Cockfighting – How the game is played

A small bird walking on grass

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I know this is a controversial post for Westerners so please be warned that some parts of this post might be offensive to some. Unlike football which I consider violent sport and never a fan of it, football players end up with head injuries that can kill the players or cause dementia or Alzheimer in later years but cockfighting ends up with a meal on the dinner table. No harm done to human.

When the bird is in peak condition after having trained for months, he is taken with pride to the arena and is held by the tail feathers while cockers negotiate among themselves for a suitable match. Before a fight, the spectators scrutinize each bird. To stir each bird up, the head of one cock is held in the hand, with the neck outstretched for the other bird to peck. After a few minutes, the other bird has its neck pecked. Then a long steel spur, blade-like and razor-sharp, is attached to the left leg of each bird.

In the case of similar plumage, the bird may be distinguished by a colored leg band, before deciding which to back. One handler may put on a hat, so that wagers are placed by calling “mayroon” (with hat”) or “wala” (“hatless”). Prominent cockers sit at ringside.

Bets are usually taken by the kristo, (bookmaker) so named because of his outstretched hands when calling out wagers from the audience. He writes nothing down but keep mental calculations of how much they have laid out, the odds quoted, and to whom. The bookmaker has a fantastic memory for faces, bets taken in a split second of hand gestures and calls, and the changing odds given during a match. If there is much more money for one rooster than the other, he distributes some bets among the prominent cockers, calling them by name and the amounts they will answer for; usually these cockers nod in agreement just so the fight can start.

Trust works both ways; anyone can place a bet without showing his money. There’s a sign language for betting: two fingers raised means P20, horizontal fingers signify hundreds, and fingers pointed downwards represent thousands. If you want to bet, confirm this system with your neighbor at the fight.

The cockfight begins when the leather sheaths of the razor-sharp spurs are removed, the blades examined and wiped with alcohol to remove any poison, and the birds are released to square off. The birds fight viciously, until one is killed. They end when one bird is killed, maimed into submission, or to the mortification of its owner, runs away. A close fight drives frenzied spectators to a howling crescendo. A losing bird must be picked up and dropped three times to see if it shows any signs of life before it’s declared dead. Victory is only confirmed when the dominant cock pecks twice at its victim, even if the latter’s dead, in a formal coup de grace.

If they both sink to the ground, exhausted, they are held up to one another and then dropped, to see if they can still fight. This may be done several times before the fight is declared over. If both birds die, the one that dies first loses.

Sabong and illegal tupada, are judged by a referee called sentenciador whose verdict is final and not subject to any appeal. When the action ceases, the sentenciador grabs both birds by the back neck feathers and brings them together for the decisive pecks. If the winning bird fails to deliver them, by being too badly wounded, for example, it forfeits its victory, and a tie is declared. Sometimes both birds die, but a dead rooster can be declared the winner if he died while on the offensive. The betting is then resolved as money passed between kristos and spectators. Trying to renege is not recommended. The procedure is repeated for each of the many contests that make up a meet, which is often an all-day affair.

Contests may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. When the cockfight is over, the ‘doctors’ perform skilled surgery on wounds. The loser takes his dead rooster home and cooks it in a special dish called talunan, meaning ‘loser’s repast’.

The cockfight remains popular despite efforts to eradicate it as an unproductive gambling vice, cruel to animals. A cockpit code of behavior speaks of community honor not as visible in the general society. ‘Fixed’ fights are not the rule despite heavy betting. The ready acquiescence of prominent cockers to the kristo committing them to bets just to get the fight going shows strong communal spirit and trust. Cockfighting in the Philippines reveals a social institution with standards which, in contrast to the national scene, appear high and workable.

Cockfighting can be bloody and is not for the squeamish, but it offers a fascinating glimpse of Filipinos at play though perhaps they take it rather too seriously for it to be regarded as merely amusement. Few women attend, but there’s no problem if Western women do.


Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes

The Philippines by John Cockcroft

Culture Shock ! Philippines by Alfredo and Gracae Roces


8 thoughts on “Cockfighting – How the game is played

  1. I don’t think it started that way. It’s more of an entertainment for the masses. Well, it gives them something to do with their lives, amidst all the hardships around them. It’s really hard to understand Filipinos. They are a study in contradiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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