Morituri Te Salutamus: An Afternoon at a Filipino Cockfight

by Colin Heinrich Jun 12, 2013

The last time I saw a chicken in Los Angeles, it was in a cage with a few hundred others on the back of a truck roaring down the freeway. It looked like the grotesque offspring of a pigeon and a soccer ball, and I had the urge to tap it with a tack hammer, at which point I was sure it would fall apart into a neatly plucked assortment of light and dark meat. Occasionally, the highway wind would catch a stretching wing and the bird would do a back flip, sending ruffled feathers flying like dandruff. I passed the truck as soon as my lane opened.

My mind drifts back to those chickens while Carly and I sit in the hot, dusty air gathering near the top of the arena’s stands. In the ring, the latest contest is just ending. One rooster is down, blood following the contours of its feathers like water along tile grout. Quick breaths rising and falling in the dust-rumpled curves of its back. The other rooster, enraged if not uninjured, continues to assail its fallen opponent with beak and razor claw. The officiator separates the two, but when the downed bird still can’t stand on its own, both are carried out of the glow of the harsh fluorescent lights.

I ask Jingle what happens to the cocks after their fight. “Dinner Colins!” he says, patting his exposed stomach and smiling. Even the winning cock, usually too injured to survive long, is butchered.

For the first time ever, I believe these animals evolved from the tyrannosaurus rex.

Jingle won 50 pesos on that match, and he keeps asking me if I’d like him to bet for me. “I pick winners Colins,” he says. I trust his judgment (even though he’s been riding a sine wave of winnings since we arrived) and it’s not like I understand enough Tagalog to bet on my own anyway. The money’s not an issue. But each time, I hold up my camera and turn him down. “Taking pictures instead.” “Okey Colins.”

We got here about half an hour ago and have already seen six fights. Twelve roosters tearing each other apart in front of dozens of sweaty onlookers, who regard a fallen gladiator with a sip of their beer. The event takes place every Sunday and runs from noon to 7:30pm. In that time, I calculate close to 200 cocks find their way to the dirty arena floor, half on their feet, half bleeding on their bellies. The dirt is a brown flecked with coagulated crimson.

200 chickens. For the 60 or 70 people lining the stands, that’s a lot of dinner.

* * *

“Want to come to the cockfight?” Jingle asked.

Carly and I had pulled back into Loboc, on the island of Bohol, a few hours before. The howl and batter of a helmetless motorcycle ride was replaced with the hum of insects at a volume I hadn’t heard since a cicada summer on the East Coast of America, a background buzz that matched the puttering of bikes passing by on the main road near our hostel’s turnoff. In this forest the air was 10 degrees cooler, and for the first time in weeks my arm hair didn’t cling to my skin like so many mudfish in the nearby Loboc River.

We had been off to visit the Chocolate Hills that Bohol is famous for. The vistas were spectacular but spoiled by the midday tour groups shuttled in to swarm over the viewpoint. As I took a panorama, a Chinese man in a “Mother Mary of Hospitality” shirt shoved me to the side before winding up and leaping for his own picture. A smile flashed across his face for only as long as it took for the shutter to close. I asked Carly if she wanted to leave.

A person in the crowd stands while watching the arena.

“Jingle Mtr,” as he had entered himself into my phone, was waiting for us back at the hostel. Jingle was the first person we’d met when we arrived in town, a wiry man with a greasy face and a motocross shirt now being worn for the second day straight. He offered us discounted motorcycles to rent, but also warned us about the crowds at the Hills. And as we straddle-walked our motorcycles onto the dirt shoulder, disappointment etched into the sunburnt lines of our foreheads, Jingle didn’t feel the need to rub it in.

“Want to come to the cockfight?”

The arena itself was just south of town, behind an unmarked door wedged between a convenience store and an imposing wall of concrete. Men in sweat-necklaced tank tops loitered about the door while women and children passed it idly by, carrying fruits and filtered water back home for dinner. It was past 4pm at this point and the sunlight struck at lower and lower angles, casting an orange glow over the street. Jingle collected our 50-peso admission fee and held it to a shin-level barred window. A disembodied hand accepted the offering, and the heavy door swung open, baring its dark guts to the increasingly bloody sky.

* * *

The next match is starting. A young boy, 16 at most with bamboo-cane arms and a dirty face, enters the arena holding his prizefighter. It’s a gargantuan white cock, with voluminous plumage that gleams under the beams of fluorescence as distinctly as the boy’s dirty face doesn’t. He clutches it close to his chest, stroking its feathers affectionately and saying goodbye to a chicken’s lifetime of preparation and doting. The officiator approaches him to strap on the cock’s weapon: a giant razor hind claw. Four inches, silver with a red sheath. The officiator slides the sheath off and steps clear of the rooster’s kicking range. When he’s finished, the boy puts the bird down and it pecks at the dirt floor, unaware as to its future.

As the next competitor enters the arena, Jingle turns to me with a grin. “Bet this time, Colins?” I shake my head again and stand to take more pictures. The arena isn’t set up for photography. All the best angles are blocked by heavy wooden beams sturdier than the rusty tin roof deserves, and wires drape loosely from the walls to the suspended lights like boa constrictors in the throes of digestion. Smoke from skewer grills and cigarettes floats whimsically through the air, curling and blooming through the exhales of a few dozen noses. The sweat-stained wooden benches are low to the ground and filled with people who regard my camera with disinterest, a glancing view before sipping a beer or turning back to better conversation. Carly hands Jingle 20 pesos.

The man in the Derek Rose jersey is the bookie. He puts his faith into the railing’s construction, leaning perpendicularly over it and stretching his arms out into a peacock’s tail of odds and wagers. He lords over the crowd, screaming over their commotion, and the audience throws their money at him. Since I arrived in the Philippines, I’ve noticed that occasionally I’ll receive a 20-peso note in decidedly worse shape than the others, all brown and flimsy like loose skin. This is why. Crumpled notes sail better, and Derek Rose catches them between his fingers as deftly as his namesake would.

There’s a signal I don’t catch, and suddenly the arena goes silent.

Two roosters being held in the arena

The boy and his opponent, an older gentleman with a washed-out tee and a lean brown rooster, are facing each other now, cocks in hand. They stare at each other with an uncompetitive detachment. If this were karate, they’d be bowing right now. The officiator bids them closer, and the young boy, stone-faced and steady-handed, holds the white rooster’s head still while the older man approaches him. Brown is forced upon the great white bird until he begins to panic, pecking at White’s immobilized face, begging for reprieve from the proximity. White endures the onslaught. As the aggravation reaches a fever pitch, the birds are separated to opposite sides of the arena and placed on the ground.

But the puffed out chests and stamping feet quickly deflate, and the fighting cocks return to being chickens, pecking at the ground for feed they will never find. Their owners quickly scoop them up. The boy smooths White’s feathers and wipes the blood off his face, whispering with closed eyes to the uncomprehending bird. The man does the same with Brown, petting his agitated feathers and preparing him for what’s to come. The spectators watch with half an eye.

The officiator bids the gladiators closer again.

This time, it’s White’s turn to have first pecks. The boy looks at Brown with hawk eyes as he forces White upon him. They turn away from each other at first. But there’s no escape. Panic builds in the birds. Wings struggling against hands. Weaponized feet kicking out at anything, everything. The owners can barely restrain them now. They’re ready.

The humans in the ring place the birds on the ground and step away to the edges. All eyes on White and Brown. Gone are the civilities of the last attempt. The birds stand low, inflating their neck feathers in a demonic display I didn’t know they were capable of. Circling. Neither backing down. The fake hind claws tap and drag lines in the dirt like choreography to be remembered.

Like a flash, they lunge for each other. Wings beat ferociously, flight just within reach. Brown gets above White, and the tangle of feather and flashing silver is too fast to follow. On the sidelines, the man leans casually into the arena’s glass railing, eyes on the action. The boy stands on his own. In a second, it’s over. White falls to his side, still pecking what useless pecks he can land against Brown’s stomach. The officiator steps in and separates them by the scruff of their necks, but when he releases, White hits the ground again. It’s over. As the two birds are carried out of the arena, a trickle drips down into a sanguine constellation behind them.

From an unseen part of the arena, another rooster’s crow cuts through the air like a swan song. The boy and the man follow their sacrificed children into the back.

One boy holds a rooster near the edge of the arena

Conversation resumes at a muted pace, and Derek Rose silently tosses bills out to those who’ve earned them. 40 crumpled pesos go to Jingle, who hands them to Carly. She smiles and thanks our cockfight sponsor for his betting wisdom. In the ring, a man with a rake comes out to smooth the dirt, 30 prongs erasing a history of blood like a Hiroshima Zen garden. Flecks of coagulation scatter into the dirt. The sun is dropping rapidly and its light shines through the gaps in the corrugated tin roof, leaving disco circles on the opposite wall. A line forms around the corner as the men of the arena go for beers as if it were a commercial break. The beer here is cheaper than anywhere I’ve seen in town. I’ll grab one on the way out.

To avoid the crowds in the stands below, we take the upper walkway to the exit. From the elevation I can peer into the back, where women work on the birds who have already died, plucking the feathers and cutting them into the bits I’m used to seeing back home. Legs, breasts, livers. They use bits I’m not used to as well, the feet and beaks to be boiled in giant vats. Grills and simmering coals turn the back with its lower roof into a sweat box, and points of light twinkle on the chefs’ foreheads as their knives slide through tendons and separate bones. Brown and White hang by their feet as their former owners chat and laugh beneath their bodies.

Back outside, a family of chickens rummage through the grassy ditch on the side of the road, four little yellow chicks cheep cheeping after their mother. A rooster stands guard on a nearby pallet stack, and its ca-caw is a gentle warble. The chicken spreads its wings to stretch. It gives three quick flaps and its silhouette is like a presidential seal. The bulbous thighs and inflated breasts I’ve come to expect are absent, replaced with a profile like a slipstream and a plumage that shines golden brown in the dusk light.

Next to them, a woman sells chicken skewers for five pesos a pop, also golden brown, covered with a sweet glaze. Her restaurant is the size of a rusting grill. I grab five skewers for the ride home.

Discover Matador