IN the center ring where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier pummeled each other through 14 rounds of the “Thrilla in Manila” more than three decades ago, another world-championship blood fest was in full swing.
The deftest moves and deepest cuts drew shouts of “Fight back!” and “Peck! Peck!” from spectators hanging on every move, illuminated larger than life on the electronic scoreboard’s color video display. Most had fists full of cash wagered on the outcome.
One after another, the fights raged deep into the night. Several were over in seconds. None lasted longer than 10 minutes. Most losers ended up dead on the ring’s hard-packed dirt floor. Many winners were barely breathing as their handlers carried them off in the white glare of ceiling lights. To popular tunes such as the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” cleanup crews swept the ring and sprinkled it with a watering can for the next bout.
Welcome to the World Slasher Cup II, where the really lethal roosters are separated from the mere chickens.
Billed as the world’s biggest cockfighting event, the derby’s $55,500 purse and prestigious title drew numerous foreign entries last month, from Japan, Germany and several U.S. states, including Alabama, California, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
For three nights, hundreds of game fowl competing on eight-cock teams with names such as God of War, Air Assault, Deep Impact and Your Future clashed in a series of bouts at the Araneta Coliseum. In flapping blurs of feathers, grit and blood, they pecked and gashed with 3-inch razors strapped to their legs.
It is big-ticket entertainment, a high-stakes slaughter that animal rights activists call barbaric. But in the raucous crowd of several thousand, cockers wondered what’s wrong with fighting chickens when humans beating each other senseless in boxing rings are worthy of million-dollar purses and Olympic medals.
Millionaire developer Jorge Araneta, the coliseum’s owner and a stately dean of Philippine cockfighting, was ringside at the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975 and had a team of cocks in this year’s World Slasher Cup. To him, Ali and Frazier inflicted the cruelest cuts, not the fighting chickens, which only did what comes naturally.
“This is a better proxy than human beings beating each other’s brains out,” Araneta said, after one of his birds dispatched its opponent in a few minutes. “I pleaded with Ali to give it up after that fight.”
COCKFIGHTING is so central to Philippine culture that Rolando Blanco, vice president of the country’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has little hope of persuading the government to stop it.
“How can we fight cockfighting when our lawmakers are cock fighters and breeders?” he asked.
Supporters of a ban acknowledge that fighting cocks’ killer instinct is encoded in their genes, but argue that nature is more forgiving than cockfight organizers, who arm the roosters with razors and make sure they can’t escape the ring. Chickens don’t win much sympathy in the Philippines.
“Our laws protecting animals mainly concern endangered species and bigger animals, like dogs, cats, horses, whale sharks and monkey-eating eagles,” Blanco said.
Filipinos were staging cockfights when Ferdinand Magellan came ashore in 1521, and more than 5 million roosters will clash in the country’s cockpits this year, said Manny Berbano, publisher of the glossy Pit Games magazine and head of National Gamefowl Training Center.
With six national TV shows devoted to the sport, Filipinos can enjoy the carnage from the comfort of their homes almost every night of the week.
The Philippine economy benefits by more than $1 billion a year from cockfight betting, breeding farms and the business of selling feed and drugs, including steroids, that bulk up the birds for two years before their fighting instinct kicks in, Berbano estimated.
In the stands at the coliseum, bet-takers -- called kristos after the Tagalog word for Christ -- probably handled more than $400,000 in wagers in a single night during the Slasher Cup II, he said.
A barrel-shaped former Coca-Cola executive, Berbano is Philippine cockfighting’s less garish answer to Don King. He is a cockpit evangelist with a PowerPoint pitch. One of Berbano’s closing slides invokes the words of Abraham Lincoln, from a quote resurrected in 1963 in a defense of the sport in an Oklahoma court.
“As long as the Almighty permitted intelligent men, created in his image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege,” Lincoln told Americans demanding a federal cockfighting ban a century earlier.
Lincoln’s words aside, opponents of the sport have kept up their campaign for a ban for more than a century, and now Louisiana is the last legal bastion of American cockfighting.
As cockpits across the U.S. closed, or went underground, American breeders continued to produce pedigreed game fowl, maintaining bloodlines that date to 19th century England and Ireland. Some made millions of dollars exporting fighting cocks to countries such as the Philippines and Mexico, where the sport is still legal and enormously popular.
Berbano proudly paid an Alabama breeder $5,000 for a cock from a long line of champions, a thoroughbred sweater yellow legged hatch. But a new law is expected to cut off multimillion-dollar exports of American game fowl.
Last month, President Bush signed legislation that makes it a felony to transport across state lines, or to export, dogs and chickens used in fights. The penalty is up to three years in jail and a fine of as much as $250,000.
The Humane Society of the United States says that will help prevent American breeders from exporting fighting animals and “puts increased pressure on the airlines to stop shipping roosters to cockfighting hot spots.”
ATLANTAN Johnnie Phillips was one of at least 17 Americans with roosters in the competition for this year’s Slasher Cup. Bald, and with powerful, tattooed forearms, the retired AT&T; worker learned to love cockfighting from his father while growing up on a farm in Alabama.
Phillips, 61, says he doesn’t get why governments would ban fighting cocks from doing what comes naturally, when they aren’t much good for anything else -- especially eating.
“They get 3 months old and they’re like chewing leather,” he said.
As animal rights activists won more state bans on cockfighting, staying ahead of the law became part of the sport for die-hard fans like Phillips. He was arrested on a misdemeanor charge with about 65 other people when more than a dozen police raided an Ohio cockpit in 1972.
“It was a Saturday night and they brought the county school bus out there to take us to the courthouse,” he recalled. Phillips got out of the local lockup by posting a $50 bond, and after paying the fine, he got a $15 refund.
Some states are tougher on cockfighting these days, but it’s still only a misdemeanor offense in 16 states, mainly in the South and West.
Phillips bred game fowl on a 33-acre farm until he sold it five years ago. He has won his share of derbies, but never enough to make a living from the shrinking fight circuit. He’s afraid the new ban on exports will kill off centuries-old bloodlines.
“If you don’t fight chickens, they go downhill,” he said. “To keep ‘em good, you’ve gotta fight ‘em and recognize the good ones.”
HERE in Araneta Coliseum, the arena that has held some of the Philippines’ marquee events, including a Mass by Pope John Paul II, rich and poor roared and winced at the clattering flurry of attacks, and hushed as a winning rooster pondered its final move.
In the wings, gaffers tied blades called tari to roosters’ legs; the softer spurs they were born to attack with had been trimmed to rounded nubbins to make way for the steel blades tempered to killer strength with alloys such as titanium and cobalt.
Each new competitor, also shorn of its red comb and wattle, was cradled like a fragile child in its handler’s arms on the walk to the cockpit from a gloomy hallway. A large, wooden statue of a crucified Christ decorated with fragrant jasmine garlands stood watch at one end.
Sparring roosters, known as heaters, pecked at the fighting cocks to get them riled up, as handlers restrained them by their tail plumes and bettors and kristos waved and hollered at each other like frantic floor traders during a stock market meltdown.
In the final seconds before the starting buzzer, a male nurse dressed in white swabbed the hackles of each fighter to test for any dirty tricks, such as feathers laced with cyanide. Then the cocks’ tari were unsheathed, and a cockpit technician wiped each blade with gauze soaked in rubbing alcohol.
Primed for blood, the roosters were released from either side of two center lines. Some crowed as the crowd bellowed. Others went straight for the kill, flapping above their opponents, wildly stabbing at anything they could strike with their blades.
When the fighters lay panting in the dirt, the referee, or sentenciador, gently picked both up by the hackle feathers at arm’s length, and gently brought them to head-to-head, waiting for one to make the regulation two pecks needed for an outright victory. In the few bouts in which neither rooster had the strength, or will, left for that, the sentenciador declared a draw. And the bettors moaned.
At 4 a.m. on the final night, the 2007 World Slasher Cup was finally clinched, with a record of seven wins and a draw, by the eighth rooster entered by Wilson Ong, a Philippine businessman.
His cock died soon after pecking the limp, bleeding final challenger twice. Handler Alfred Pangilinan, 36, cradled the dead winner in his arms for the long trip home to Guagua, a town 50 miles north of Manila.
There, on the edge of the training farm, in a graveyard of champions, Pangilinan dug a deep hole and buried the bird.
Watson recently was on assignment in the Philippines.