Cock Fighting: Beyond the Blood

cock fighting
Let’s start with the facts.

Cock fighting is a sporting tradition shared by many Asian countries. In Thailand, cock fighting has its roots deep in history. Many Thais often refer all the way back to the sixteenth century, to King Naresuan, a much loved monarch famous for defeating the king of Burma. Historically, the two are supposed to have had a royal cock fight in their youth, the result of which made it clear to a young Naresuan that the Thais had to fight for their independence from Burma. The Thais view this cock fight as a key historical moment, so much so that in the recent production of The Legend of King Naresuan Part I: Hongsawadee’s Hostage, the film poster was that of the young Prince Naresuan holding his winning cockerel proudly under his arm. Of the film, Kong Rithdee said that it included

“key historical moments that all Thai students have read in their textbooks [such as the] cockfighting match between Naresuan and a Burmese prince, which upon his victory Naresuan says metaphorically to his Burmese captors ‘we can bet for a country if you want.’”

It is clear that for some in Thailand, cock fighting is not only a sport, but a source of pride. In fact, Chiang Mai is home to the Cockfighting Learning and Exhibition Centre where people can go to learn about the history and culture of cock fighting.

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In a country as diverse as Thailand, with an influx of ethnicities such as Burmese, Laotian and Khmer, it is interesting to see this same diversity reflected in the cockerels. Just in case you were curious, different cockerels have different fighting techniques: those from Thailand are known for being strong in the clinch; Vietnamese cockerels for being strong and thick-skinned, but slow with big legs; Burmese cockerels for being fast with good movement and running laps around their opponents, but small bodied. The best fighters are those that are a mix of ethnicities, such as a Thai, Vietnamese and Burmese cockerels.

The cock fights that I am talking about are not to the death and do not involve blades. In fact, in Thailand, cock fights to the death are illegal. Fights consist of five, twenty minute rounds, with a rest of twenty minutes in between each round. Fights are won when a cockerel can no longer continue, or gives up.
Cockerels are prepared for fights in a number of ways. In a similar fashion to the way that Muay Thai fighters wrap their hands, cockerels’ feet are wrapped and they then spar with each other. In addition to this, they sunbathe to toughen up their skin, are given vitamins, such as ginseng and local herbs, daily ‘showers’ and also massages. I’m sure that right about now you are wondering how and why I know all of this, but bear with me.

To clean a cockerel, you hold it in between your legs and use a cloth dipped in water which is then wrung out. Avoiding the wings, you wash the bird as if you were strumming a guitar, working your way down the body, covering the head, neck, chest, stomach, back and feet. To give a massage, you then take the cloth and warm it on a hot plate. When the cloth is hot, it is rubbed on the cockerel’s muscles in a circular motion, relaxing the muscles and breaking down any lactic acid.

I would now like to take you even deeper beneath the surface of this bloodsport, and to do so, I need to begin with the story of my friend’s childhood.

My friend was born in a town in Isaan, in the Northeast of Thailand. He went to primary school but was always up to no good and starting fights. His mother told him that if he was constantly going to be fighting, it would be better if he did his fighting inside of the ring.

At six, she took him to her elder brother, a former fighter, who began to teach him Muay Thai. With divorced parents, no toys, no real entertainment, and a mother who worked full time, there was little in the way of keeping a young child occupied.

At seven, his father started to connect with him by taking him to local cock fights. A few months later, he gave my friend his first cockerel, one that he learnt to feed, take care of, train and clean. What he was learning in Muay Thai seemed to be mirrored to some extent in the world of cock fighting. He soon felt a strong sense of responsibility towards his cockerel, and a desire to do his father proud.

For a child with few toys, little money and an unstable relationship with his father, the cock fights became a safe place where everyone knew him, where he could spend time with his father, learn about cockerels and train them in a similar way to which he himself was relentlessly trained.

Just as people came to watch him fight, so too did he and his neighbours go to watch cockerels fight. In the same way that his body was pushed and tested, so too were the cockerels. In the same way that his body was massaged before, during and after fights, so too were the cockerels. It is not difficult to see that perhaps this is a tradition and a way of life we may not fully understand.

I asked him once how he felt when his cockerels fought, and he said that he felt proud; a similar sense of pride to that he got from training everyday and then putting up a good fight, or training his Muay Thai students to fight with strength and technique. When I asked him if he felt sad when his cockerels were injured, he told me that it did upset him somewhat, but that he could sew up their cuts the way that his cuts were sewn up; he could heal and rest them in a similar fashion to the way he healed and rested after fights.

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In Thailand, as in all countries outside of one’s own, people live their lives differently. With its unique history, culture, opportunities and interests, different types of activities are viable and entertaining. Traditions such as Muay Thai and cock fighting span centuries, intersecting with major historical figures and events, thus fortifying their places within Thai hearts. To begin to see a different aspect of cock fighting, I think it is important to look beyond the blood and instead consider it within the context of the country’s sporting culture and history. What do you say?

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