by Vicente Manansala. Oil on canvas. 1974.
In all of the Philippines’ recorded history, it was in Pigafetta’s First Voyage Around the World that the favorite Filipino past time of cockfighting was first mentioned. Jose Rizal devoted an entire chapter on the subject in his 1887 novel, Noli Me Tangere. More recently, an American novelist proclaimed, "You don’t know Filipinos until you have seen some little fellow who has trained a chicken for months put it into a ring against another rooster. He bets everything he owns on it, steals his wife’s savings, sells his children’s shirts to raise a peso. If he wins, glorious; if in one pass his rooster gets his throat cut, then you will see how a philosopher takes disaster." Indeed, to the Filipino enthusiast, cockfighting is a sport like no other. What baseball is to the Americans, cockfighting is to the Filipinos. It is the traditional gambling sport so taken seriously that during the Spanish regime, an oft-repeated hyperbole was that when a Filipino’s home caught fire, he rescued first his rooster, then his wife and children.
Dating back to pre-Spanish times, "sabong", as is called in the Philippine vernacular, is played out in public squares throughout the Philippines on Sundays immediately after church, where the ordinary peasant, Juan Tamad, and the land-owning Don Ciriaco Torquato meet and place their bets on their favorite roosters as equals. Heavy bets are made and are paid to the owners of the winning birds. Towards the latter part of the 18th century, licensed cockpits made their first appearance in Spanish Philippines. Resembling an arena theater, the cockpit has a ground area where the roosters dueled, has bleacher seats around the ring for the spectators, a roof, and a minimum amount of wall enclosures to ensure ventilation. These cockpits eventually became a source of revenue for the Spanish colonial administration. Cockpits charged a gate fee, but roosters frequently served as a gate pass. A document on the financial state of the Philippines for the year 1819-1822 reported a net revenue of P175,000 to P280,000 per annum. It was said that this additional income by the government went to building highways, bridges, and schools.
Cockfighting has changed very little since the Spanish times, and the cockpit today remains a recognizable feature of local architecture. Inside the gate of the cockpit is an area called the ulutan, where owners promenade around stroking their roosters while sizing up a suitable foe. Touching a prospective opponent, however, is strictly taboo. As in boxing, the protagonists are matched by weight. Razor-sharp blades, or slashers, are attached to the roosters’ heels by professional heelers whose job it is to choose the correct blade and to attach it at the proper angle, one that can unleash maximum mayhem with the least amount of effort on the part of the rooster.
In the pit, the roosters are exhibited for a while before the match begins so that spectators can place their bets. When the public has already placed its bets, the duel is about to begin. Gamblers and onlookers alike begin shouting and cheering as the handlers, holding the birds with such skill so as not to be slashed by the razor-sharp blades attached to the heels of the roosters, enter the pit. Held by the handlers, the gamecocks are brought together head to head and are allowed to peck and infuriate each other. Then they are placed on the ground at a certain distance from each other and left alone. Both birds now enraged from the previous pecking, their hackles rising, go at it with abandon, flying up and down, delivering multiple blows with their slashers against each other at a fantastic speed. The fight is bloody and rarely lasts more than a few minutes. The match ends when one rooster is either killed or turns tail. The winning gamecock, however, must peck the slain opponent twice to declare the victory official. Should the winner, however, run from the slain foe, the match is called a draw.
Slain roosters are deplumed for use as feather dusters, and are cooked in a special dish called talunan, while others are simply buried by their grieving owners.
A Filipino’s love affair with cockfighting may be summed up thus: it is in the cockpit where he can purchase hope every weekend, and it is also in the cockpit where he sees himself as equal to the Don Ciriaco Torquatos of his hometown if only for a few moments.
Sabong enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals alike, may wish to visit the following website: http://www.sabong.com.ph
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