MANILA (Reuters Life!) - Sunday is a day of devotion in the Philippines. Devotion, that is, to cockfighting.
In Manila’s Araneta Coliseum, where the final day of the World Slasher Cup is in full swing, a man gently touches the wooden statue of a crucified Christ at the stadium’s entrance and afterwards pats the rooster cradled in his arm.
Billed as the world’s biggest cockfighting event, the biannual 4-day derby attracts entries from the United States, Germany, Japan and Australia among others.
In the centre ring where boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier pounded each other in the 1975 movie “Thrilla In Manila”, cocks armed with 3-inch razors attached to their left legs attack each other in a frenzy of swoops and feathers.
“Come on, kill him,” roared one spectator, clutching a fistful of 1,000 peso ($25) bills.
Before each fight, bookies known as “Cristos” because they take bets with their arms wide open like Jesus on the cross, holler and gesticulate as if they were traders facing a stock market crash.
Millions of pesos change hands in the tournament, which stretches into the early hours of the morning.
Some of the bouts are over in seconds and none last more than 10 minutes. Grim-faced handlers carry off losing birds with blood dripping from their blades. Often the winners don’t make it either.
“People sometimes portray it as cruel but we absolutely love the birds,” said Cliff Osborn, a 66-year old pensioner who traveled from Arizona to watch the derby.
“The chickens we eat get to live about 8 weeks. The chickens we fight are over two years old and are given every sort of vitamin, mineral and comfort.”
Cockfighting is illegal in all U.S. states except Louisiana, which is expected to implement a ban later this year.
But in the Philippines, where it has been a national pastime for centuries, it’s becoming ever more popular with websites and television channels devoted to the sport.
It is said there are more cockpits than churches in this largely Catholic country.
For millions of men and boys, and some women, Sundays are for cockfighting or “sabong”.
The rich elite and the mass poor both dream of success in the ring, creating a rare common ground between them.
“In the cockpit, everybody is equal,” said Amado Bagatsing, a Manila-based congressman, who owns over 100 cocks.
A reputation for breeding champion fighters was traditionally a big vote-getter in the Philippines and even nowadays, with television and billboard advertising, being ringside is still essential for many political aspirants.
“They want to be associated with the masses, with the ordinary folk and show that they are human too. It’s a must for them to be seen,” said Bagatsing.
The 60-year fainted the first time he saw a cockfight on account of the blood but quickly got used to it.
Fans of the sport insist the birds are killers by nature and giving them a blade speeds up the inevitable.
But animal rights groups argue it is cruel and dismiss the spectacle as a macho bloodfest.
In the Araneta Coliseum there were only a handful of women. Even the nurse who swabbed the hackles of each fighter to test for dirty tricks such as cyanide in the feathers was male.
But the atmosphere was not overtly masculine.
Danny Mora, one of dozens of bookies, proudly showed off a recent pedicure and manicure and confided between fights that quite a few of his stern-looking colleagues got facials.
“It’s important to take care of yourself,” he said.
($1 = 40.5)
Reporting by Carmel Crimmins, Editing by Gillian Murdoch
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