“MORE COCKPITS THAN PULPITS”
Story and Photos by Ted Lerner
(Manila, Philippines) -- The sport of cockfighting goes back thousands of years and has, at one time or another, been prevalent in countries the world over. These days the practice of pitting together two roosters in a pit, each with one razor sharp metal blade tied to its leg, in a bloody death match has mostly been banned, branded by opponents as a barbaric relic of our uncivilized past.
The sport still flourishes in a few countries, namely Mexico and the Philippines. But perhaps nowhere else in the world is cockfighting practiced with such unabashed passion as in the Philippines. In the Philippines cockfighting is not just legal and wildly popular, but is also a booming industry complete with Vegas-like glitz.
The crow of the rooster in the early morning is a familiar sound throughout the archipelago, whether in rural or urban settings. There are over 2000 cockpits in the Philippines and many stay busy five to seven days a week. Some 12% of the population of 90 million Filipinos have a stake in the sport, taking care of an estimated 25 million game fowl scattered in the provinces and cities. And the sport is growing. The last few years has seen the proliferation of popular cockfighting television shows, glossy magazines, websites, and even trade shows. The industry annually generates over $1 billion.
In the world of cockfighting no competition is bigger or more important than the World Slasher Cup. Held bi-annually in January and late May/early June at the famed Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, the 45 year old event attracts the top game fowl breeders in the world, from the USA, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, and, of course, the Philippines. Each breeder pays $800 for an entry, which consists of 8 different cocks. Cockfights are held nonstop from late morning until early the next morning for seven straight days in front of thousands of people betting huge sums of money on each bloody battle. Whichever entry racks up the most wins throughout the weeks claims the pot.
This past May the World Slasher Cup attracted a record 260 entries, with the winner claiming $350,000. Additionally tens of millions of dollars would have been informally bet throughout the arena during the week long competition.
Participants run the gamut of society from influential politicians, top businessmen, professionals, right down to the teeming masses who live on pennies a day. The event also attracts plenty of foreigners, especially breeders and enthusiasts from the United States where cockfighting, which has a long tradition in the US, has been virtually outlawed.
Within the last four years new federal and state laws in the United States have been toughened so much that a man could go to jail for fighting roosters, or even taking their game fowl across state lines. Breeders who had bred fighting cocks for generations going back hundreds of years are packing up shop. A once proud and, what its proponents say, vital tradition is becoming extinct.
And so, rebels and outlaws in their own country, they come to the Philippines, where they are treated like celebrities, feted for their breeding knowledge and world class bloodlines.
“People don’t understand it. This is our history. Thomas Jefferson loved it. George Washington, the father of our country, loved it. Abe Lincoln loved cockfighting. I don’t know what’s happened now. Now we’re crumbling because they started outlawing cockfighting. For all them years in all them nations cockfighting flourished. When you become too weak and too sissified, that’s when you’re going to crumble. That’s what’s happening now in the United States.”—Legendary American game fowl breeder Rey Alexander, 78 years old, from Alabama, USA.
“It’s ingrained in the culture of Filipinos. It’s something that we woke up to when we were born. Roosters have become extensions of the egos and personality of Filipinos. A breeder feels that whatever he breeds is an extension of his talent and intellect and the ability to be able to create something. It is said you can talk bad about a Filipino’s wife, but never talk bad about his rooster. You can call a Filipino’s wife ugly but never call his rooster ugly, because you’ll get into a fight.”-- Emmanuel Pinol, a former three term governor from the Philippine province of North Cotabato.”
“You see how honorable these people are. You don’t have to have signed contracts when you bet P100,000. After each fight they pay. There’s word of honor. They’re very fair. This why a lot of Filipinos are loving the sport.”-- Manny Berbano, the publisher of a popular glossy monthly magazine, ‘Pit Games.’
“In the woods most animals fight not to the death, but the dominance over their particular group. Other animals once they are defeated, they will run. But with game birds, they will stay there until they are dead. They won’t take off. That’s the fascination of them, besides the physical agility of the animals. Until you’re actually involved and take an unbiased look at the animals themselves, you don’t understand why they are appreciated by people.”--Charles Berry, an Oklahoma native who is the former president of the United Game Breeders Association.
“I was in the US last year, and you can feel the sadness in the hearts of a lot of breeders there. By merely raising fighting chickens, you’ll be sent to jail.” – Manny Berbano
“We’re supposedly the land of the free and pursuit of happiness. But it turns out that we don’t really have the freedom that we’re supposed to have. There’s no happiness in doing what we do. So we have to come and enjoy it here in the Philippines.” – Larry E., breeder from California.
“I look for a boxer’s build. A good boxer is tall and skinny except they got big shoulders. It’s like a bullet. They don’t weigh nothin’ but it’ll travel so god darned fast it’ll pop you from here to yonder.” – Rey Alexander
“I want the accomplishment of being able to raise the best chickens on earth. Look at this. I was raised poor as dirt, but now I’m over here with the millionaires. It’s the only sport in the world where the poor can rub elbows with millionaires. Everybody’s equal. I feel rich here. Like a king. It’s the best feeling in the world”—Rey Alexander
“If there’s an end to the growth I don’t see it coming soon,” said Francis Ong, the brand manager for Thunderbird, the largest manufacturer of cock feeds and veterinary products.
“In the Philippines there are more cockpits than pulpits,” Jorge Araneta, the founder of the World Slasher Cup.