Cockfighting: Passion and Vice


Especially foreigners with other value-orientations to animals consider the cockfight on Philippines as a cruel, bloody ritual and they turn away with displeasure and horror. Nevertheless, this "sport", which was also characterized as "degraded gladiator fight" belongs like the Fiestas to the national institutions.

The appreciation of cockfight on the Philippines is also expressed  in the following sarcastic phrase: "When a Filipinos house catches fire, he first rescues his gamecock, then his wife, and then his kids". The aphorism reveals that cockfighting is primarily a masculine domain on the Philippines. And perhaps there is also some truth in the phrase that cocks are the real competitors of Philippine wives.

Cockfighting (Sabong) is after basketball the second-most popular hobby in the country. Even so, in town areas and in the upper classes it has to compete with other sports. In rural areas it remains very popular. Cockfighting is a big business. This industry makes a turnover from more than a billion pesos. Also multi-national companies like San-Miguel Corporation, Novartis or Bayer compete for market shares in the growing market of fodder or additives. Since almost every Barangay has a game pit, at least temporarily, the number of game pits is far more than ten thousand. Philippines is regarded as "a cockfight-paradise". There is a calculation that in the Philippines each year between seven to thirteen million cocks are designated to fight.

Already Rizal mentioned in his novel "Noli me Tangere" the "national vice" of cockfighting.  For the ex-president Marcos cockfighting was so important to pass a "Cock-fighting Law" in 1974, "to protect and to promote an institution of national heritage". Ten cockfight-magazines as well as three TV-programs and a radio station have the cockfight as editorial main topic. Although the cockfight is on a withdrawal worldwide, there are apologists - you find them for example on - proclaiming that this sport has "evolved from the wisdom of Asian culture and tradition". They try "to make cockfighting an international hobby that would promote peace and brotherhood among the people of the world" (!). However, it is questionable if sport as a competition activity with polarizing effects can do this in general.

Under historical perspective cockfighting was and is not only located in the Philippines. Cockfight events are also known in the European antiquity - in Greece and in Old Rome, furthermore in the Near East and in India. In England the fight was practiced for centuries, but in 1849 cockfight became illegal. Although the presidents Washington and Lincoln have been cockfight proponents, the fight is nowadays only authorized in five states of the United States. There it is more a marginal  of sport with low-status. It could still be found – sometimes with less bloody arrangement - in Central America, the Caribbean, Thailand and illegally in Indonesia. Rizal´s remark, the Spaniards would have imported the cockfight onto Philippines in order to give an outlet for the frustrations of the colonization, is incorrect. According to prevailing opinion the fight was already spread in the country before the arrival of the Spaniards. They had an ambivalent attitude to cockfighting. On the one side cockfighting was for them source of enrichment, because they got money from licences and entry fees. On the other side  cockpits have been places for rebels. The Americans, who replaced the Spaniard, took a detached view of the sport. They critiqued the "barbarian" sport in a puritanical attitude and tried to replace it through the sport of tennis or baseball.

The governments of the Philippines never banned cockfighting. Former ex-president Marcos installed a Commission on Game fowl, which controls the licensing of cockpits and issues permits for fights and breeders. One of this regulations forbids all municipal officials  any managerial or proprietor function in the cockpit. Even so, this regulation is on paper only.

Breeding, care and training

Poorer Filipinos select their fighting cocks from normal, affordable, native chickens. Top fighting cocks however, are bred systematically. If there is enough capital a "trio", including a fighting cock and two hens, is imported from the USA. The price for a trio can reach 1000 - 25.000$. The general name for them is "Texas-cocks". "Texas-cocks" are not very beautiful, but they are strong and have a good endurance in fighting. It is told that these imported birds can deliver four times more blows as native cocks. Popular races are the Roundheads, Clarets or Greys among others. Specific races and "super blood lines" can be "in" or "out". A medium-sized breeder produces 200 - 300 cocks a year. 

In the Philippines most fighting cocks are breaded on the island of Negros. Here are the top-breeders with financial power at home, so among others a brother of the ex-president Cory Aquino. Their scientific breeding is expensive. It is told that the price for a cock from a good blood line is 100 - 2000 $. Breeding and selling is connected with risks. Successful cocks can not automatically reproduced. As in humane sciences, there are different opinions among cockers, to which amount genetic heritage or breeding and training determines the success of a cock. But there are more cockers pretending that  the fighting style - i.e.. agility, power, aimed kicks and high flying - derives from the genetics and breeding. Training could only improve the given style of fighting (1). A successful breeder will always refer to the victories of his breeding-lines in the pits (fighting places).

After purchase a cock should take his way from a "baby stag" (under a year) to a "battle stag" (under two years) and "battle cock" (two years and more ). If the training or sparring should show however, inabilities for fighting, some breeders recommend the killing of young cocks in order to guarantee the quality of the trunks ("because they may delete the purity of the blood lines").

With regard to feedings every breeder has his own "secret" nutritional-plan onto which he swears. The poorer Filipino feeds perhaps his cock with broken rice, vegetable and old bread. Wealthier owners select different grain sorts, milk, cheese or apples as well as food additives like vitamins, minerals, electrolytes or even amphetamines. In addition the offering of strychnine is reported in order to increase the appetite and to stimulate heart and blood circulation. Nevertheless, the majority of cockers refuse such special diet. Nevertheless in former times sulphur, rifle flux, lime from seashells and granite flux was added to the food, the additives now are refined. In a booklet of the Genem Biotechnology Company following the following effects are praised:

"The essence gives a powerful scarlet appearance on the cock comb ...increases the aggressiveness, strength and endurance in fighting and provides a dramatic improvement of the feathers after the moult".

Costly doping also here. Rearing and training try to improve primarily "gameness", that means fight strength, aggression and endurance of the cock. Cockers want to have a light-footed, mobile cock with strong legs and wing musculature. Too much muscle mass can make the cock immovable. Massages, gymnastic practices at a kind of trapeze, just as throwing up should strengthen the musculature. Parasites and worm attacks are possible. Vaccinations are very often necessary. Perhaps the cock is held also in the proximity of streets in order to accustom him to the later noise in the fight place. After six months fighting qualities can be tested by help of another cock as sparring partner. In this phase the knife is mostly covered by a leather cover.

Now it may be time to give the cock an attractive name. Popular are aggressive names like Killdeath, Battling Mendez, King Game Cock, Aramdillerkiller, Chickenscratcher, Loma de Corregidor or Mike Tyson. A nine-months cock is suited for fight, mostly however the fighting cocks are two years and older.

Before a fight the cock is mostly not allowed to have sex, because this could weaken the fighting spirit. It is told, that some cockers take care, that the cock is not touched by a woman who is in the phase of menstruation. Such touches are regarded as a premature death judgment. Even the contact with a widow can be derogatory. Better is the contact of cock with the underwear of a virgin blessed in a mess - so another more irrational recommendation. Other procedures to enforce the aggressiveness especially before a fight are caging of cock in darkness, blowing of smoke of cigarettes in the eyes of cock and the spreading of chilli on the anus. No mating acts before a fight are not wished - but before fight the cock can receive injection with testeron, digitalis drugs to speed up the heart or vitamin K for a better closing of wounds.

In the first two years – that’s undisputed – the fighting cock has a pampered pasha life compared with other poultries. Rizal is going further on, when he is reporting that sometimes fighting cocks get more care as children.

Places and Persons

Towns or barangays on the Philippines have normally three landmarks: the church, the city hall and the cockfight places). The last one should have a distance from at least one kilometre away from schools, churches and the buildings of municipality. Mayors sometimes try to move the pit in the neighbourhood of their houses or plantages to exercise more influence on cockers. Pits can "migrate", if their is often a change of mayors.   

The fighting-places can vary according to the size of the place and the organizers. The bandwidth of variation includes improvised hack fights without permission (topodas) on sandy streets and gardens up to specially constructed arenas (galeras) with air conditioned sections and leather seats in the front rows of seats.

The classical cockpit (sabungan) has nothing in common with an airplane cockpit. The basic design is a semi open timber construction with a sandy square arena like a boxing ring - measuring round about eight meters per side - with upward staggered wooden banks or standing places. Metal-fences or glass-walls are protecting the audience. There can also be rooms for the selling of snacks, the registration and fight preparation.

A beginning fight can be recognized by a little red flag at the entrance or by the noise of present spectators. In smaller barrios fights take place on days of fiesta. In towns, it will be mostly a Sunday after the mass. There is the phrase: "Sunday is Sabong Day". In Manila cockfights or derbies take place every day.

Manila has twenty cockpits with daily fights. The Roligon Mega Cockpit and the Arneta Coliseum are well known. Here you can find the fights with the "Big Boys" and derbies lasting several days and offering more than hundred fights and  as guaranteed prize money up to one million pesos. The owners of cocks deposit a considerable admission money per cock, winning points are registered and perhaps at the end the owners are getting a very high price money. Front spectator-seats can cost ten dollars and more.

If several cocks fight in the arena against each other simultaneously, it is called "battle royal". However, these fights are rare.

The audience is mostly masculine. Ruediger Siebert (2) interpreted the affinity of Filipinos to the cockfight in a psychological sense:

"No other place than the cockpit is such an symbolic place of the masculinity of Filipino. Strength and skill is dominating there. The cock is regarded as a paragon of masculine virtues as fighting courage and attacking ... The cock is awakening all associations of masculine vanity and corresponds to a widespread Macho behaviour."

Aland Dundus wrote an essay, trying to show the psychoanalytic relationships between "Gallus" (Latin word for: rooster) and "phallus" ( 4) .

Women appear only in supporting roles like Coke- or snack seller. However, their budget for daily life can be affected heavily by losses of bets. Children can be among the audience. Some American pedagogues are pretending that cockpits are the rooting place for later indifference against sorrows of animals.

Beside the cocks there are other main actors. Often the owners of the cocks have delegated the match-care of cocks to handlers. Handlers need the consent of the owners for bet agreements. The owners or handlers are searching for opponent cocks.  They prefer a cock which is smaller or lighter, or a badly trained one, or a cock with lower blood.  A good matchmaking needs information from insiders.

Division of labour differs depending on the size of event. Often, however, a Casador could be found. He is a manager, responsible for the organization of fight. The owners of cocks make their "inside"-bets with him. He is financed as anyway the event - through admissions- and entrance-fees and shares of bet money. The Manari, often a trusted person of the owner, determines the fitting length and form of the steel spores. He should have at least eight knives. If he does not attach the spores, this is the task of the Heeler (blade fixer). This task must be carried out very careful and is fight-crucial. The referee (sentenciador), to whom also additional referees can be assigned, determines the beginning of fight and declares the winner. He should be honestly and incorruptibly and has to decide very quickly. Sometimes the decisions are erroneous but his judgment is binding. A timekeeper can look on time. Finally there are also "Cock doctors", which try to close the wounds of cocks after the fights.

A central position in the events has the Kristo, his function is such of a bookmaker and he is manager for the "outside betting" of the audience. His name derives from Christ because outstretched arms are typical for his body language. He calls the "odds", encourages bet offers of the audience and confirms bets. The "odds" are following a gliding scale und favour the cock, which seems to be the looser. Specific hand signs are symbolizing amounts of pesos. If he lifts four fingers, it means 40 pesos. Four outstretched fingers, stand for 400 pesos while four fingers directed downwards signal 4000 pesos. The better can favor the favourite (llamado) or the less popular cock (dejado). If the less popular cock wins, payment increases. The Kristo, which can have also helpers, is regarded as a phenomenon of memory because he memorizes in- and disbursements only in his head without any other help. He motivates the audience to take bets, a good one "can squeeze blood from a stone" (Guggenheim). Bets could be made without previous proof of money. Money is paid from the losers after the end of fight by throwing the money to the Kristo. Perhaps this procedure is also a reason, why Philippine money sometimes looks unfavourable. Betting is a matter of  confidence and honour. Whoever doesn’t pay later, risks beatings, humiliating exposure in front of the audience or jail. Winners give to the Kristo mostly a tip of ten percent, losers are free from that. The Kristo is indispensable in the Philippine cockfighting, because he is offering a further strong participant stimulus, the possibility to pocket remarkable sums of money without work.

The fight-spur

Wild cocks defend their area aggressively by help of their bony rear spur. As we know, there are no systematic investigation on the results of such fights in free nature. Scott Guggenheim (3) is pretending, that cocks will fight "often" to the death. However, - as far as we see it - more authors assure that the inferior opponent escapes after a lost fight, maybe slightly injured.

In case of institutionalized fights the cock can be "upgraded" on different kind and manner.

Variant 1: There are fights with natural spurs ("bare-spurred" / bare heeled"). The spur can be sharpened like a needle. This type of fight is rare, to be found in the Caribbean and can last for hours.

Variant 2: In Thailand, India and Pakistan standardized "spore-shoes" are used which have the function of boxing gloves. The fight goes about five rounds. Each round takes ten minutes, followed by a pause of two minutes. This type of fight demands a strong, powerful cock.

Variant 3: The cock gets spores that are from turtle stalemate or plastic.

The use of spores made from steel however are common. Special markets offer a diversity of instruments. If they are from surgical steel some instruments can cost more than 100 $. In former times and perhaps still in very remote areas the arms  can be made however also from car feathers or saw blades. From Indonesia it is reported that a "good" steel can only be manufactured in phase of lunar eclipse or in times of lightning-hits. "Gaffs" and "Knives" are made from steel.

Variant 4: Gaffs ("tare") are sharp sprinkled steel armscomparable with little ice-axes- , which are fixed onto the stump of the small toe. They can vary in the length and are dotting and ripping up the skin. Mostly fights with gaffs do not end fatally, but they can cause considerable injuries. These fights take a longer time than knife fights do. May be that the long fighting time fatigues spectators who are only interested in their betting. This fight needs a  strong cock with staying-power. There are cockers which prefer this type of fight because it depends more on the fighting-qualities of the cock and less on coincidences.

Variant 5: Knife fights are also characterized as "slasher-fights" and "small time-fights". Short and long knives are used. Short knifes ("Spanish knives") are often used in America and they have a length of ¾ - 1½ inches. Cocks in the Philippines mostly get a longer knife. Usually these knives are three are inch's long, that corresponds to just eight centimetres. Shorter and even longer knives are also in practice. They can be two-edged, straight or curved. The edges of the knives are sharpened like razor blades. There are different kinds of the string fixing and angle adjustments at the left clutch. Seat and firmness are decisive. A rooster can be handicapped, if both owners agree, that one of the cocks is weaker. The weaker cock can get a longer or a second knife, the stronger cock can get the "tari" on the right leg or further up the leg. However such handicapping is seldom. Before the fight the knives are protected by leather covers. Just before the fight the referee wipes the knife to exclude the usage of  poison - for example, stingray poison.

The knives cut easily through feathers and body ports, so that a fight can last only some seconds, if for example, the heart is struck. The mutilations are often serious also with view to the winning cock. We don't know statistics on mortality. However, it is reported however that only few cocks have the chance of a third fight. This type of fight requires an agile and turning up cock.

There are especially American cockers turning up their nose at this type of fight with long knives, because it depends also on  "happy strokes". They say, long-knife fight serves for the short-run spectator-satisfaction and - "it's only for money".

The fight

Before the combat the fighting spirit of cocks gets stimulated by bringing them together, so that they go in feint attacks. This gives an impression to the audience, which cock be the favourite. Later the referee takes off the leather wrappers, examines the knives and wipes them again with alcohol in order to exclude the use of laming poisons. If he gets the impression that the bet businesses are finished, he gives the sign for the beginning of fight. Many cockpits agreed on a maximum fighting time of ten minutes.

Descriptions of a fight differ – it also depends on the basic attitude versus cockfighting.

For some authors it is rather a bloody massacre.  Roenisch (5) for example, formulated:

"The short, vehement and because of installed knifes bloody fight is nothing for tender people. Feathers fly, blood squirts. At the end under the tumult of an ecstatic audience one of the two fighters remains lifelessly."

On the other side Lester Ledesma (6)  for example, idealizes the fight of roosters in an article. We quote in part:

„ ... The crow is now raucous and restless. They become visibly exited as the two handlers enter the pit with roosters in hand. The cocks are displayed – such beautiful creatures, with their gorgeous plumage, muscular legs and arrogant posture, the perfect fighting machines! Next, the casador waves his hand to begin the match. The spectators now fall silent as the handlers take their places. The cocks are raring to fight, with neck feathers erect, feet clawing at the ground and fire burning in their eyes. Suddenly they are released. The birds fly up against each other. Thousands of years of instinct and evolution erupt in a whirlwind of feathers and steel. The crowd reacts with each blow delivered. Each peck, slash and heart stopping leap elicits a grunt from the now standing audience. Both cocks fall to ground.. One of them is maimed, its feathers tainted with red, but it carries on the fight. So noble is the spirit of these birds that they battle to the death. Feathers fly. Blood flows. It is all in a matter of seconds."

These sentences are very similar to such from Ernst Jünger, when he idealized in his novel "Stahlgewitter"   ( Thunderstorm of steel ) the virtues of fighting soldiers in the first World War.

More balanced and melodramatic is the description in Rizal´s novel "Noli me tangere" (7) :

They advanced slowly, their steps audible on the hard ground; no one in the cockpit spoke or breathed. Raising and lowering their heads as if measuring each other with their eyes, the gamecocks uttered sounds, threatening or perhaps scornful. They caught sight of the razor blades, gleaming with a cold blue light; danger stimulated them, and they approached each other with determination. But a step apart, they stopped, and with fixed eyes lowered their heads and raised their hackles.

At that moment blood rushed into their tiny brains, their anger flashed like lightning and with all their natural courage they hurled themselves impetuously upon each other, beak against beak, breast to breast, steel spur against its fellow, wing to wing: but the blows were parried masterfully, and only a few feathers fell.

They sized each other up again. Suddenly the white cock leapt up, slashing with the deadly razor, but the red cock had bent its legs and lowered its head and the white cock hit only empty air. As it landed it turned quickly to protect its back and face the red cock.

The latter attacked it furiously, but it defended itself with complete self-control. It was not the favourite for nothing. Everyone followed the ups and downs of the duel with bated breath and one or another involuntary cry. Bloody feathers, both red and white, were littering the pit, but it was not a duel intended to end at the first drawing of blood; for the Filipino, following the laws of his Government, it was a duel that only death or flight could end.

Blood soaked the ground of the pit; the brave encounters were repeated again and again; but victory remained uncertain. At last, in a supreme effort, the white cock hurled itself forward to give a final blow; it nailed its spur in one of the red cock's wings. where it was caught in the bones; but the white cock had itself been hit in the breast, and the two birds, panting, exhausted, drained of their lives' blood, one joined to the other, were still, until the white cock fell, blood spurting out of its beak, its legs jerking in its last agony. The red cock, bound to it by the wing, remained standing beside it, but little by little its own legs crumpled and its eyes closed.

In this story obviously both birds die. If the fight has several rounds it may happen that the handler sucks blood from the throat of a wounded hurt cock in order to make his cock fight-fit again. A bird is declared as dead, when it gives no life sign after three times lifting. A dead cock can be declared as the winner if he dies in an offensive attitude. If a cock kills his opponent, he is not yet a winner automatically. A regulation demands, that he must peck still twice the defeated cock. If the pecking does not take place, because the bird is injured too strongly, he loses the victory and the draw is declared.

The wounds of the victorious cock are sutured up behind the bleacher, if there is a chance of convalescence and the owner gets the bet shares of the central bet. From this sum he has still to pay the handler, the fixer of blade, the organizer as well as other bet participants.

The inferior, dead cock is mostly handed over to the winner as a trophy for consumption. In America meanwhile, the inferior cock often lands in the waste because there is a fear the meat could be  carcinogen.

Per and Contra

The cockfight (Sabong) is worldwide on retreat or it is pushed into the illegality like in Indonesia or partly in the USA. In the urbanized zones of America Cockers are often regarded as a marginal outcaste group.

The proponents of cockfighting are confronted with a lot of criticism. What are the arguments when they justify their "sport"?

A main argument is, that fighting cocks live longer and better live than usual poultry (broiler). Poultry lives nowadays only about six months in farms exposed to artificial light - wing at wing with thousand others - in order to get cut the throat by an automatic killing machine. Blood pours also here  – a fact which is frequently repressed by consumers. The fighting-cock on the other hand – and this is a reasonable argument - has until his death the "pampered" life as a pasha.

Other arguments are weaker, however. So the assertion that the fight with other cocks belongs to the genetic heritage, the cock therefore, wouldn’t be forced to fight. In this context we find pathetic arguments that the cocks would die with the dignity of fight which nature gave them, "their purpose in life is to fight" or "nature itself is bloody". This argument misjudges that cocks living wildly kill themselves very seldom when defending their area. The inferior cock looks for the escape.

Furthermore, we find the spongy culture-historical argument, that "Sabong - the king of Philippine gambling sports - reflects the true essence of the Filipino. He may be quite impulsive and happy-go-lucky, but he can therefore be religious, honourable and forever optimistic" (8). These attributions are only smoky ideology.

Sabong offers top amusement - is another argument. However, this argument, which is by far not shared by all Filipinos, fades out the price of death. Other disciplines of sport can also top amusement.

Furthermore, it is claimed that the cockfight would reduce frustrations from troubled Filipino. Frustrations can be reduced, however, in other manners.

Finally we found from Henry Centeno the following statement: "Other vices  you suffer, but with this vice ..  you can actually win. With other vices, you don't win at all. This vice is a sure win. Here you can bring home cash, unlike other vices where you end up with nothing at all, like drugs, wine and women. (9) This commentator withholds, that bet profits of one side are bet losses of the other one. And are women really a continuous "vice" ?

The Philippine sociologist Ricardo Abad interprets the same aspect like follows: "It's a game of chance, Filipinos and many believe in chance, believe in luck, believe in getting money just like that, believe in miracles, it's a romantic notion of life" (9). The faith on luck is sometimes mentioned in the literature. This argument, however, gives only an explanation not a justification.

On the other hand, critics of the cockfight speak of a shocking, cruel, inhuman blood sport, which is connected with unproductive betting passions.

Maybe the cockfight would receive more approval in the public if the injuries of the cocks were minimized. Thailand tries such to go such a way with new regulations. There the cocks get "box-gloves" and the fighting time is restricted on several rounds with pauses. A cock is declared as loser if it runs away, gives up three times his fighting position or shows injuries. The success of the takeover of the new arrangements in Thailand should be examined. If there are positive results a transfer of regulations to the other countries with cockfighting tradition should be discussed.

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2002

(1)    Scott Guggenheim, Cockfighting in the Philippines, in: Alan Dundes (Ed.), The Cockfight  – A Casebook, Madison, 1994, S. 143

(2)  Rüdiger Siebert, 3mal Philippinen, München - Zürich, 1989

(3)  Scott Guggenheim, a.a.O., S. 142

(4) Alan Dundes, Gallus und Phallus, in: Alan Dundes (Ed.), The Cockfight  – A Casebook, Madison, 1994, S. 143

(5)  Michael Roenisch, Nationalsport Hahnenkampf,

(6)  Lester Ledesma, Sabong: The Philippines Premier Gambling Sport,                        Mabuhay  Magazine, 1998   

(7)  Rizal, Noli Me Tangere

        (8)  Lester Ledesma, Sabong:The Philippines Premier Gambling Sport, MabuhayMagazine

        (9)  quoted from: “Blood sport with chance to win big money attracts many in Philippines,