Like England’s foxhunts, and Spain’s bullfights, cockfighting is a blood-sport between two cocks held in a ring called a cockpit. Crowds of people watch the fights, in an enclosed cockpit or an open makeshift one. The pits look like miniature stadiums. Rural game pits usually consist of a wooden structure with a tin roof to protect spectators from sun and rain while the absence of walls (the skeletal structure of the stands serves as the enclosure) permits light and ventilation. The dirt arena is surrounded by banks of wooden benches reaching to the roof, usually jam-packed with noisy afficionados. Urban cockpits are more comfortable and often have air-conditioned sections with padded seats for wealthier enthusiasts. A rooster in hand serves as a pass, otherwise a nominal admission fee is charged.
Cockfighting is constantly under attack by animal-loving people. Nevertheless, this ancient sport has a fanatical following in the Philippines that cuts across all class barriers. Cockfighting is democratic in the sense that the poorest cocker can pit his rooster against the most prominent town official and win, although the introduction of expensive imported breeds has changed the quality of cockfighting.
Virtually every town in the Philippines has a cockpit or sabungan, and cockfighting takes place every Sunday, on public holidays, and at fiesta. I used to live close to the Sabungan on Tejeros St. at Santa Ana, Manila in the ‘50s and on Sundays, the place was quite noisy with boisterous spectators. Gambling can be extremely heavy. It’s not unusual, in a rural area with few visible sources of substantial income, to see thousands of pesos changing hands.
Cockfighting is legal, but the sport must be held in a place away from the general business area. There is no nationwide ban of cockfighting in the Philippines but since 1948, cockfighting is prohibited every Rizal Day on December 30 where violators can be fined or imprisoned due to the Republic Act No. 229.
Cockfighting, locally termed sabong, is a popular pastime in the Philippines, where both illegal and legal cockfights occur. Legal cockfights are held in cockpits every week, whilst illegal ones, called tupada or tigbakay, are held in secluded cockpits where authorities cannot raid them. In both types, knives or gaffs are used. There are two kinds of knives used in Philippine cockfighting: single-edged blades (used in derbies) and double-edged blades; lengths of knives also vary. All knives are attached on the left leg of the bird, but depending on agreement between owners, blades can be attached on the right or even on both legs.
The history of raising fowl for fighting goes back 6,000 years. The first documented use of the word gamecock, denoting use of the cock as to a “game”, a sport, pastime or entertainment, was recorded in 1634, after the term “cock of the game” used by George Wilson, in the earliest known book on the sport of cockfighting in The Commendation of Cocks and Cock Fighting in 1607. Cockfighting was already flourishing in pre-colonial Philippines, as recorded by Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian diarist aboard Ferdinand Magellan’s 1521 expedition.
The country has hosted several World Slasher Cup derbies, held biannually at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, where the world’s leading game fowl breeders gather. World Slasher Cup is also known as the “Olympics of Cockfighting”.
Good fighting birds are very valuable and get first-class treatment, including high-quality feed and vitamins, plus regular baths and massages. It’s common to see an owner strolling around his village caressing a fowl nestled in the crook of his arm. On Sundays, owners meet in a section of the cockpit to match their birds, which are paired by weight, like boxers. Then the gaffer chooses a spur of appropriate length and curve from his selection and, with the owner’s approval, ties it at a prescribed angle and height behind the rooster’s leg.
Many Filipino families raise fighting cocks, and it is common to see one of these birds tied by a leg-rope outside a house. Rearing a good fighting cock is no easy task, and the bird’s owner lavishes constant care and attention, often treating the bird almost as one of his children. It takes four to five months of daily training to bring a good bird up to the standard required for a public cockfight. Training begins in the morning, with a bath of vinegar and wine. The bird is then exercised, and at least each day is made to fight other birds.
Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes
The Philippines by John Cockcroft
Culture Shock ! Philippines by Alfredo and Gracae Roces