Wrestlers warming up in El Alto, Bolivia, near La Paz. Indigenous women, dressed in their traditional garb, are the stars of the increasingly popular bouts, Bolivia’s version of the World Wrestling Federation.
In This Corner, in the Flouncy Skirt and Bowler Hat...
By JUAN FORERO Published: July 21, 2005
EL ALTO, Bolivia - In her red multilayered skirt, white pumps and gold-laced shawl, the traditional dress of the Aymara people, Ana Polonia Choque might well be preparing for a night of folk dancing or, perhaps, a religious festival.
But as Carmen Rosa, master of the ring and winner of 100 bone-crunching bouts in Bolivia's colorful wrestling circuit, she is actually dressing for a night of mayhem.
With loyal fans screaming out her name, she climbs the corner ropes high above the ring, bounces once for momentum and flies high, arms outstretched for maximum effect. To the crowd's delight, the dive flattens her adversary, María Remedios Condori, better known as Julia la Paceña (Julia from La Paz).
This, ladies and gentlemen, is "lucha libre," Bolivia's version of the wacky, tacky wrestling extravaganzas better known as World Wrestling Entertainment in the United States and Triple A in Mexico, which serve as a loose model. But there are no light shows, packed arenas or million-dollar showmen.
Here in El Alto, with an almost entirely indigenous population of 800,000 Aymara and Quechua residents, wrestling is a throwback to a simpler, perhaps more innocent era, when late-night fights featuring men in black tights were carried across flickering black-and-white TV screens.
Except that Bolivian wrestling is not televised.
Those who want to see the matches - and a growing number do - pack El Alto's Multifunctional Center by the hundreds, paying $1 per person to sit on concrete bleachers in sub-freezing temperatures, popcorn in hand. For four hours every Sunday, they watch good-versus-evil struggles that almost always end up with wrestlers like Mr. Atlas or Batman triumphing over the Red Baron, the Grim Reaper or Black Beard.
In a hardscrabble city of daily hardship, freestyle wrestling, or lucha libre, provides a much needed diversion for people who have little time or money for recreation.
"This is a distraction, a chance to laugh, to yell, mostly for the kids," said Víctor Choque, 40, and no relation to Ana. By the sign of his wide grin, however, he seemed to be enjoying the bouts more than his three daughters. "I come every Sunday, every one. I love it. I don't miss it."
El Alto, which in a generation grew from hamlet to sprawling satellite city overlooking La Paz, has largely created its own form of wrestling, borrowing from Mexico's famed spectacle of masked men battling for the honors and sprinkling it with a local touch. Ms. Choque fights with a particularly successful troupe of wrestlers called the Titans of the Ring.
"The cradle of freestyle wrestling is Mexico because that's where the best fighters were - Hurricane Ramírez, the Jalisco Lightning, the Blue Demon," explained Juan Carlos Chávez, promoter of the Titans.
But now, he says proudly, Bolivia has its own stable of wrestlers who tussle in choreographed matches. And Bolivian organizers have introduced the innovation of fighting Cholitas, the indigenous women who wear bowler hats and multilayered skirts.
"I wanted to get people's attention and fill up the coliseum," said Juan Mamani, 46, the president of the Titans and a wrestler himself. "At first, I thought of fighting dwarves. I even brought in one from Peru. Then I thought of Cholitas. It's been popular ever since."
The most successful has been Ms. Choque, who is 34, has a lovely wry smile and weighs in at 149 pounds.
Married, with two children, and the successful owner of a jewelry business, Ms. Choque recalled her husband's skepticism, seeing her come home bruised and battered. But when he saw how much she liked her hobby, he started attending all the bouts and now supports her tough training regimen, which includes a weekly hike up a 15,000-foot peak.
"I want to do this as long as I can," she said. "It's my life, la lucha libre."
Mr. Chávez, the promoter, said that bringing in the Cholitas was a brilliant stroke that attracts 1,000 or more spectators to the bouts in El Alto, and hundreds when the Titans travel to smaller towns. "This has gotten bigger and bigger, and so we have put more into it and it has gotten better," he said.
There are plenty of half nelsons, headlocks, pile drivers and just plain dirty fighting, with wrestlers thrown out of the ring, chairs thrown in and even the referees bounced on their heads on occasion.
To train, the Titans gather twice a week in Juan Mamani's cold, dank gym and, under three bare light bulbs, throw one another around, practicing their moves.
Even the popular Titans cannot make a living wrestling; they earn about $13 for a bout. Most have other jobs, from guitar teacher to textile worker to vendor of trinkets and jewelry.
But that does not mean they do not take lucha libre as seriously as possible. They have to. Just last year, one of the Titans lost his life after breaking his neck in a bad fall in the ring.
"Let me tell you, this looks like play acting, but it hurts," said Yenny Wilma Maras, who weighs 167 pounds and, once in the ring, is transformed into Marta, the Woman From El Alto.
"It looks easy, you get up there and jump around, but it is not. It is all training and conditioning."
Perhaps the most dedicated of the wrestlers is the oldest, Daniel Torrico, 62, who began wrestling more than 40 years ago and has faced off against foes in Mexico, Peru and Central America. A weight-lifter with a barrel chest, Mr. Torrico becomes Mr. Atlas in the ring, with his blue tights and fearful grin.
"This is a spectacle," he said in a spartan dressing room, moments before heading out into the ring. "People know us, they appreciate our agility, our strength. And we do it for the happiness of the crowd."
"To be the man, you gotta beat demands." -- The Lovely Mrs. Tracker
That has got to be one of the strangest wrestling-related pictures I've ever seen. I certainly hope for her sake that she's attempting a cross body-block, because I can't think of another move she could be attempting that wouldn't result in her landing on her head.
And, yeah, the clothing's odd, too.
“Great. He spends skill points on Perform (Kazoo), and now I have to make a Knowledge (Limits of My Own Sanity) skill check." --Roy Greenhilt, The Order of the Stick
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