CABUYAO, Laguna, Philippines — In the Philippines, sabong — cockfighting — is a way of life.
On a recent Sunday in the provincial city of Cabuyao, in the middle of an old arena painted turquoise and surrounded by ascending rows of wooden benches rubbed smooth from years of use, are two men, each cradling a rooster.
A buzzer sounds, and the roosters are released. They head straight for each other. There’s a tousle of red wings and feathers, and suddenly, one of the roosters starts to hobble. The white one veers away and stumbles to the ground. The referee picks up both roosters by the scruffs of their necks to see if there’s still any fight left in them. There is. Another flurry of feathers, and the white one — the one that looked dead on its feet seconds ago — deals a fatal kick to the red rooster. The fight is over after 24 seconds.
Borick Alcazar owns the white rooster. Winning is always good, but winning as the underdog is doubly satisfying. Alcazar grins from ear to ear. He picks up his rooster, accepts a little adulation from the crowd, and walks out of the arena.
Cockfighting has been around for hundreds of years. When Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521, it was already a roaring spectacle. As such, the culture around it is deeply entrenched in Philippine life, particularly in the provinces, where cockfighting is part of the daily scrabble for income.
Outside, Alcazar lays his rooster onto the lap of a man with bloody hands sitting next to a box of needles and string. He’s the arena’s surgeon, and he rifles through the feathers searching for injuries. The rooster is docile, stunned with pain. There’s a small puncture wound at the thigh. He plucks off the surrounding feathers to reveal a hole and the bumpy yellowish skin around it. The surgeon pulls a long curved needle and black thread through the skin, closes it up, knots it off, and moves on to the three-inch long gash at the chicken’s thick breast. He cleans that off with cotton balls and tacks it shut with a crude cross stitch.
"This job is all based on reputation,” the chicken surgeon says as he calmly trims the loose ends of the suture. He practiced on his own chickens for a couple of years, before working his way up to charging for it. Steady hands, a strong stomach and a reliable stitch means he’s got enough clients now that he’s at the arena five days a week, sewing up six to ten chickens a day.
The chicken surgeon charges 200 pesos — about $4.50 in U.S. currency — for each chicken he stitches up. There's no charge if the animal dies. A dead rooster gets sent five feet away to the butcher, who de-feathers it, guts it, and puts it in a plastic bag, ready to be stewed.
Alcazar’s rooster comes to, however, and he gently lays it in a box punctured with holes. It’s a winning cock now, and he’ll feed it a choice diet of hard boiled eggs and carrots, give it vitamin and antibiotic shots, and in three or five months, it’ll be ready for the ring again — a wiser fighter from having survived.
Back in the arena, it’s intermission and the spectators are throwing coins and bills into the ring. It’s a collection for a fellow sabongero (cockfighter) who’s sick at the hospital and needs his bills paid. Cockfights are also held for funerals, where a percentage of the money that changes hands is given to the family of the dead. Burial is so expensive in the Philippines that some people can only afford to rent a coffin for the duration of a wake.
As a group picks up the coins up from the sand, another round of cockfighting starts heating up. The arena fills with the determined yelling of small-time bookies, called kristos. They flash complicated hand signals across the room, making bets large and small. Some of them work for bosses, others just for themselves, but all of them are doing it for the extra cash.
Teody sits on the last row of the arena, his flip-flopped feet propped up on the wooden bench in front of him. He works as a driver, and doesn't have money to bet today after a rough week. He’s here for the fun, to chat with the guys, to have a few laughs. He's hoping a friend wins so hopefully he can have a beer and eat one of the losing roosters.
Asked about his biggest win, he sighs with nostalgia: “It was a long time ago. 12,000 pesos.
“I bought a washing machine,” he recalled. “And I kept a little for beer.”
Twelve thousand pesos, about $280, is a huge win for a guy like Teody. It’s more than what he makes in a month.
And, he points out, it’s more than what a person makes in a month working in Saudi Arabia. In any given year, millions of Filipinos work in Saudi Arabia as drivers, nurses, mechanics, waiters — and, as the country ramps up to host the 2022 World Cup, construction workers.
It’s a common option for daily wage workers in the Philippines, but one that has been scrutinized recently.
More than a half million workers in the region "can be classed as victims of trafficking," according to an August 10 article in The Economist.
A lot of the guys in the arena, Teody says, look at the life of a Filipino overseas worker in Saudi Arabia — the strict rules, the low pay, and the constant stream of news reporting horrific treatment — and decide they’re better off showing up at the cockpit.
Alcazar, the lucky winner, doesn't hesitate when asked why he fights cocks: “Hanap buhay lang,” he said — I’m just making a living.
How to go
Cockfights in the Philippines are held year-round, though Sundays are the best day to go. In Cabuyao, Laguna, there are cockfights at the Cabuyao Coliseum every day except for Monday. Many towns and cities throughout the Philippines (including Manila) have cockpits. In general, fights start in the morning, about 9 a.m. and last to the early afternoon.
The best way to find out when and where a cockfight is being held is to ask a local — tricycle drivers, street hawkers or security guards are likely to know.