Simon, the business manager of the client we’re working for, is here in the country for a vacation. One of the things he was looking forward to while he’s here include visits to some tourist destinations, historical places, and – much to my surprise – a cockfight.
In case you didn’t know, I love cockfights. There’s nothing that can get the blood pressure and testosterone levels going than watching two cocks getting it on, fighting for supremacy over a muddy brown ring.
I’m talking about roosters, you pervert.
I’ve been to cockfights before, and yes, I’ve gambled a few small bills here and there. The tupada (cockfighting arena) breaks families better than it does wallets. Every Filipino family has at least one story of a relative who became addicted to sabong. You’ll never hear the end of cockfight stories in family reunions, like Uncle Procopio gambling away money for dinner, or how Mang Ding got beaten up by a group of thugs at the tupada, and ended up with a limp for the rest of his life. Cockfighting is considered a social evil by many politicians, although I’m betting that at least half of the male members of Congress have owned at least one fighting rooster. Yet for everything wrong about a cockfight, the sport – or ritual, whichever comes first – appeals to sadistic people like me, who know our chickens right.
A neighbor of mine keeps his roosters not in a coop, but at the other end of the street across his house. The animals are tied to a bamboo stake dug into the ground, and protected from the elements by a wire cage. Cockfighting is a very cruel sport; not just because of an injured or dead chicken at the end of a bout, but because of the many ways cockfighting aficionados use to imbibe courage upon the animals.
How to make your chicken a warrior of the avian kingdom is a debate in itself. Take my own family, for example. An uncle of mine believes that you can make one brave, fight-winning chicken if you expose the animal to the elements and to the dangers of stray dogs. My dad’s theory of chicken courage comes with raising the animal with other overly aggressive alpha-cocks. Yet another uncle believes that the only way that you can make a rooster fight is if you feed him with steroid-infused grain – pampatapang – specially formulated for cockfighting. Yet all of them agree that the proof of the chicken is not in the ring, but perception: sharp eyes, long feathers at the neck, strong legs, a short comb, and wattle redder than strawberry soda. A fight-winning chicken must look like a Spartan soldier, not an Athenian boy-lover… so to speak.
The tournament is usually held come Good Friday, election season, or come the town fiesta. The cockfighting derby itself is a lot like the Stanley Cup playoffs, except for the hockey sticks and players who know Wayne Gretsky from “Pro Stars” and stats printed at the back of NHL collectible cards. There are cockfighting arenas that look and smell professional, but the bulk of illegal cockfighting rings reek of spilled rum, cheap cigarettes, and chicken dung. The effervescent aroma of aged, dried chicken shit gives the place an air of ancient Rome; instead of gladiators at the Colosseum, you have pumped up chickens pecking and scratching and clawing the crap out of each other.
The powerful, ammoniac smell of chicken poop does a good job of hiding other shitty smells in the arena: horseshit from the barangay captain who runs the joint, the crock of shit that is the town mayor who is at the front row, and the bullshit from fixers who may have already rigged the fights before you kissed your roll of twenty peso bills goodbye.
A small knife is taped up or tied to one of the legs of each chicken, presumably as a weapon. Then the kristo, the incorruptible exemplar of consummate sportsmanship that he is, starts the fight. Here’s where the fun starts.
It takes a while before the two chickens start pecking the living hell out of each other, but you can smell blood in the air. Chickens are generally peace-loving creatures – cowards, at that – but there’s something about a steady feed of Thunderbird that turns the lowly creature into the animal world’s equivalent of Philip Salvador. The long feathers in the chicken’s neck rise up, the animals start hopping up and down to intimidate the other, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a lot like professional wrestling, or a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie: stunts, flips, pecking, and finally, stabbing.
Unlike the “Kumite” tournament dramatized (or invented) in Bloodsport, or maybe even WrestleMania, cockfighting is not a “fight-to-the-death.” From time to time, the kristo enters the ring to check if the other chicken is still alive and able to fight. Unlike his omniscient, omnipotent heavenly counterpart, this “Christ” cannot raise a man – much less a chicken – from the dead.
Most losing chickens are often incapacitated, and are nursed back to health by the losing owner or handler. Sometimes, the damage is far beyond recovery, so the chicken is slaughtered and eaten. I never had the chance to eat a fighting cock, but I am told it’s quite tough, chewy, and tastes “like medicine.” Methinks it’s from all the chicken-pumping chemicals in the feed.
Is it brutal? Is cockfighting a disgrace to Filipino culture? Does the battle between two animals that are generally considered cowards of the animal kingdom destroy family values? I have no idea. It’s not barbaric at all. Aggression is a very natural animal characteristic, like gambling is for men. You can take any two animals (capybara, porcupines, moose, even earthworms) and they will end up fighting to the death. It’s a lot like bumfights, pit fighting, and vale tudo for the animal kingdom. Guys will always gamble on it anyway.
Although I doubt if Simon will ever look at a chicken the same way again if he does see his first cockfight.