“Sa Pula”: Modern Iloilo’s Love/Hate Relationship with ‘Sampok’

By marl patrick borro

Here’s a common sight during Sundays: men gathered around a circle, with many of them waving money around. The objects of their “lust”: two roosters fighting each other to the death. This is a typical picture of what cockfighting—or sampok, in Hiligaynon—would look like. It had been carved into the daily structure of Filipino life for generations, with an overwhelming number of Filipino men—and yes, that even included Ilonggos—indirectly engaging in this “sport”. Although the Philippines has been “exoticized” as of late because of its undying fascination with cockfighting, it seems like the practice itself is dwindling now, with most practitioners consisting of middle-aged to elderly men, with the occasional bloodthirsty young buck.

Does it have to do with the changing of the times? After all, it’s not common to see adolescent boys—obviously the “target” age where a lifelong love for sampok begins—staying indoors with videogames and the Internet to keep them company. On the other hand, current cultural sensitivities preaching a more “humane” approach to treating animals is now beginning to take root. So, this should only beg the bigger question: Do we even need sampok to continue today?

A two-sided coin can be tossed in order to see which weighs more here: a uniquely Filipino-defined culture that needs to continue, or a barbaric display of bloodsport that needs to stop now. The sampok affiliates would say that it needs to continue since it has always been part of our history and it is what defines us as Filipinos. Though historical evidence had pointed out that cockfighting was already in existence in countries like Persia (now modern-day Iran), Greece and many others thousands of years ago, it was only in the Philippines that Ferdinand Magellan, along with his chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, had managed to study the basic rules and regulations on how cockfighting on these islands were deeply venerated back then. This scene in written history captured the addictive concept of what sampok offered to those brave enough to stomach the violence.

Sampok In The Present Day

Leonard Sevilleno, a sampok enthusiast, was a former employee of a local government agency. He was earning a mere wage of P7000 a month. After he left his job to pursue his love for cockfighting, he quickly found himself earning more than what his monotonous work life offered—and he was, in fact, enjoying what he’s doing now. “Nami guid ang income [The income is good],” he said. “May puturo guid ako diri [I have a future here].”

Sevilleno added that, for anyone participating inside the confines of a cockpit or bulangan, men from different social statuses and walks of life are treated equal. He even compared it to an antiquated version of ‘Clash of Clans’ with the two opposing sides labeled as “meron [have]” and “wala [none]”. Although he admitted that there were fewer young people enjoying the sport nowadays, he was still enthusiastic that cockfighting is here to stay, and may even bounce back later on.

So, can we easily conclude that sampok is not only a potential money-earning activity, but a culturally significant one too? If that is indeed the case, then why are cockfighting matches rarely televised, at least in any TV channels here in Iloilo? Why are we were never taught about it in any basic 101 subjects? Moreover, if sampok is an identifier of the Filipino culture, then why didn’t the National Historical Commission of the Philippines endorse this to the other countries as a tourism ploy? If you think about it, Mexico has their lucha libre and Spain has their bullfights—centuries-old traditions that are rooted in violence. Why can’t the Philippines have their sampok?

Money and The Survival of an Ancient Bloodsport

Those who oppose cockfighting today are doing so for valid reasons: sampok is a bloodsport likened to the gladiators of ancient Rome where living people die for the amusement of spectators. Also, If the thrill and machismo are what sampokeros are afraid of losing, then why not convert their attention to following less fatal sports like boxing or MMA? If we are looking for an authentic sport that we can label as ours, why not arnis? There are innovative ways to present modern fights as “culturally relevant”, like having local fighters gear up in their native costumes, for example; after all, that is what Japan is doing with modern sumo wrestling.

However, there is a reason why sampok still has an edge among similar activities of its ilk: betting is the primary fuel of the game. It is present in jai-alai and in the innocuous slot machines of our casinos, yet it’s a practice that the powerful Catholic Church is still standing against, at least in an official capacity. Does this mean that if sampok is to continue, then we allow gambling to be discovered by our children?

Or maybe we don’t need to be worried at all. For many of the Ilonggos living in this generation, cockfighting is just seen as another “old man’s sport” like golf. Now that online and mobile gaming has its claws on society, it may be possible that this sport will eventually just die out. Maybe it is time for a change and leaving the past to where it is: in the past.

In recent news, though, there are still influential people pushing for the preservation of cockfighting in Iloilo: city councilor Lyndon Acap gives hope to both old and prospective manugsampoks by trying to pass Presidential Decree 1310, which requires every district and province to have their own bulangan, so maybe there’s a chance that cockfighting can survive until the next generation.

Heck, this is how the Philippines work: by living in contradictions. This is where tradition and modernity are in constant clash with each other. If local folklore and the Catholic faith can coexist with each other, then both “factions”—the pro-sampok and the anti-sampok—can possibly thrive together in whatever arrangement they may come up with.

Photo by Marrz Capanang