YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Filipinos say it's in the blood

Not everywhere is cockfighting under legal assault. In the home of the World Slasher Cup, it is central to the culture -- and the economy.

June 16, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Quezon City, Philippines — IN the center ring where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier pummeled each other through 14 rounds of the "Thrilla in Manila" more than three decades ago, another world-championship blood fest was in full swing.

The deftest moves and deepest cuts drew shouts of "Fight back!" and "Peck! Peck!" from spectators hanging on every move, illuminated larger than life on the electronic scoreboard's color video display. Most had fists full of cash wagered on the outcome.

One after another, the fights raged deep into the night. Several were over in seconds. None lasted longer than 10 minutes. Most losers ended up dead on the ring's hard-packed dirt floor. Many winners were barely breathing as their handlers carried them off in the white glare of ceiling lights. To popular tunes such as the Beatles' "Let It Be," cleanup crews swept the ring and sprinkled it with a watering can for the next bout.

Welcome to the World Slasher Cup II, where the really lethal roosters are separated from the mere chickens.

Billed as the world's biggest cockfighting event, the derby's $55,500 purse and prestigious title drew numerous foreign entries last month, from Japan, Germany and several U.S. states, including Alabama, California, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

For three nights, hundreds of game fowl competing on eight-cock teams with names such as God of War, Air Assault, Deep Impact and Your Future clashed in a series of bouts at the Araneta Coliseum. In flapping blurs of feathers, grit and blood, they pecked and gashed with 3-inch razors strapped to their legs.

It is big-ticket entertainment, a high-stakes slaughter that animal rights activists call barbaric. But in the raucous crowd of several thousand, cockers wondered what's wrong with fighting chickens when humans beating each other senseless in boxing rings are worthy of million-dollar purses and Olympic medals.

Millionaire developer Jorge Araneta, the coliseum's owner and a stately dean of Philippine cockfighting, was ringside at the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975 and had a team of cocks in this year's World Slasher Cup. To him, Ali and Frazier inflicted the cruelest cuts, not the fighting chickens, which only did what comes naturally.

"This is a better proxy than human beings beating each other's brains out," Araneta said, after one of his birds dispatched its opponent in a few minutes. "I pleaded with Ali to give it up after that fight."

COCKFIGHTING is so central to Philippine culture that Rolando Blanco, vice president of the country's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has little hope of persuading the government to stop it.

"How can we fight cockfighting when our lawmakers are cock fighters and breeders?" he asked.

Supporters of a ban acknowledge that fighting cocks' killer instinct is encoded in their genes, but argue that nature is more forgiving than cockfight organizers, who arm the roosters with razors and make sure they can't escape the ring. Chickens don't win much sympathy in the Philippines.

"Our laws protecting animals mainly concern endangered species and bigger animals, like dogs, cats, horses, whale sharks and monkey-eating eagles," Blanco said.

Filipinos were staging cockfights when Ferdinand Magellan came ashore in 1521, and more than 5 million roosters will clash in the country's cockpits this year, said Manny Berbano, publisher of the glossy Pit Games magazine and head of National Gamefowl Training Center.

With six national TV shows devoted to the sport, Filipinos can enjoy the carnage from the comfort of their homes almost every night of the week.

The Philippine economy benefits by more than $1 billion a year from cockfight betting, breeding farms and the business of selling feed and drugs, including steroids, that bulk up the birds for two years before their fighting instinct kicks in, Berbano estimated.

In the stands at the coliseum, bet-takers -- called kristos after the Tagalog word for Christ -- probably handled more than $400,000 in wagers in a single night during the Slasher Cup II, he said.

A barrel-shaped former Coca-Cola executive, Berbano is Philippine cockfighting's less garish answer to Don King. He is a cockpit evangelist with a PowerPoint pitch. One of Berbano's closing slides invokes the words of Abraham Lincoln, from a quote resurrected in 1963 in a defense of the sport in an Oklahoma court.

"As long as the Almighty permitted intelligent men, created in his image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it's not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege," Lincoln told Americans demanding a federal cockfighting ban a century earlier.

Lincoln's words aside, opponents of the sport have kept up their campaign for a ban for more than a century, and now Louisiana is the last legal bastion of American cockfighting.

Los Angeles Times Articles