Kicking and Screaming, Women Master Matt Thomas' Get-Tough Tactics for Self-Defense

updated 07/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ann Ziegler had never thought of herself as a victim. At 23, she had a good job as a research analyst for an environmental consulting firm in Oakland, Calif. A soccer player in high school, she was still in good shape. She felt capable and strong. Then, one night last October, she went to bed without locking the back door of her apartment.

Ziegler awakened when a man walked into her dining room. Before she could struggle into a shirt, he was on top of her, plunging an eight-inch knife into her chest. As the knife came down again and again, Ziegler recalls, one thought kept going through her mind: "I can't believe this is happening to me."

By the time a neighbor called an ambulance and got Ziegler to the hospital, she had lost half the blood in her body and her lungs had collapsed. She underwent five hours of open-heart surgery. Eight months later, her wounds still healing and her assailant still at large, the once-confident Ziegler realized how much the crime had changed her. "I doubted myself," she says. "I felt weak."

Then, last month, while taking part in an unusual self-defense course for women, Ziegler relived those horrifying moments of terror and disbelief as a huge masked man pinned her to the floor and told her, "I'm going to kill you." But this time, Ziegler fought back. "No!" she screamed as she delivered a powerful kick to the man's groin. "No!" As she struggled, 11 women on the sidelines screamed with her. "Bite!" they shouted. "Eyes! Go for his eyes!" Within 60 seconds, Ziegler had dealt her attacker a knockout blow and earned her graduation from Model (as in role model) Mugging, a program that teaches women to defend themselves by pitting them against powerful, aggressive opponents.

In just six four-hour sessions, Model Mugging students learn the fundamentals of street fighting: a kick to the throat, a volleyball serve under the chin, a knee to the groin. Though instructors also encourage the use of nonviolent defenses such as screaming, a student should be able to render an attacker unconscious in order to successfully complete the course.

All students practice their moves on male assailants who wear gigantic padded helmets and 30 pounds of specially designed protective gear. Thus girded, the men attack with full force to induce the adrenaline rush that comes with fear; forcing the women to deal with rubbery knees and a pounding heart in the classroom is intended to minimize the chance that they would freeze during a real assault. "You can't learn to ride a bike in your head," explains Sheryl Hall Doran, 44, who became Model Mugging's first female instructor in 1984. So Doran and the other women instructors—working with the "muggers"—teach students the hard way, requiring them to fight while on the ground, for example, because that's where rape victims usually end up.

The program, which has graduated close to 6,000 women all across the U.S., was devised 17 years ago by Matt Thomas, a black belt in karate, judo and Japanese fencing. In 1971, a fellow student in his karate class was raped and beaten despite her black-belt skills. The victim felt that she had disgraced her class, and the teacher agreed. Thomas, then a graduate student at Stanford University, didn't. "I was outraged," he says. "She had been taught to dance, not to fight."

Thomas, now 37, left the martial arts studio that day and never went back. Soon afterward he began studying police files on sexual assaults. Then, in 1972, during his first year at Harvard Medical School, the girlfriend he had left behind at Stanford was raped and beaten. Thomas says he was enraged but realized that "I couldn't always be there to rescue people, that true self-defense demanded that women defend themselves." He had taught conventional self-defense classes before; now he became determined to create a truly effective program for women. Disillusioned with his medical studies, he left Harvard and set up the first Model Mugging class, in Boston.

Thomas' first group of students failed the test. Wearing a bulletproof vest, a hockey player's mask and shin guards, Thomas "mugged" each woman at the end of the course, only to find that not one could defend herself. He extended the class for six weeks—repeatedly feigning attacks on his students—and rejoiced when a kick to the head finally knocked him unconscious.

Since then, students in Thomas' classes have knocked him cold 17 times, broken his ribs, herniated a disk in his back and cracked one of his vertebrae. He retired from active mugging in 1985, though he still oversees the growing network of nonprofit Model Mugging courses from the San Francisco Bay area home he shares with his wife, Debra a commercial-real-estate executive, and their 2-year-old son, Cully.

The would-be muggers who have taken his place—they have an average of 14 years' experience in the martial arts—train as volunteers for a year before they are allowed to attack. When they finally qualify, they make $30 an hour, but it is not easy money: Encased in padded armor, a mugger may lose seven pounds of body fluid in four hours of overheated exertion.

Why do they do it? Julio Toribio, a mugger in Monterey, Calif., signed on after his mother-in-law was stabbed to death on her front porch by a man who wanted her purse. "I wanted to kill," says Toribio, 33. "Model Mugging helps me channel my anger and helps women help themselves. I want to break the chain of violence by teaching women to become victors, not victims."

Though the numbers are impossible to verify, Model Mugging officials claim that of 32 women who have reported attacks after completing the course, 22 knocked out their assailants and eight more disabled their attackers. Instructors love to tell about the figure skater who beat up a rapist in the subway, the 54-year-old librarian who drove off an attacker with repeated kicks to the groin, and the Las Vegas cocktail waitress who stomped so hard on her assailant's foot that she impaled him on her high heel.

Though police often regard women's self-defense classes with skepticism, Model Mugging even has the endorsement of some law-enforcement officials. Don Fuselier, a police captain in Carmel, Calif., thought women's self-protection programs were all "a bunch of hooey" before his teenage daughter dragged him to a Model Mugging class several years ago. Now, he says, "This is the only self-defense course I'd ever have my wife or daughter take."

Even Model Mugging's fiercest proponents don't pretend that it makes women invincible. For one thing, the basic course only trains a woman to respond to a single unarmed assailant. (Thomas has designed advanced classes to deal with weapons and multiple attackers.) Still, "practicing full contact helps you get past the heebie-jeebies—that initial fear response," says actress Theresa Saldana, 32, who was stabbed by a deranged fan in 1982 and took the course in 1986. Now, she says, "in a situation where I'm threatened, I feel I could help myself. The training is an asset—not something to make you so overconfident you're careless."

—By Patricia Freeman, with Maria Wilhelm in San Francisco

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