The Anatomy of a Cockfight: Vigan, Philippines
There are many times in a man’s life where he reaches precedents that take him into the next realm of progression. For instance, the first time he kisses a girl, his first car, graduating college, and maybe even his first house. That is the “normal” progression. My progression has always been marked by a stranger set of precedents, in this case my first cockfight.
In the setting of the old Spanish colonial city Vigan in the Philippines and just days before my 30th birthday, another milestone, my good buddy and frequent travel homie Steve and I set out to find our first cockfight. On a sunny Sunday afternoon surrounded by white Spanish vistas in the town of about 5,000 we decided it was about time we became men, or rather the Pinoy (Filipino) version of a man and see our first cockfight.
After picking out our best straw hats, a must, we made our way down to the reception desk in the lobby of our already Christmas decorated, (it’s mid-November), hotel. We politely asked the clerk if we could get someone to take us to a cockfight; there is always a cockfight somewhere on Sundays in the Philippines. The receptionist seemed a bit confused, not by the concept, but by the language barrier, so I began flapping my arms wildly and clucking repeating the two words “chicken fight” again and again. She smiled and understood and then began machine gun hammering the bell on the front desk to alert the bellboys of our request. After a bellboy pow-wow we were taken out in front of our Spanish style hacienda and a tricycle taxi was hailed for us. The bellboy uttered some words to the driver, probably “cockfight”, and we were roaring off sitting in the sidecar and Steve perched behind the driver of the motorcycle taxi.
After 20 solid minutes of driving directly into the countryside of this small town and thousands of delusions of old men standing in circles in dirt fields yelling at chickens we arrived to our destination. 50 pesos later we were walking into a small industrial looking structure in the country and our first ever cockfight. The first sight at the door was a woman with a butchered pig offering any part for a couple of pesos to BBQ from snout to intestines (a Pinoy favorite.) As we walked on a group of about 30 men were standing outside the building in the dirt in a circle; we thought, “This is it baby.” We were wrong. It was just a showing of the competition for the betters to get a more informed idea of where they would soon be betting their money. At this point of mixing in with the local yokels Steve and myself began realizing from strange glares we stood out a bit.
Was it our straw hats? Our pale skin intensified by a night of drinks the day previous? Maybe it was the fact we were a foot taller than everyone else and the only ones taking photos? Who knows? Standing among these men and their battle cocks my fears were quickly subsided by the sight of an on duty police officer hanging out with a 6-shooter on his hip.
After realizing we had ventured far enough into the complex and feeling a little more courageous with the knowledge of an armed officer nearby we continued in. The vision we walked into, the glorious epiphany that had waited for us was quite literally Thunderdome. It was a regular cockfighting coliseum complete with a raised dirt floor ring enclosed on four sides by glass walls to contain the mayhem. Surrounding it on each side were sets of bleachers full of about 1,000 people all with wads of money firmly in hand. Our gaze followed two sets of ladders that led up to the rafters above the ring where another 100 people loomed like vultures, looking down and waiting for something to die. Between the bleachers and the ring stood about 500 people right up against the glass like a Filipino hockey game was ready to go down.
Steve and I simultaneously looked at each other and found smiles of pure joy, mischievous looks long forgotten since childhood. We did it, me finally made it. Check it off the list. We hurried up the dilapidated wooden bleachers to a hard to find empty spot and joined into the excitement of the crowd. Small country towns in America, like the one I grew up in, have high school football games that bring the entire community together, here in the Philippines they have cockfighting. All ages gathered, but it was as you can imagine about 97% men.
Very suddenly two cocks were brought to the ring and the announcer grabbed his microphone and got to work announcing the odds. As he excitedly berated the crowd in what was to us dumb foreigners Tanglish gibberish, balled up wads of money began showering down from the upper parts of the stands. A young 20 something Filipino next to us introduced himself, “Hello friends, I’m Alan. They say in the Philippines there is no money, but if you go to the Derby (a.k.a. cockfight) it rains 1,000 peso bills.”
After brief introductions Alan took us under his wing and became our unofficial Derby guide. He began to explain to us how to place a bet, but under the mad howls of the crowd placing bets his voice was lost. I was only able to make out the last thing he told us, “Sometimes people place bets and they can’t pay, so people chase them. They sometimes punch and kick them. Sometimes they even shoot them. So, how much do you guys want to bet?”
With the smirk of a brave man smirking at logic I wisely replied, “Ah, not this time man, we didn’t bring enough cash and we’re merely observing. Maybe next time though.”
There was a chunky, balding, yellow jersey wearing man with a mic running the show in the ring. His movements were jerky and sharp like a lounge act and the crowd clung to his every word like a bunch of addicted junkies listening to the terms of a dealer. Alan turned to us and said, “People say the only place you can see jumping Christ is in the Philippines.” He pointed to the violent movements of the yellow pot-bellied lounge singer serpentining all over the ring. “They call him Christ because he makes the odds, the say he’s jumping because, well look at him go.” Just then Jumping Christ whipped around and gave an exaggerated point and started working over the other half of the crowd.
At this point Alan offered us a behind the scenes tour. He said, “Follow me, you guys are going to hold a winner!” We shuffled through the crowd to the back of the arena where there were several mangers stitching up cocks that didn’t win completely unscathed and others getting their loser cocks ready to be turned into soup. He showed us to his friend who turned out to be a big winner that day and we took a few pictures holding the champ who we aptly named “Little Steve.” But getting in close we got to see the inner-workings of the fight and when we handed his friends his chicken back he showed us the 6 inch long sheathed razor blade connected to it’s foot. “You can shave with this,” he told us.
After going back and watching a few more fights of feather blurred insanity we got another behind the scenes tour to see the entire process of how they attach the razor to the cock’s foot, how to pick a winning cock, (it’s all about the legs), and the different types of fights, (sometimes three chickens at once, told ya it’s Thunderdome).
As our adrenaline and the crowd’s energy died down and the big tropical sun began to set on another derby in the countryside we watched as the crowd of winners and losers gradually funnel out. With dumb looks of amazement and the realization we had encountered an entirely new experience in life we snapped a couple more pictures, high-fived each other, thanked Alan for the hospitality, and bode Thunderdome farewell.
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