Cockfighting--the Poor Man’s Tonic for Grim Philippine Reality

Times Staff Writer

The cockfights started promptly at 3 p.m., in a flurry of blood and feathers.

The first bout pitted Mike Romulo’s prize fighting cock, A.M.R.--the initials are also those of Romulo’s new son--against a slightly tougher rooster owned by another wealthy breeder.

Moments before the event, thousands of spectators, rich and poor, had shouted out their bets, thousands of dollars in all, as the two owners stroked their fighting birds in the cockpit, preparing them for battle in the center of Manila’s cavernous Araneta Coliseum.

When the betting finished, two officials known as “gaffers” slipped the sheaths off the three-inch blades fastened to the cocks’ left legs and carefully wiped the blades with cotton soaked in alcohol. Then, with a final shout from the announcer, the fight began.


The birds studied each other for a split second. Suddenly, they closed in, pecking and clawing and ripping. They rose high in the air, four feet or more, and then slammed back to earth with a thud.

$1,000 Investment Gone

Twenty seconds after the fight began, it was over. Romulo’s prize fighting cock gasped and fell over with its throat torn, a $1,000 investment gone in less than half a minute. Thousands of dollars in bets had been lost, much of it by peasants and day laborers. Yet it was just the beginning of a cockfighting marathon.

By the time the two-day National Slasher Championship Derby ended 36 hours later, after midnight on a recent Sunday, the cockpit was spattered with the blood of 71 roosters. Thirty-nine wealthy breeders had gambled and lost more than $20,000, and the spectators had gambled away an estimated $400,000 more.

In the fluorescent glare of the Araneta Coliseum, one would not have been aware that the Philippine nation was in the throes of its worst economic and political crisis since World War II, that unemployment and underemployment topped 50%, that the most revered prelate in this overwhelmingly Catholic nation, Cardinal Jaime Sin, had declared a few hours earlier that despite the revolt that brought down the authoritarian President Ferdinand E. Marcos in February, “The rich are starting to give in to the temptation of greed once more. The number of poor is increasing.”

Exploits the Poor

The promoters conceded that cockfighting exploits the poor most of all, but they and other Filipinos saw a more important message in the event’s popularity and success: Despite the crises, the Filipino people have not forgotten how to have fun.

Indeed, according to breeder Romulo, Filipinos are looking increasingly to amusements like cockfighting as “a kind of therapy” to cope with the grim realities of life. Romulo is not alone in this belief. Many Filipinos have expressed similar sentiments in recent weeks as the government of President Corazon Aquino has seemed to be fraying at the edges.


In recent days, this colorful capital city has witnessed many scenes of escapism, scenes that illustrate not simply the Filipino ability to use laughter and amusement as a tonic for despair, but also the breadth of the nation’s creativity.

One night, for example, as Aquino and 1,000 of her supporters marked the third anniversary of her husband’s assassination at a formal dinner party, the entire island of Luzon, the nation’s largest and most populous, went totally dark.

The blackout triggered near-panic throughout Manila and outlying provinces as it prompted fears that a countercoup was in progress or that the nation’s Communist rebels were trying to seize power.

Merrymakers Nonchalant


But it hardly seemed to matter to the president and her friends in the ballroom of the Manila Hotel. Izzy de Guzman’s 14-piece band struck up “Quirico Mamba.” Five scantily clad singers took up the rhythm. More than half of Aquino’s Cabinet ministers took to the dance floor.

The president’s military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, sent a note up to the master of ceremonies announcing that the president had issued an official proclamation permitting all men in the now sweltering ballroom to remove their coats--"but only their coats.”

The following night, at a downtown cultural center, some of the Philippines’ most talented actors and actresses gathered for a performance of a play called “Bongbong and Kris,” which has become the hottest ticket in town. The play, a comedy, is set in the year 1991, and it bears witness to just how free the Philippines has become since the overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Playing on a lingering fear that forces loyal to the deposed president are planning a violent assault on the Aquino government, the play portrays Marcos’ son, Ferdinand, whose nickname is Bongbong, as the leader of an armed band of pro-Marcos guerrillas fighting the government from the mountains north of Manila.


Ultimate Reconciliation

Bongbong’s band kidnaps President Aquino’s youngest daughter, Kris, who is by this time the top movie and television personality in the country. Bongbong and Kris fall in love, and the nation rejoices in this development as the ultimate act of national reconciliation.

In the Philippines, the arts generally attract only the middle and upper classes. Only the richest could afford the 350-pesos-a-plate ($17.50) dinner dance on the anniversary of the assassination of Benigno S. Aquino Jr.

So, for the poor there is cockfighting. Promoters, politicians and sportscasters often refer to cockfighting as the unofficial national sport. As plays like “Bongbong and Kris” reflect the new aura of freedom in the country, so does the cockfight extravaganza.


“This is the first cockfight we have been permitted to hold here in the coliseum since Marcos declared martial law,” said fight promoter Bert Torres, who organized the National Slasher Derby. “Mr. Marcos would never permit it. It seems that Mr. Marcos wanted the owner to obligate himself to Mr. Marcos in a way that the owner was not prepared to do, if you know what I mean.”

Refused to Give Payoff

Roughly translated, according to sources at the coliseum, Torres’ remark meant that the Marcos regime had tried to extort payoffs from the coliseum to permit the cockfights, and the owner had refused.

Cockfighting, as a pastime, was permitted under Marcos, who legalized it in 1974 as “wholesome recreation and amusement” under a system of government that Marcos had proclaimed the New Society.


Cockfighting had been popular since Spanish colonial rule, but Marcos formalized it with his Cockfighting Law of 1974. He established a government-taxed cockfighting arena in every city, town and village. A special commission created by President Aquino to trace billions of dollars in government funds allegedly stolen by Marcos and his associates is investigating charges that Marcos and his associates controlled most of the licensed cockpits and stole much of the taxes that were collected.

“We’re just pleased that we can operate a clean tournament such as this under this new government,” Torres said.

Torres and many of the breeders and owners present for the derby conceded that, in a way, the derby was exploiting the national crises.

Patrick Herlihy, a breeder for 30 years, said: “When there’s economic crisis, gambling reaches epic proportions. People have no money, so they want to risk what little they have. Some people would rather gamble 1,000 pesos than buy rice, just to take a chance they’ll go home with 10,000.”


Torres was asked whether, in light of his two-day tournament, he believes the Philippine nation is actually freer now than it was before the February coup. He reflected for a moment, pointed to the box seats where the wealthy breeders sat, and said: “For them, for the middle class, I think they are much more free, yes.”

Then he swept a hand across the grandstand, the cheap seats where the most intense betting was taking place, and added: “For these people, though, for the lower class, I don’t think so. Not yet. They are still there. They are still being oppressed.”