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Tournament of feathered knights

Armed with merciless lances strapped to their feet, the warrior roosters enter the lists. In the Philippines, cockfights are favored Sunday afternoon entertainment.

It was Sunday, and the Filipinos combine their two religions on the same day. Staunchly Roman Catholic, they attend Mass in the morning and then prepare for the afternoon service _ cockfights.

This town's edifice du combat was an unpainted roof with no walls, only supports made of planks. A five-level grandstand of unpainted timbers, with seating for about 300, surrounded the ring, a steel tubing cage the height of a backyard fence and approximately 10 paces square. The surface, a parched clay, kicked up no dust.

The only women here were selling San Miguel beer, Coke and chips from a canteen. Also in attendance was the couple who arrived with the guest of honor, the lechon.

A lechon is another sacrifice of battle _ a whole roasted pig. A bamboo pole slides unceremoniously from north to south through the gutted pig, which is then wired down; after that, the pig is placed over smoldering coals and slowly hand-rotisseried for three to four hours, resulting in a succulent barbecued hog.

The chef hacks off chunks of meat with a machete, grease and juices flying. (In the movie Apocalypse Now, the bovine sacrifice scene near the end was a bona fide ceremony performed by a Filipino tribe).

I dove into about a pound of pork, and with no room for manners, I did my best to eat the meat only, but it proved a lost cause.

I was rehearsing an apology to my cardiologist when the preliminaries began on the first rooster bout. The two owners and their roosters entered the ring, along with the referee and a trail of other guys with no apparent reason for being there _ just like in a pro boxing match.

The ref, barking out his orders, spotted my foreign face and asked if I would like to place a bet. I refused, as politely as possible, and became the brunt of some good-natured jokes, an indication of welcome.

The roosters are beautiful birds. Some are snow white. Others have black tails and wings with a cream-colored chest, complete with matching head feathers cascading over their shoulders and backs like a lion's mane. Others are brilliantly colored with teal, green, harvest gold, burnt orange, burgundy and liver red.

The owners raise them from chicks, feeding them special food and vitamins for strength and health. After 15 to 18 months, the gladiators are ready.

On the big day, each scrapper is outfitted with a razor-sharp, curved sabre about the length of an adult's first finger. It is artistically tied with fishing line so that it points straight back from the rooster's right ankle.

If roosters can hate, these do, while instinct incites them to fly up and attack with their feet _ and that little knife-blade. The winner is the rooster that remains alive.

To prime them for the fight, each cock is held by the tail and permitted to approach its opponent. Their feet dig into the ground or run in the air in a desperate attempt to storm their foe. The owners then cradle their birds, which are allowed to take a few pecks at their opponent. One owner holds his bird's head stationary, while the other rooster is allowed a few stabs. Then the opposing bird returns the action.

During the warm-up, a series of hand gestures determines wagers. Holding fingers straight up indicates denominations of 10s of pesos, holding fingers sideways is for 100s, and pointing the corresponding amount of fingers straight down is for 1000s of pesos, of which there seems to be no shortage.

A wave of the hand to the left or right indicates which bird the bettor wants. Odds are set with another round of finger semaphore.

With the ref signaling the close of betting, sheaths are removed from the leg-knives with the utmost care: One man holds the bird still and a second delicately slides off the sheath. The handlers bring the roosters forward so their beaks touch (like boxers touching gloves), then each handler takes a step back and drops his bird.

The roosters hunch down, neck feathers flaring out like umbrellas, their feet stepping cross-overs. One roster springs up, the other reflexively mirrors the move. They crash footlong into each other, and feathers fly. Appearing dazed or confused, they both hit the ground in a tangled mess. But without stepping back, they go at it again.

Approval by the audience of 35 or so at the fight I attended was expressed by shrieks, yells and that distinctly Filipino gesture, thigh-slapping laughter.

One rooster's owner, about 20, is clearly nervous. He would like nothing better than to knock off the much older man in this macho world.

The older man's bird is bleeding and cannot walk. Its knife-bearing leg has been slashed. The bird is unable to kick. The aggressor flies up and lands on his opponent, thrusting pecks once, twice, three times, then backs off and circles, confused: His foe is unable to move, either to protect itself or to fight.

The referee picks up each battler by its back; each pecks once and they are dropped facing each other. The injured one tumbles on his side. The ref continues trying to revive the fight, sometimes eliciting a brief flurry of activity, but the 10-minute maximum time expires.

Both birds are wounded and exhausted and have lost any will for combat. Muffled sighs and grumbles indicate a draw, with all bets off _ a rarity.

Most matches finish in under a minute, many in a matter of seconds, as a fatal stab registers somewhere in the fracas of feathers.

Between the matches I attended, in a real-life Far Side cartoon, a fight broke out between two owners.

Returning to my hotel that night, I had a plate of pancit canton _ fried noodles mixed with a collection of vegetables and beef. I wasn't in the mood for chicken.

Jim Soliski is a freelance writer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta.