Words by Michael Cunningham. Photos by Albert Retief.
On an otherwise uneventful day in Bali, I found myself standing in the sweaty crowd of an illegal cockfight. Being the only white person present, I was left wondering what I was doing there, and more importantly, why I was betting money.
I know many of you reading this are already reaching for your pitchforks and blazing torches, and that’s ok. Cockfighting is a dirty sport, and one that probably shouldn’t exist, but the reality is that it does. I only knew of its occurrence through word of mouth prior to my first hand experience of it, and even then I compartmentalised it in a section of my brain I like to call ‘things that exist that I pretend don’t exist’, and imagined it would do a life sentence there. However, when I was standing in front of that pit, watching two roosters fight to the death in a very violent display, I was forced to re-evaluate my entire outlook on reality, especially the dark side of it that I had simply chosen to ignore.
Cuba, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Southern India, Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands, Saipan, Guam, and the Mariana islands of Micronesia. These are just some of the places in the world where cockfighting not only exists, but is also hugely popular. A part of this popularity is due to the social aspect of gathering every week to watch it, while another part is the gambling side, which as we all know, is very addictive. This ‘sport’ was not something that I ever imagined myself witnessing, but a chance encounter with an Indonesian driver brought me to his home and training arena, and to the bloody death match that took place a short motorcycle ride away in a low-key rural village, far away from the insanity of Kuta and Seminyak.
The driver’s name was Made (ma-deh), but seeing as Balinese people are given one of four names based on their order of birth (Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut), the name drop isn’t incriminating him in the slightest, as almost everyone in Bali is called Made. Made and I had just finished playing a game of table tennis when he told me he had to go home to train one of his birds for an upcoming fight. My ears pricked. Did he just say he was training a bird to fight? I asked him what he meant by that and he simply offered to take me to his place and show me. With nothing better to do, I accepted.
His house was quite large, and I imagined his driving job didn’t pay for it all. The garden was elaborately set up as a sort of training field for his roosters. He had a pen full of baby chooks and several large cages housing equally large roosters. Amidst all of this were rooster sized obstacle courses, set up in such a way so the roosters had to duck and jump to get through to the end. There were also hollowed out cement blocks filled with water, where the roosters would swim inside to get fitter.
It was really quite impressive to tell you the truth. It seemed more like a rooster boot camp than anything, and I almost pictured people dropping off their pet birds with Made for a few weeks to get them in better shape, before picking them up and showering them with love and affection. That image was annihilated, however, when I saw Made’s knife and drug collection. He showed me a folder – similar to the type I used to put my Pokemon cards in – full of different types of blades, which he would fasten to his rooster’s claws before a fight. Next he showed me his drug cabinet, which contained various vials of liquid that he said would boost a rooster’s strength and endurance. My heart sank at the sight of this, but he assured me that he didn’t use the drugs anymore, as the training regiment was more than adequate. He told me the drugs shortened a bird’s life, making it less appealing as an option, but was something that a lot of trainers resort to, because for them, their birds usually only had a 50/50 chance of surviving the fight anyway. Made’s birds, however – he proudly declared – never lost.
I decided to go home at this point, and he told me that if I wanted to see the fight, he would come pick me up beforehand and take me. So we agreed to meet up in two days time, and then parted ways.
The Indonesian government made all forms of gambling, cockfighting included, illegal in 1981. Despite this, cockfighting remains a very ancient tradition in Balinese Hinduism, and the fights, called tajen, are practiced as a religious purification ritual to tame demonic spirits. The animal sacrifice ritual is called tabuh rah and roughly translates to ‘pouring blood’, the blood being an offering to evil spirits that the Balinese people are trying to keep from becoming restless. Every Balinese temple ceremony includes an obligatory cockfight for this purpose, but it is not conducted as a sport and no gambling is present, so it is considered to be legal. The purpose of the cockfight I was going to, however, was not to pour blood for a religious offering, but simply to pour blood for entertainment’s sake.
Two days had passed, and my phone rang. Made was outside, leaning against his car and smoking a cigarette. On the car ride he told me of the pride that cockfighters get for raising powerful birds and winning championships. He also told me that in Bali, cocks stand in for powerful men in the village, and the double-entendre of the word ‘cock’ exists in their language, just as it does in English. Apparently, size definitely matters in the world of cockfighting.
We arrived at the secluded village and followed a crowd of people to an abandoned lot bordered by wooden fences and some brick walls. The floor throughout was dirt, with patches of grass in some areas. Towards the center, where I assumed the fights took place, the dirt had taken on a reddish hue. This part of the lot had a high ceiling and several wooden planks and crates for the spectators to stand or sit on, which they were already beginning to do. The seats quickly filled up and everyone was making a lot of noise and throwing money around. Made told me they were placing preliminary bets, sort of like how you pay a blind in poker before you see your hand. He told me everyone present had to do so, and it was a sort of entrance fee, which you could make back if you won your bets. I hadn’t planned to do any gambling, but since I was forced to throw some rupiah down at the start, I started thinking about trying to get it back, and some. Made led me around the back, where his rooster was waiting with an assistant, and when I saw it – a large white bird with a posture that asserted power and authority over all other birds – I remembered Made saying that his roosters never lost, and did not doubt it for a second.
“Do you mind if I put some money on your bird to win the fight?” I asked, as casually as I could.
“I’d be honoured!” he replied.
I handed him some money, but he shot me a stern look and shook his head. “You don’t give it to me,” he said, like he was some sort of pimp.
“Ok, who do I give it to then?”
His head craned towards the crowd of people throwing notes into the pit. I tried to find the bookie among the chaos, but I couldn’t. I really didn’t see any order to the betting process, and it reminded me of that great Apocalypse Now line, where Captain Willard meets Kurtz and tells him that he was sent because his methods were unsound, and when Kurtz asks if he thought his methods were unsound, Willard replies: “I don’t see any method at all.”
I walked over to the spectator area and threw my preliminary money into the pit, just as everyone else was doing. As the notes fell, I saw a small, impish man scurry over to collect it in a hat.
Made’s assistant walked towards the middle of the dirt pit and placed the cage with the majestic white bird inside it. The crowd went wild. More notes flew like confetti onto the arena. More deafening noise followed with it. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a wad of notes, rolled it into a ball and threw it into the pit, careful to make sure it reached the feet of the bookie, in case someone tried to steal it. To this day, I still don’t see the method at all.
A few minutes later, another man came onto the stage and placed a cage next to Made’s. The opponent’s bird was just as large as Made’s, and its feathers were black as tar. The crowd somehow became even wilder. The birds looked evenly matched, and everyone seemed to know it. It was a face off: do you want to bet on yin or yang? It didn’t seem to matter, but I held onto the hope that Made’s bird would be the champion.
After a while the bets ceased and the bookie’s hat was overflowing with cash. A bell rang and the cages lifted. Both birds were being held back and they stared each other down without fear. It was a melting pot of sensations: the smell of sweat along with the howling of the audience and roosters mixed together with the sensation of the sun burning my skin and the sight of the two birds ready to fight to the death, the silver blades on their claws reflecting the hot afternoon sun. The bell rang a second time and the assistants both let go of the roosters. They both charged at each other at dizzying speed. Feathers flew everywhere and I could see the razors slicing and spilling blood. Made had told me fights rarely last longer than half a minute, but this one was already going on longer than that. After a minute or so of relentless fighting, the birds were taking a breather, like two boxers dogged by fatigue.
A man walked cautiously towards them holding a large cage and captured both of them inside it before shaking the cage back and forth. This woke the birds right up and resulted in a frenzy. The man lifted the cage and jumped back to safety. Both roosters were dripping blood. They took one last lunge at each other, and then stopped. The crowd was silent. They had each managed to pierce the other with their blade, and both remained motionless. They were dead. It was a draw. I stood in shock from the whole spectacle. What had I just watched? I couldn’t shake the feeling that the blood was on my hands, and I felt dirty for being entertained by it. People started to leave the pit, still silent, and Made walked over to me and apologised that I lost my money. I apologised that he lost his bird. He said not to worry, and told me that we would now cook and eat the bird. I took a photo of Made, with his glued on smile, and his dead rooster, and told him I wasn’t going to stick around for the meal. I just wanted to go home.