit about the Philippines’ favorite spectator sport. It is, he explained, a pastime enjoyed at all levels of society: ‘Even congressmen fight cocks – this cockpit is owned by the local senator; you see him here sometimes.’ Fights, he added, can be anything from a pair of Sunday roasts duking it out on a village street to complex derbies. The biggest is the charmingly literally named World Slasher Cup which attracts entrants from around the globe and where prizes run to millions of pesos.

Cockfighting has a history stretching back millennia and was enjoyed in the West until the mid 19th century. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln may have gained his nickname ‘honest Abe’ for his scrupulously fair refereeing of these fowl fights. However, the sport declined and was outlawed in the UK and, for the most part, the US. It still takes place on a small scale in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Spain. But only in the Philippines is it a major part of 21st century life.

The country has over 1,500 registered cockpits and untold unregistered, more, it is said than churches – and this in a fervently Catholic country. So ubiquitous is cock ownership that even in central Manila you are likely to be woken at 5am by a cacophony of cock-a-doodle-doos. A whole support industry has grown up selling rooster boosters, such as costly special feeds, vitamin supplements and anything else that might save your chicken from a licking. It is an oft-heard lament amongst Filipino women that, if a fight is in the offing, the family goes without as the cock gobbles up resources.

Despite the best efforts of foreign animal rights groups, the sport shows no sign of loosening its grip on the male Filipino psyche. Indeed, if anything it is moving with the times. For not only are the important fights swanky, big-money affairs, with TV coverage and sponsorship but plans are afoot to take cockpit gambling online. Philweb Corporation, an Internet gaming company and the government owned Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. hope to launch ‘TeleSabong’ world’s first web-based cockfight betting over the next couple of months. The pair reckon that this will generate some PhP 60 billion (600 million sterling) annually.

Still for all this, at least one punter in the Libertad crowd was unimpressed. He was from Mindanao, the country’s large southern island. ‘Chickens are no big deal,’ he told me dismissively, ‘where I come from, we have horse fighting.’

June 15, 2004

A version of this entry appeared in the Financial Times magazine.