CULTURE AND ARTS: This sport called cockfighting

We call them “mga sunoy,” those cocks that are used for fighting. Oftentimes, you see them in the countryside. If you’re lucky, you get to see those cocks fight against each other when they are left together in a cage.

“Sabong,” as cockfighting is known in the country, is very popular as a way of gambling, but it is also seen as a national sport. In fact, sabong is a Philippine institution, some people claim.

It has been said that long before the establishment of Spanish Catholicism, the practice of pitting two trained cocks against each other had been thriving in the local shores. When Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521, it was already a roaring spectacle. Pigafetta’s account on the Spanish’s fleet arrival at “Polaoan” (now known as Palawan) include this observation:

“They (the natives) have large and very tame cocks, which they do not eat because of a certain veneration that they have for them. Sometimes, they make them fight with one another, and each one puts up a certain amount on his cock, and the prize goes to him whose cock is the victor” (Jocano, 1975. The Philippines at the Spanish Contact, p. 80).

Even today, cockfighting still has a passionate following in the country. In fact, some of those who are into this kind of “sport” said that there are more cockpits than churches.

“It’s the noblest sport in the world,” said Jorge Araneta, the stately dean of Philippine cockfighting. “There’s no other animal in the world that will fight to the death. That’s as noble as you can get.”

Contrary to common notion, the University of Santo Tomas is not the country’s oldest university. It’s cockfighting, according to Angel Lansang, author of Cockfighting in the Philippines. “It was in cockfighting that the early Filipinos learned the rudiments of arts, sociology and even economics. Public relations had its start at the cockpits.”

Unknowingly, the most honest men you can find in this part of the world are the cockers. Reacting to the “wallet” honesty test conducted by Reader’s Digest almost two decades back, then Education Secretary Alejandro Roces commented, “If they want to know if Filipinos are honest, don’t go to Malacanang, you’ll be disappointed; don’t go to Congress, you will be equally disappointed; don’t go to the Supreme Court… go to the cockpit and you’ll see the Filipinos are basically honest.”

“A bet is a bet,” said a kristo or the professional bettor, the equivalent of bookmarker in horseracing. “It must be honored at all costs or else you undermine the very basic framework of the sport – which is trust and the gentleman’s word of honor.”

No one really knows how cockfighting started. History records, however, showed the sport originated in Asia more than 3,000 years ago. The Greeks were the first known devotees of cockfighting. However, the sport was much disdained by the Romans and continuously criticized the Greeks for indulging in a “useless sport.”

But such resentment lasted only until the ascension of the great Roman general Julius Caesar. The Romans were so fond of Julius Caesar that they tried to follow also what he liked. They became so fanatic of cockfighting that they took it into excess even squandering whole patrimonies – much in the same way the merchants of Athens in an earlier period devoted their leisure to gamecocks.

During the reign of Henry II in the 12th century, cockfighting took off in England. Four centuries later, the reigning monarch Henry VIII recognized the sport as a clean and honorable medium of diversion and he made cockfighting a national pastime. It has been reported that a cockpit was built in Whitehall Palace, the official residence of all English monarchs.

King Henry VIII also staged cockfights attended with great enthusiasts by his loyal subjects. It must be for this reason why the French call cockfighting as the “king of sports” and the “sport of kings.”

From Europe, cockfighting became popular, too, in the United States. It happened when the colonist came to America in the 17th century and they brought with them the sport.

As a matter of fact, the rooster almost defeated the eagle in the race for its national bird. The power of one – the eagle won because of one vote, cast by cocking aficionado George Washington. Other American presidents who were lovers of the game were Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

“Cockfighting is a blood sport due in some part to the physical trauma the cocks inflict on each other,” the Wikipedia wrote. In Noli Me Tangere, Jose Rizal wrote that during the fight, the fighting cocks wear sharp razor blades fixed on their legs. The duel will only end by the death or (bloody) flight of one of the cocks.

“While not all fights are to the death, the cocks may endure significant physical trauma.”

It was for this reason that Massachusetts passed the first law in the United States in 1836 barring cockfighting. Many other states followed thereafter. Similar legislation was passed in Great Britain in 1849.

But in some parts of Asia and Latin America, cockfighting is still very popular.

“Not everywhere is cockfighting under legal assault,” wrote staff writer Paul Watson of LA Times. “In the home of the World Slasher Cup, it is central to the culture – and the economy.”

Quoting estimates by Manny Berbano, the publisher of the glossy Pit Games, Watson wrote: “The Philippine economy benefits by more than $1 billion a year from cockfight betting, breeding farms and the business of selling feed and drugs, including steroids, that bulk up the birds for two years before their fighting instinct kicks in.”

The Philippines is a haven for cockers. “We love coming here,” Mike Formosa, a veteran American cocker was quoted as saying. “They make us feel real welcome.”

For people who spend their spare time watching chickens shred each other, the cockers are amiable men, anxious to ensure their sport gets a fair hearing. “It’s like thoroughbred horses,” commented Ray Alexander, another American cocker. “It’s all in the bloodlines.”

The cockpit is a place where the poor and the rich come together. “Where else can you find a senator and someone from a squatter area competing on an equal footing?” asked Araneta.

Is cockfighting really a cruel sport? Again, here’s Araneta: “(Cockfighting) is a lot less cruel than pitting a chicken against a 150-pound man in a kitchen with a large knife.”