If one has travelled around the Philippines before- to a developed city or through the most rural villages; there is no escaping the local Rooster. You’ll find it tied to a tree, in a cage or even under a bridge. It will crow at ungodly hours of the day or night and summon the rest of its brood to join. Worrisome if you are a light sleeper. I have lived in Manila long enough and the best advice is to check your neighbours for chicken coops before moving. Island resorts included.
Sabong or cockfighting in Tagalog is a national pastime and obsession in the Philippines. The 6,000 year old spectator sport originated from the Indus Valley. It was popular in ancient India, China, Persia and other Eastern countries. In the Philippines it has been manufactured into a legitimate billion dollar industry. People would revolt otherwise.
Sabong is a way of life and part of the Filipino man’s daily struggle to make ends meet. It has existed even before Magellan’s expedition in 1521. Presently there are 2,500 dedicated stadiums across the country. The World Slasher Cup and the World Gamefowl Expo were both held in Manila a few years ago.
Owners place the roosters into a cockpit and they fight until one is fatally injured. The gruesome sport leaves over 30 million rooster deaths a year. Local animal rights groups can’t do a thing. It is an accepted part of Philippine society. Gamecocks are especially bred and conditioned for increased strength and endurance. Hectares of farm land or even a regular backyard are converted into breeding and training grounds. Like real life boxers the birds are pampered with enriched feeds, trained, massaged and worth hundreds of thousands of pesos. Bets go up to large figures.
Legal cockfights happen at least once a week. On my side- south of Manila, Pasay holds large scale derbies at least twice. Pasay is a gamblers paradise- from high end casinos to run of the mill poker clubs it has it all. The arena is a couple of blocks from my apartment. The last match I watched was by the beach. In a beat up tricycle (local motorized rickshaw) I sit close to a foetal position with my knees up to my chin. There are a lot of pick pockets while walking. The colourful contraption is lower than the Tuktuk and rather uncomfortable but is the only safe way to get through epic traffic jams.
The Pasay City Cockpit parking lot was filled with posh cars and four wheel drives. $15-$20 will get you in. A group of men walked through the main gate; one with a tough looking rooster under his arm. It gleamed as the fluorescent light hit its dark plumage. A shiny metal gaff was attached to the left foot of the cocks’ natural spur for added entertainment.
The levels of testosterone are particularly high.
I walked up grey concrete stairs and felt an immediate blast of cold air against my face. Most cockpit arenas are not air-conditioned. This one was an exception. There weren’t many women around and received a few curious looks as I picked out a seat alone. It was fairly intimidating to be in such a big crowd. I leaned against the ledge and had a decent view. The high rollers sat below. One of the few instances in the Philippines where millionaires talk with the common man. In this pit they were all equal.
Each match is judged by a referee called the sentensyador. Bets are taken by the “Kristo” – named after Christ because of their outstretched hands when calling out for wagers from the crowd. They wore bright orange shirts. Some work for big bosses others freelance. This particular evening had 53 fights in total that would go on until midnight, roughly 10 matches per hour.
I stood next to an elderly, well preserved gentleman with a slick looking watch and a flashy red shirt. He had a printed list of the matches and crossed out certain names on the piece of paper. Two men entered the pit each holding on to their prized roosters. A wave of raised hands engulfed the arena. People were shouting loudly calling “Meron” (there is) or “Wala” (nothing). The experience is inexplicable. Like chants, the sound was mesmerizing. The Kristo’s palms were out, making various hand gestures and signals. They took bets all from memory.
The bell rang and the two roosters went after each other. Flesh ripped, blood dripped onto the dusty pit. The weaker cock is seriously wounded. In a matter of seconds the bird slumps to the ground. The defeated opponent picks up his rooster like he just lost his manhood. His head hung low. A man comes in quickly with a broom to collect the remaining feathers. Not all fights end in death. After a match a surgeon is at hand to patch up the gashes. There is no charge if it keels over- however it can be brought home to make the next day’s soup.
Immediately after the match- wads of money are thrown across the arena.
Left, right, up and down. No arguments, no complications. Everyone gets an honest and clean cut.
The daily minimum wage in the Philippines is barely $10 a day. Most jobs are on a contractual basis
(3-6months) so employers are not obligated to give medical or other benefits. The newly elected President promises change. A chunk of the population continues to go overseas to find better opportunities. The average Filipino left behind is jaded and would rather try their luck at the cockpit.
“I’ve been coming here for the past ten years.” The man next to me said.
Kristo threw a large sum of money at him- I felt it go past my right ear.
He began to straighten the notes that were folded neatly into a tight triangle.
There were a couple of thousands of pesos in his hands. He was very pleased with himself.
“You won Sir!” I exclaimed.
“Three out of four tonight. Are you single?
Now, let me teach you who to bet on next.”