It’s not unusual in the Philippines for men to carry roosters onto busses—dead or alive. Most often, the birds are kept in canvas sacks or weaved palm baskets. Sometimes they are only lightly bound and cradled in the bend of their arm like feathered bowling balls. Through rough and rocky rides, the birds remain remarkably well-behaved. On one of my first bus rides in the country, a man flipped his rooster on its side, lifted its tail and showed the entire jeepney its anus. This was not a devious act to humiliate the bird, but quite the opposite. This was a prized gamecock to be sold or touted, and as it was explained to me, “The anus is the best indicator of health.”
Cockfighting, or sabong, as it’s called, has a heavy foothold in Filipino culture. Every town has its own arena, often seating more than the churches in all surrounding barangays combined. It is considerably more than a passing sport; it has served as the most popular form of gambling for hundreds of years. Sundays are the big derby days, but there is arena activity several days each week. There is even a 24-hour cock fighting TV channel, reporting on national results and broadcasting live action. It’s a running joke (rather dark humor) that if a Filipino man’s home catches fire, he will first save his treasured cock, then if there’s time, he will go back for his wife and children.
On the island of Mindoro, some friends and I attended a series of matches. The venue sat on the northern coast and afforded lovely vistas of a blue bay. The rusted rebar and concrete embankments at the entrance, however, reminded the visitor that this was a tenement of assisted suicide, not a serene beachside café.
It was Wednesday afternoon, and a particularly slow day at the arena. Upon entering, we were approached by an old timer with sun-faded eyes. This was Benny, a local man with a lot of stories and fewer teeth. He quickly asked us if we wished to purchase a bird and enter it into the contest. The undeniable answer was, Yes.
There were a dozen or more gamecocks on sale, representing a wide price range, but all appearing exactly equal to an ignorant buyer. Considering some cocks are sold for thousands of dollars, the 37-dollar contender we selected was a true bargain bird. In retrospect, he was probably worth no more than his meat market weight.
Despite being one of the cheaper buys, our chicken had a nice posture. He was older, at 18 months, but we figured aging warriors fight like they have nothing to lose. He wore a thick, burly coat of classic burnt orange and metallic green. Somewhere under his dimming plumage, he was probably hiding a few scars and skin conditions. He was a little light on the scale, but we dismissed that too, assuming he was just missing the non-essential organs.
Benny had told us to look for a bird with big, healthy feet. Apparently we overlooked this suggestion, because our guy had arthritic, curled claws like a clump of yellowed twigs, as deformed and hideous as a Dali raven.
As was the practice, we reluctantly flipped our bird upside down and took a gander at his rectum. Nobody was jumping to put a finger on the pulse. We all agreed it wasn’t Gisele’s navel, but for a chicken’s asshole it looked pretty standard.
It was announced that our cock was a heavy underdog. His opponent was to be Blackie M16, a rather intimidating moniker for a small bird. In rebuttal, we blessed our challenger with the noble name of Cluck Norris, in tribute to a lifetime underdog and champion. The likeness to Chuck, the legend, was not obvious, but similarities could be imagined. For one, both were no young guns in the fight game any longer.
Each fighting cock in the Philippines is equipped with a three-inch crescent blade on the left leg, replacing a removed natural spur. The leaping ability of gamecocks allows for the wickedly sharp gaff to slice and stab until one contender is dead or immobile. As brutal as it sounds, this is less barbaric than cockfights I’ve seen elsewhere. In some poorer countries in Latin America, a metal talon is not attached, and the birds use other methods to secure victory. I watched two chickens in Bolivia peck each other’s eyes out for 20 minutes before I had my fill. When I asked why they didn’t use blades, a spectator smiled and said, “It lasts longer this way!” Derbies are on Sundays after all, and there is a lot of time to kill.
Norris was strapped and ready. He was carried into the arena by his handler and given a pat on the pecker. I liked to think he was aware of his great moment. The crowd was small but the acoustics of the arena made a raucous welcome for the winged gladiators. This was a gloomy, ramshackle structure, but probably better kept than some government offices—priorities held vices over order in these parts. In the center of the concrete bleachers was an enclosed glass octagon with a blood-stained dirt floor. The tin roof trapped the island sun, creating a visible rotisserie heat.
Bookies and players grew louder and threw complex hand signals around half the venue. One bookie can keep dozens of bets, all in memory. The community is wise to elect knowledgeable and honest men in these positions, or they wouldn’t be alive long.
There were men of retired age in attendance, but the crowd was mostly younger, working-age men spending their Wednesday afternoon gambling. There were a few GI gringos (the Joes), and more than a few underfunded addicts betting their children’s book money on a five-chicken parlay—those who can’t afford to lose, and always do.
This was largely a men’s club, and only a couple haggard ladies, a decade past make-up, muddied about. More female vendors sat outside. The food was hardly food, only several brightly colored renditions of sausage. Tapsilog, hotsilog, longanisa. After seeing this food prepared and consumed two meters from a pile of losers’ carcasses, I’m now certain where disease is born. The sausage didn’t interest me, but beer was essential in softening the blows of the slasher contest at hand.
The moment he was unsheathed and dropped for action, it was clear why Norris spent the last 18 months as an alternate to the other alternates. He was a squawking malady, and badly showing his age. I’m not sure is he was attempting some clever “feigning injury” tactic, but Norris suddenly had a severe limp. He hobbled around the ring like my old classmate with scoliosis. While his opponent seemed hyped on steroids, Norris looked sedated. His vertical leap measured no more than four inches, giving a new definition to “flightless.”
Miraculously, probably as an agitated accident, Cluck Norris drew first blood with a short jab to Blackie. His feathers flapped loudly, reaching deep for strength and glory. Those playing long-shot wagers cried aloft, and the thrilling soundtrack of blood sport echoed loudly in the bleachers.
We stood in delight, only to watch Norris pause for an instant and lose momentum. He was so excited about his lucky blow that he looked to the crowd for confirmation. Moments later, Blackie leapt high and came plunging down. He cut poor Norris with a swift spine laceration that clipped his feathers and spilled a half pint of blood on the octagon floor. The scuffle lasted 10 seconds at best.
The referee moved in and picked Norris from the floor. He dropped him once. One flutter of the flappers, then another, more like a final jerk. The ref dropped him again. His eyes went stiffly side to side, then spiraled into a familiar tug of death. From proud father to poultry, Cluck Norris was declared dead on site.
I would have said that Cluck Norris was a victim of poor training, but there isn’t much you can teach a rooster. If they were impressionable, trainers would focus on vocal control long before the fight game. Gamecocks simply have a natural aggression directed at the mere sight of another male. You don’t have to poke them, run them, administer guilt or call their hen a whore. You just arm a couple of birds with knives and see who comes out alive.
Outside in the sun, Blackie M16 was being stitched up for the next round by the resident cut man. I saw our handler sitting nearby. He had Norris in a plastic shopping bag and was eating a hot dog. He nodded and smiled mildly in embarrassment with a mouthful of pink meat. We had all toasted to Cluck Norris, feeling like accomplices in his demise. For the other patrons it was another day at the office—another bird slain for the joys of human wager. I thought it was a far cry from praying over your food.
All settled we lost about 100 dollars on the defeat. Our friend Benny walked us out saying, “Sometimes an expensive experience is an important one.” I think the old gamer was reminding us where we were (at the Kong Hoy Entertainment Center), and that we had just played the Local game by Local rules. We knew from the outset we had been swindled, and they would never let the Joes walk away with winnings. What we did not realize, however unjust, is that the victor also goes home with the losing bird, to be plucked, cleaned, and carried like a trophy onto the evening bus.
***More thanks to Adam Bove for this collection of photos. There are many more of this trip and others at his Web site at coreshotmedia.com.