MIDWAY : Femme fatales

The Mummy and Black Falcon were in the ring bashing, lifting and hurling each other against the ropes, two wrestlers engaged in that most masculine of activities: fighting.

The crowd roared approval but this was a warm-up act and there was impatience for the main event: Carmen Rosa, also known as the Champion. After a theatrical delay she appeared, a stocky figure with pigtails and a flouncy skirt, and she waded through well-wishers towards the ring. Minutes later she had her opponent, a self-confessed sexist known as Eastern Hunter, pinned against a corner. Her foot pushed deeper into his neck. He yelped and collapsed. Rosa mounted the ropes, bounced for momentum, leaped backwards and crash-landed on the prostrate form. The cheers were deafening.

Welcome to lucha libre, freestyle wrestling with a Bolivian twist. This macho sport in this macho country, South America’s most impoverished and conservative, has been flipped into an unlikely feminist phenomenon. Indigenous women known as cholitas, physically strong from manual labour but long considered powerless and subservient have become stars of the ring. They train like men, fight like men.

“We have been discriminated against since the beginning for the simple fact of being women, and indigenous women at that,” said Carmen Rosa, whose real name is Polonia Ana Choque. “Men used to mock us but we have come further than male fighters.” On a good night The Champion, whose dimpled smile glints with gold teeth, earns GBP15. Not enough to abandon her day job of running a small store and making packed lunches but enough to persuade her husband to support her unorthodox career sideline.

But traditionalists are appalled. “The cholitas are not equal to men, they shouldn’t be doing this,” said Juan Carlos Acrapi, 28, who in

the ring becomes the masked, bellowing, chest-thumping Eastern Hunter. To a large extent bouts are choreographed pantomime but a recent contest between Eastern Hunter and Rosa turned serious when she cut her head. Climbing the ropes to address the ecstatic crowd, her face flushed with triumph, it was the cholita’s turn to bellow: “Who is better? Men or women? Always women!”