MANILA -- The Beach Boys played here. So did Elton John and Lady Gaga. And later this month, the Miss Philippines pageant contestants will promenade under the massive dome of the Smart Araneta Coliseum in Manila. But on this day, the spotlights shine down on poultry.
It is the World Slasher Cup, the Olympics of cockfighting, according to the organizers, held twice a year in this 25,000-seat arena. "Slasher" refers to the three-inch-long, razor-sharp blades attached to the birds' feet. But to the 1,000 or so people filling the floor and parts of the lower bowl of the stadium in the middle of the 10-day event, which culminated with the grand finals on Feb. 7, the action in the center ring is as much about beauty as blood.
Bet-taker Ramon Abad explains the attraction.
"If the chicken is very beautiful, aha, the chicken is very good," he said. "If the chicken is very ugly, then no good." Shouts and cheers rise, and hand signals flash as participants get in their wagers for the next match. "A pretty bird is like Miss Universe, perfect body, well balanced. Like a person, beautiful, sexy."
To Abad and many other participants, a "pretty bird" is one that has a symmetrical body and good color, a small head that makes for a lesser target and thin legs -- since fat ones are too heavy to allow for proper leaps.
The clamor dies as the match begins. "They don't want to disturb the birds," Abad said.
The handlers retreat and the roosters strut around the raised ring, pointedly ignoring the competition. They are indeed handsome animals, colorful and proud under the bright lights. Then their heads turn toward each other and they rise into the air, blades flashing and feathers flying.
In a few seconds the match is over, the end determined by the inability of one bird to rise again, whether dead or wounded. This time the loser is an inert lump of feathers in the center of the ring, killed instantly by a blade stabbed into the breast. A thin stream of blood trickles from his beak -- the only evidence of harm.
Backstage, up a corridor whose floor is marked by coin-sized drops of blood, the cost of the competition is more visible. Four men hold wounded winners and losers in their laps, stitching wounds so birds can fight again, or at least breed if their bloodline is desirable. Three or four that could not be saved are dumped under a table.
It is a reminder that this is the very essence of blood sport. Cockfighting is still popular in much of the Asia-Pacific region, especially in Indonesia and parts of South Asia, but mostly illegal outside the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. Here in the Philippines, every village has a cockpit -- the ring -- and at times it seems as if every man (for this is overwhelmingly a male pursuit) owns at least a few birds.
"Because it is legal here, a cross-section of society is involved in the cockfighting," said Joey Sy, a popular commentator on the sport whose television show is one of about a dozen aimed at aficionados in the Philippines and abroad. The sport attracts "rich people, millionaires [to] taxi drivers," he said.
Sy owns 500 birds but said that for him, breeding is just a hobby. Serious Philippine breeders own 3,000 to 4,000 roosters. At tournaments, owners, rather than individual birds, are ranked.
"In terms of money, this is already [worth] billions of dollars in the Philippines," he said.
There is the money spent on breeding, on feed and equipment and labor and the purchase of birds in the never-ending search for the perfect bloodline.
Then there is the betting. At the Slasher Cup, two owners bet on their birds, one of which is designated the underdog and the other the favorite. Those bets set the baseline for practically everyone in the arena to join in. The action is raucous, with green-vested officials taking bets on behalf of owners and ordinary gamblers making or taking bets among themselves, all using a system of hand signals. Crumpled bundles of currency fly over the heads of the fans as bets get paid off after a bout.
It is still early and the contestants are fairly low ranked. Even so, the owners' bets are running at around 250,000 pesos ($4,800) per match. Later in the day the bets will reach a million pesos as attendance climbs to 2,000 or 3,000. By the finals, the crowds, who pay at least 1,100 pesos to get in, can reach 5,000.
For the participants, entry costs 155,000 pesos, and each of the 300 or so taking part brings nine birds for the contest. The event is organized by a group called Pintakasi of Champions, and most of the sponsors are local feed and supplement companies, alongside gas station chain Petron.
At the end of the tournament a points system determines the overall winner or winners, who get a large cut of the entry money. This year, Congressman Patrick Antonio was the winner, as his birds delivered eight wins and a tie.
Unofficially, the winner's take in the tournament this time was said to be around 10 million pesos. The winner of the Slasher Cup held at the same time last year was said to have made 30 million pesos.
Smart Araneta Coliseum is a long way from the dusty cockpits that dot the countryside, where every owner hopes to discover a bird to start a bloodline that takes him to the bright center ring. About 20% of the entrants come from countries where they are breeding birds that can never legally fight at home. In this tournament there are entries from Canada, India, Malaysia, Australia and the U.S.
"You have to be cautious if you are raising any birds" in the U.S., said Mike Formosa, who breeds roosters in California despite increasingly strict regulations. Formosa, whose wife comes from the Philippines, has been competing in the Slasher Cup for more than 40 years. He raises 60 or 70 cocks at his home near San Francisco.
"I'm pretty well legal," he said. "There are lots of illegal fights in California -- we have lots of Hispanics and lots of Filipinos and it is part of their tradition to fight the roosters. But I don't go to those."
Formosa and others who care enough to consider the question have a ready answer for those who would stamp out their sport. They refer to the 6,000-year-old cultural tradition of cockfighting. And unlike the chickens shrink-wrapped in the grocery store, which live "20 to a cage for less than a year," the cocks competing in the Slasher Cup make their debut after at least three years of free-range life, pampered with food and care. "They are taken care of better than we are," Formosa said.
As for the beauty of the birds, he breeds for fighting prowess and any breeder who breeds for looks is foolish, he said.
"This isn't a beauty contest. Some breeders try to have birds that look better but I'm interested in the bloodlines, how it fights. You can have the prettiest rooster out there but if that's all you've done, an ugly bird is going to beat you."