Musings, Thoughts & Commentaries
A scene from the movie "Sabine."
Davao City is famous for many things: that stinky but sweet fruit, durian; the most beautiful orchid, waling waling; the monkey-eating Philippine Eagles on Mount Apo, and the cockfights at the Davao Gallera.
Mailyn was not sure if it would be a good idea for me, a pale blond white guy, to go to the cockfight but I convinced her it would be okay if I went with her brothers. I had been discussing my interest with William and Bobong for some time and they always said, “Sure, let’s go anytime.” I had to push a bit to get her actually to fix a date and today was the day. A good day for a fiesta, even if not the big “Six Cock Fight Derby” event advertised on the signage extending across the exterior of the gallera. That special occasion is when six fighter cocks are put into the ring at one time and the last one alive is the winner. Bets are won and lost as the other five are killed. Feathers would fly.
While William and I waited for Bobong to buy tickets since we were not carrying any cocks, I leaned into a corner where the circular gallera meets the parallel highway and watched cock owners and their fans arrive. Most drove motorbikes and parked directly along the highway, nose to the curb, where they paid a few pesos to one of the street people to watch over their property. Expensive helmets hung from every bike with no threat of theft while they were in the gallera. A girl about 10, short and thin, and her mother were watching the area directly in front of where I leaned and we nodded hellos a few times; they did not beg--they had a job. Bobong circled in on his motorbike, found a spot to park and gave five pesos to the skinny girl. I was happy and comfortable to be with my brothers.
The Gallera Davao resembles the Rome Coliseum in miniature, circular and open, however the Davao version is covered with a tin roof above the walls, permitting good air flow but shielding from straight down rain.
Anyone can bring a fighting cock to the gallera. The policy is, show us your cock at the ticket stand and you get free entrance. It is not necessary that the cock actually be entered in a fight and many owners carry their cocks out in the open, stroking them, and then simply watch the cockfights.
We walked around the grounds before entering the gallera proper. Vendors operated from stalls backed up against the outer wall and we observed the preparations for the contests. Stands serving beer and ice cream operated beside the place where the left legs of cocks would be cut off if they lost their fight.
Most of the men were smoking cigarettes, buying one cigarette at a time from the beer stand. There were no women obvious except one heavy-set lady working in the vendor stalls and a transgendered boy/girl with hair dyed reddish amber and spiked up like a pony’s mane clipped short.
Cock owners who want to enter the competition assemble in the taparan, a covered shed lined with benches where owners, their teams of cocks and an assistant or two sit and see how their individual cocks stack up against the competition, looking for a challenging but fair antagonist. It needs to be a good, fair fight to get maximum interest and participation from the spectators in the stands. All cocks are thought to be left-legged and to leverage, literally leverage, their strength, a blade is attached to the left leg of each combatant as they are considered equal in weight, age and talent. However, here is where the human element enters and the owners impact the odds by negotiating variations to the armaments; variable factors are added into the fray such as instead of one long blade, a cock may be equipped with two short blades, one on each leg, or an owner may agree for one or the other to fight right-legged.
The cocks are quiet and calm in the taparan while owners, assistants and the fighting cocks wait until their number is up and they may enter the arena. Unthreatened for the moment, the cocks cluck and gaze around in curiosity. Combatants are weighed and will fight an enemy of equal weight. The odds start even, but that is not as interesting as slightly changing the weapons they will carry, just like in the Roman Coliseum gladiators may have been given a short sword or ball and chain to battle each other to the death. In the gallera, cocks may be equipped with differing weapons.
In the tari-an after owners have agreed on the armament for each of the combatants, the magtatare arms the cocks accordingly for combat. In a detailed and skillful process, the leg is taped carefully by the magtatare while continuously checking for range of motion. He interweaves about 20 feet of fine cotton thread between the cock’s toes and the U shaped hook on the handle of the blade to provide a solid extension of the leg to be used as a lever when stabbing downward. The fitment of the curved saber blade, a lagaraw, is either a short blade about one inch long or a longer blade about three inches in length, like short or long swords assigned to gladiators. Or the right leg may be outfitted either with a short or long blade, to impact upon the odds. After the fight, the owner of the winning cock will pay 50 pesos to the magtatare.
A tall skinny cockfighter in a tattered blue shirt approached an older farmer and they began to compare their cocks and to agree to fight. After the owners agreed on what weapons their warriors will be outfitted with, they moved on to the tari-an for fitment. The cock is comforted in the arms of the owner throughout the entire process. The teams were then assigned a place in the queue leading to the arena, combat and death.
While watching the behind-the-scenes preparations, William, Bobong and I each had a San Mig Light beer at a table in front of a sign advertising “Pisik antibacterial for fowl.”
“Chickens get diseases,” Bobong explained, “If they die you can’t eat them. Have to bury them. That drug saves money.”
Eight sections encircle the fighting ring, seven sections of 30 rows by 20 seats for a capacity of 4,300. I estimated about 3,000 in attendance today. The eighth section is to the rear of the entrance and is the backdrop for the announcer and fight manager. Above this section are the high-priced VIP seats where minimum bets are 10,000 pesos. There were only a few people in that section.
The action had already started and attendants were sweeping up feathers and miscellaneous bloody parts preparing the ring for the next fight as we took a right turn up the steps and looked for a place to sit. We were immediately offered good seats as a few young men courteously pushed a bit closer together to make some space for us.
The fight to the death occurs on a raised platform about 30 feet square. A one-meter circle is painted in the center where the fight will start. The Announcer and Fight Master, the “Kristo,” loudly engages the crowd of independent financiers scattered throughout the first few rows of seats. He asks for bets that change the initial odds, the partida, which had been set based on weight and combat preparation agreed beforehand by the owners to make the fight equal and fair. The cocks are introduced and a description of their weapons is shouted out by the Kristo, stating the initial odds. Odds may be 3 to 2, (tres – dos) or 3 to 4, or 3 to 5, for example. Initial bets come in and the Kristo must juggle the odds to get equal money bet on each side. Bets are made by hand signals between bettors and whatever nearby financiers with whom eye contact has been established. I was immediately a bettor! Each finger held horizontally means a one hundred peso bet, each finger held upright is one thousand. (In the VIP seats, each horizontal finger is 1000, each perpendicular finger 10,000 pesos.) My financier was explaining and showing clearly five fingers held horizontally to confirm the amount of my 500 peso bet on Meron. I gave a 500 peso note to Bobong who passed it through the wire mesh to my financier. Newcomers need to hand over cash when a bet is made, known regulars are trusted and amounts owed or due are remembered.
The excitement in the ring was heating up as each owner held his cock prepared and equipped to fight while his assistant held a novice cock not scheduled to fight today. They pushed their cocks together to antagonize intentionally the other for invading his territorial space. Both cocks ruffled their feathers and stretched their necks trying to peck the other as their feet are held tight. Financiers observed the action and character of the cocks and, weighing odds, placed their bets through a financier. My first bet of 500 pesos was at odds of cinco - tres; if my cock wins I get back the 500 plus 300. Such were the final odds for the first match.
The crowd was shouting “Meron” identifying the cock on the far side of the ring from where I sat and “Wala”, the near side, and placing bets with Kristo.
On the Meron side of the ring opposite us the team was going through the same preparations as the shouting grew louder and was easily heard around the outside community until the Kristo declared betting closed and the two referees took over. There must be two referees as neutral parties were needed to hold each cock at the circumference of the circle and to remove the sheaths from the blades securely attached to the cock’s legs. The referees encouraged each cock to taunt the other, then pulled them back, removed the sheaths and let the cocks stand and strut.
Nothing happened for a few moments. The cocks strutted, curious about where they found themselves and all the attention. But as they strutted, inevitably one or the other cock would take offense at the proximity of another male chicken and would attack the presumptive contender for non-existent hens and the battle for life and death began. One tactic was to jump and fly over the opponent while striking down with the left leg, the leg with the lagaraw. Often this was instantly effective as the blade would cut deeply into flesh or pierce an eyeball of the opponent, resulting in both cocks rolling around in the dust, still kicking with blades on their legs they did not realize had been tied there. They regained their positions and stared each other down, and then both rose up and made frontal attacks resulting in their rolling around on the surface of the ring while feathers flew. Then another attack and Meron hit a vulnerable part and Wala was down. The referee picked up both cocks and, holding one firmly in each hand, pushed their beaks together re-arousing uncontrollable male hormones. Released simultaneously, the cocks resumed their ground attack with a few leaping moves, but without the strength to fly over the other and slice down. A few pecks from Meron put Wala down. Meron took advantage of his position and pecked at Wala’s eyes. The referee had to pick up wala and hold him with one hand. The second referee passed Meron to him and again incited the male hormones to rage in the combatants, then releasing them to yet another encounter when both stretched out their necks, feathers ruffled. Meron took to the air and the blade on his left leg hit something, I was too far away to see the impact but Wala was down again. The referee grasped both roosters in his hands and tried to incite them but got no reaction from wala, who he laid on the ground, waited two seconds, then picked him up again, but Wala rolled onto his back motionless. The head referee, the cueme, repeated the ceremony a third time and declared Meron the winner.
The owners carried their cocks to different fates. Meron, the victor, was taken back to a cage and would return to the farm. Depending on his condition, he would live to fight another day, or be left to service the hens if they accepted him, or if rumors that he was a chicken were spread he would simply become soup.
The loser had his left leg cut off and it was given with blade still attached to the magtatare, as extra payment for having the blade expertly attached by that talented professional. The remainder of the loser’s body went to the owner of the winner, destined for the grill while still fresh.
We waited until the Last Cock Standing wasn’t and then we went home, with my 800 pesos. At home I see on the wall the inspiration that inspired me to write this today, a poster of bullfights in Spain.
Tom Anthony is a West Point Graduate and combat veteran who spent his professional civilian career in global business all over the world. He has lived and worked in Austria, Italy, Spain, England, Iraq, Israel, and throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Anthony also lived in Mindanao for seven years.
Copyright 2017 Tom Anthony.