Fronting a fierce spectacle of body slamming

In a blur of red lamé, frilly petticoats and flying pigtails, La Gloria bounces off the ropes, lunges at the retreating back of her opponent and grips his neck with her thighs. He hits the canvas with a resounding thud, landing in an ungainly sprawl.

“Are you afraid?” she cries, as she rests her dainty foot on the back of his head, raising her arms triumphantly to an ecstatic audience.

I’d already watched an ageing but still muscular Mr Atlas, underpants over his tights, take on a fearsome-looking Crow. Then a handsome Aladdin floored The Devil, with help from the 75-year-old referee Ali Farak, as the crowd chucked half-chewed chicken bones and popcorn in their direction, accompanied by jeers and cries of ‘cheaters’.

Finally, over ear-splitting music, foot stamping and impatient whistles, the compère bellowed dramatically into the microphone, the curtains leading to the backstage parted and La Gloria sashayed towards the ring to the biggest cheer of the day.

“Let’s dance!” she shouted, putting her bowler hat, fringed shawl and dangly earrings to one side. Within seconds of the bell, La Gloria and La Muerte – or Death – were locked in a high-octane bout, filled with athletic somersaults, flying fists and hair pulling.

Inspired by the masked wrestlers of Mexico’s lucha libre and the WWF Superstars in the US, Bolivia’s highly stylised take on wrestling is a theatrical mix of acrobatics, cartoon violence and old fashioned battles between goodies and baddies. It’s one-of-a-kind twist? Many of the wrestlers are cholitas, or the country’s indigenous Aymara women.

Bowler hats and pigtails

Cholitas certainly stand out, with bowler hats balanced at an improbable angle, pigtails hanging down their backs and flouncypolleras – full, multi-layered skirts. While the term chola is considered derogatory, synonymous with the country’s lowest social class, the word cholita has begun to have a positive overtone and signifies a woman who’s tough, resourceful and independent.

Each wrestling cholita has her own story. Following her whole family – father, mother and five siblings – into the ring, the diminutive Maria del Carmen Averanga started fighting in 2002, and when she dons her mini pollera, she transforms into the deceptively sweet Cholita Marina, who can execute a mean half-nelson.