Swiftly and with purpose, the man in the puffy red suit and full headgear enveloped the teenage girl and wrestled her to the ground. As she squirmed, kicked and attempted to get away, another young woman came to her aid, kicking the attacker squarely on the side of his head with her heel and with such force that he instantly freed his victim, giving both girls a chance to get away.
Had the circumstances been different — and this attack wasn’t happening within the safe confines of a high school gym, and with a man who wasn’t really out to do harm — the girls would’ve found themselves in a potentially deadly situation with only seconds to react.
Would you know what to do?
The man in the suit was longtime Richmond resident Bobby Withrow, known by many around town as Chop Chop Bob. A martial arts veteran of nearly 30 years, he runs RVA Self Defense, an outfit that takes him all over the metro Richmond area teaching self-defense classes to youths and adults, both in groups and individual private lessons. He teaches classes in high schools in Henrico, Goochland and Powhatan counties, plus Collegiate and Steward School, as well as for college students and their parents — even senior citizens.
The recent “altercation” inside the small gym at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico was the continuation of a decadeslong relationship with that school, in which Withrow visits twice during the school year to teach freshman and sophomore girls basic self-defense techniques through American-style taekwondo, karate and Brazilian jiujitsu.
After that hard shot to the head by a determined freshman girl, Withrow, 55, pulled off his helmet, touched his lips to check for bleeding, then grinned widely.
“That was awesome,” he said.
Withrow’s passion for martial arts runs deep, and that dedication is apparent both on and off the mat. He’s approachable and friendly, yet frank and forceful when he’s teaching. He doesn’t mince words or sugarcoat what he’s doing or why.
It’s important to him that those in his tutelage understand the reasons behind his words and actions.
In the minutes between classes at Freeman, Withrow prepared himself for the next group of girls. On “battle day,” the girls practice what they’ve learned all week. In short, Withrow spends the day getting punched, kicked, stomped and generally pummeled.
He left a 26-year career in the automotive industry for this — and now makes very little, if anything, for his services.
Ask him why, and his jovial demeanor darkens. He explained that when he was young, he witnessed a loved one victimized by alcohol abuse, domestic violence and, tragically, suicide. The toxic environment he lived through haunts him, but it also feeds his drive to help as many people as possible.
“It certainly scars you for life to witness something like that,” Withrow said, referring to the abuse. “As I grew and started a family, I wanted to have some way of protecting myself and my children.”
He turned to martial arts for the protection as well as the physical and emotional outlet it provided. In the years since, he’s earned a black belt in taekwondo and a second-degree black belt in Steve Byrnes fighting strategies. He is currently training in Brazilian juijitsu.
Twelve years ago, he started teaching self-defense to others and found his calling. He mostly works with girls and women, though he’ll work with anyone who needs him. He connects with his students by not only being open about his personal experiences, but also by relating to their lives.
Those moments, he said, sometimes hit a nerve.
“I can look around the room, and girls will start looking at each other, and I know right off the bat that that girl’s going through something,” either with a boyfriend or at home, he said. He talks about warning signs in relationships and the controlling behaviors that can sometimes lead to physical and mental abuse. He stresses empowerment and listening to one’s gut. Withrow reminds his students that they’re not doctors — some people simply cannot be fixed — and, in those cases, it’s best to get away from the situation.
“When it’s an emotional attachment, it’s a far more violent attack — that’s what these girls have to understand,” Withrow said. He shares tips for not becoming a target for a stranger, namely by being aware of one’s surroundings at all times and making smart decisions. He uses martial arts techniques to show them how and what to do if they’re approached by a threatening individual or even attacked.
Local school officials say Withrow’s programs are among the most powerful — and popular — in their schools.
Mills E. Godwin was the first high school in Henrico to invite Withrow to teach. Longtime health and PE teacher Penny Stevens said his program should be available to every high school girl.
“His whole reason for doing this is for protection for the innocent — [and] it’s 1,000 percent from his heart,” Stevens said. Her girls are often surprised by how quickly Withrow can overtake them. Many mistakenly assume they can simply outrun an attacker.
“They don’t realize, until you actually practice it, how vulnerable [they] really are,” Stevens said. For that reason, Withrow’s program is invaluable.
Domestic violence “isn’t something that’s going away,” she said. “Our girls absolutely ask for the program, [and] they love what it represents.”
She added: “You don’t want statistics to be your wake-up call.”
Doug Clements is a health and PE teacher and PE department chairman at Freeman. He said the weeks that Chop Chop Bob takes over PE classes are among the girls’ favorite. Although many of them start out timid, by the end of the week, they’re eager to spar with Withrow to test what they’ve learned.
“He just does a great job [because] he believes in what he’s doing,” Clements said, adding that Withrow preaches awareness above all.
“If you have to think, it’s too late,” Clements said. “You have to be able to react.”
Clements said he took self-defense classes as a child, and “I know how it helped me with confidence.”
He added: “In today’s world, these skills can go a long way.”
Freeman freshmen Alyssa Holt and Sithmi Rajaguru came off the mat energized. The pair were the first to volunteer on “battle day” against Withrow, and they managed to fight off their attacker as their peers screamed and cheered from the sidelines.
“It was very wild, but it was very fun; my adrenaline was pumped up,” Holt said. “There are a lot of dangerous situations that could happen, and learning to fight is pretty useful.”
Holt said she kept telling herself to hit Withrow in the face, not just once, but repeatedly.
Rajaguru was somewhat less enthusiastic to hit her attacker — but only because she knew him as Chop Chop Bob.
“I’m a person who doesn’t really like hurting other people,” she said. “He kept saying, ‘Hit me. Hit me,’ [but] I didn’t want to hurt him.”
Withrow said it’s not uncommon for shy students to “flip the switch” when their adrenaline takes over and they see a friend or loved one being hurt. His job, he said, is to teach them how to focus that adrenaline so that they can escape the attack. Or, teach them how to avoid bad situations altogether.
Withrow, who works by himself, joked that he’ll continue teaching self-defense as long as his body can handle it. He’s had a crown knocked out by a high school girl, and mentions casually that he’s probably had a few concussions.
The bumps and bruises and dental work are worth it, he says.
“It means the world to me,” Withrow said. “Any instructor on a test day, if [the students] perform well, it warms your heart [because] we know they can defend themselves.”