What is 52 Blocks?
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the term “52 Blocks”, (a.k.a. 52 Hand Blocks, Jailhouse Rock (JHR), Jailhouse Boxing and the Bumrush) and for good reason. Its origins are not exactly mainstream and it still resides primarily in a sub-culture within a sub-culture. Ever heard of Mother Dear, Fat Cat, Glass Man or True-God? The plot thickens. Read on.
It’s a contentious issue but probably correct to state that 52 is a type of Jail House Rock. JHR as a term has been employed decades longer than 52 Blocks. Is there a difference? Again – another contentious issue, but most people that were inside the penal system during the 1970’s when the term 52 Blocks started being used, have a definite take on it. They claim that 52 is an all over body beat up. From toes to your head. JHR was more conventional boxing with some dirty moves thrown in. Not so many elbows though.
You won’t find many books with the title “52 Blocks” on Amazon. It has but a passing mention in wikipedia and there are vague scatterings of information on it in the blogosphere. But when it is associated with MMA champions such as Rashad Evans of the UFC, people start to take notice and want to find out more.
America’s Only Indigenous Martial Art?
52 Blocks has been called the Capoeira of North America. It is a fighting style that uses the upper body (mainly forearms and elbows) to block strikes, mainly punches. There are various modern demonstrators of 52 Blocks, some displaying more practical applications, and some more fanciful versions that would have little application to a real fight. The more practical versions resemble what is commonly referred to as dirty boxing, but in reality, it is part boxing and part martial art.
Its taught as a valid system of self defence as well as a practical method for use in MMA.
Famous Fighters Endorse 52
Rashad Evans – a UFC Light Heavyweight Champion – said this about 52 Blocks: “The thing about 52 is that its not really known about for one, in the mass public. But what it is, is dirty boxing taken to the next level. A lot of people see Randy Couture and what he does and say man, Randy Couture, he has the best inside game and the best dirty boxing out there. But 52 is, in my opinion, the best dirty boxing, the best inside game fighting out there. Its good. It’s everything that happens in the UFC.”
He’s not the only fighter to have praised the style. Mike Tyson is said to have been well versed in it and used aspects of 52 blocks when he took the WBC Heavyweight title off James Bonecrusher Smith in 1987. Zab Judah, the southpaw welterweight, acknowledges its effectiveness. MMA brawler, Kimbo Slice fights in a very “52” way, employing a lot of elbow blocking. And Bernard Hopkins, who reigned supreme in the middle weight division for ten years, has referred to 52.
It’s worth noting that if anyone was ever going to be exposed to the style it would be Hopkins. He was already a career criminal at the age of 13, been in numerous knife fights (having been stabbed 3 times himself), and served 5 years in Graterford Penitentiary where he saw murders, rapes, and all sorts of fights. It was in prison that he took up boxing.
For the mixed martial artist, it is well worth looking at considering its origins. Any form of fighting that has been put to the test for decades in what is the most violent section of society – the penal system – has to be taken notice of. At last the wider fighting community has accepted the validity of 52 Blocks and it is being taught in more and more Martial Arts schools.
History of 52 Blocks
As mentioned before, information is patchy. And extremely contentious! Unlike Chinese and Japanese martial arts, it has no authoritative texts, grading systems, or established schools. The main authorities on the subject are its current practitioners and ex-inmates. It is to them we must go to glean something of the origins of 52 Blocks.
The main point of issue is whether it came from Africa. I’m not going one way or the other on this. But I think its worth just looking at some of the facts concerning slavery and African Martial Arts. If we do this, then it is foolish to rule out the possibility at least, that there was a transmission of knowledge that spanned the 1500,s to the present era – an Africa to America theory.
This fighting style existed among the first African American inmates in the prisons of the United States. But the history might go deeper than this. It is certain that the first Africans to be enslaved and brought to the Americas were well versed in martial arts. There is widespread ignorance of African culture as it stands today, let alone its historical record. However, martial arts play a huge role in contemporary African society, and have done for centuries. Fighting competitions were (and still are) integral to their cultures, forming rites of passage to adult status for young men. In most West African cultures, a man could not truly be a man unless he competed.
The West African fighting arts that exist today such as Dambe – in the photo above – (Nigeria), Laamb wrestling (Senegal, Gambia) and Evala wrestling (Togo), have well documented histories pre-dating trans-Atlantic slavery. Competitions among practitioners draw crowds in their thousands. A fighter can earn up to 2 years average workers pay in a single tournament. Events are taken seriously and training camps exist, run by ex-champions, who work as full time coaches. Check out the CNN report in this video.
The styles themselves have evolved over the centuries, but nearly all West African martial arts involve grappling, and varying degrees of striking. There are also weapons events using sticks and spears.
Despite urbanization and migration from villages to cities, traditional martial arts still form an important part of the culture and entertainment in West Africa. So we can say without doubt that the knowledge of these styles came to the Americas with the enslaved Africans.
White slave owners saw these talents as a threat to their own security. Along with their original African languages and religions, the fighting skills were forbidden to be practiced. The fighting arts were practiced back in Africa to develop militancy, confidence and strength. However, slaves continued to pursue training in secret. Slave owners feared that if they allowed this form of recreation to continue, rebellions among slaves would be inevitable.
Rebellions took place in many areas of the Americas and Caribbean, most notably Jamaica, Colombia, and Florida. Those who escaped the tyranny of slavery were known as Maroons (pictured above). They set up villages and small towns, defended their territories and lived as free men. The ex-slaves in Florida joined forces with the Seminole Indians and became the biggest Maroon community in North America.
With abolition of slavery and the migration of African Americans from the southern states to the industrial north east, the ancient knowledge of these African fighting styles would have moved into the ghettos and prisons. They were brought into the spotlight by several black boxers such as the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
Johnson didn’t just compete under Marquess of Queensberry rules. He was a working prize fighter and took part in bouts which were essentially no holds barred events. To the modern eye, those matches would have had more in common with mixed martial arts than modern boxing. Johnson employed what he had learned from ex-inmates and applied this system of blocks in his contests, with great success. He could get in close, and because he knew how to use his forearms and elbows defensively, lay on heavy hits at the same time.
Some of these contests were sickening and degrading, perverse almost. Sometimes as many as ten men were pitted against each other, blind folded, and left to to their own devices. Whoever remained conscious was declared the winner. Johnson is reported to have employed the JHR / 52 Blocks system in situations like these. As sick as these contests were, they proved a point and have some carry over to MMA today.
Fighting close quarters in dark prison cells, corridors, and alleys, would have given a deadly advantage to competitors in extreme no hold barred contests. The techniques would have been harnessed in situations where men were fighting for their very lives.
The psychological edge would have made a huge difference too. Knowing you were most likely going to live through the fight and possibly pick up a payment, is a lot less frightening than fighting for your life in jail, possibly against multiple, and, often armed attackers.
This explains how some of the black prisoners at the turn of the century, adapted these honed reflexes to boxing on release. They elevated the level of finesse of the sport to a great extent and introduced a method of boxing that was unknown to white fighters.
Some of the sports journalists back in the early 1900’s were taken aback by this. Some even claimed that the black boxers fought in a cowardly manner! They had not seen this level of defensive skill prior to this. We wouldn’t call it cowardly today of course. Its now appreciated as part of the craft. But it does show a definite separation between the white American / European school of boxing, and that which emanated from the ancestors of African slaves. Coincidence? Judge for yourself.
As the name implies, 52 Blocks has been described as a defense based countering fighting style. That’s a little misleading though because as it’s taught and displayed today, I would say its 50/50 defense / offense in application. The blocks themselves are intended not only to defend but to inflict injury at the same time. To any of you who had ever punched an elbow, you’ll appreciate the gravity of a fist landing on hard bone.
This often results in fractures to the metacarpels. This can also occur to punches landing on the head, which is why palm strikes are the preferred method of striking to the head in hand to hand combat. Slaps are used in 52 Blocks street fighting moves. Its an ever advancing method involving dynamic torso twisting, tight footwork, shifting stances, and a natural flowing pressure-fighting feel. Some of the “blocks” or moves are:
- Skull and Crossbones
- Close Door Open Door
- Triangle Train
- Black Man Rising
- Kiss and Catch
- Scoop against shank
- The pants leg flip
- Shaolin blocks
- Secret g=mc lock
- Defense against an uppercut
- Circle hands trap
- Hook and take down.
- Open gates (buttefly) and take down.
- Choke out
- The shank
- Gun disarming
- Slap hands etc.
Prominent New York trainer, Lyte Burly maintains that 52 Blocks “is 90% elbows”. Unlike the stiffer approach though used in Muay Thai, 52 requires fluidity of the shoulder joints and rotator cuffs. This is achieved by daily mobility exercises that increase and maintain that suppleness of the joints.
Footwork and body Movements
Although developed in close quarters situations, such as crowded and cramped cells, it does have footwork and evasive moves of the head. It is common to hone reflexes and condition the defensive movements through highly repetitious fear drills and dodging moves.
Elbow and Forearm Blocks
These are the predominant guard techniques employed. This gives an interesting insight into the origins of the style, as it is thought that shackled slaves employed this form of protection when beaten. With the hands tied – elbows and forearms were all that was left to defend with.
Jab Catch and Elbow Block Combos
These techniques really highlight 52’s defense emphasis. The one pictured above is a counter to a jab / straight right combo. The jab is caught and then the elbow presented to spoil the incoming straight right.
Punches and Arm Movements
When you see a display of 52 Blocks, there sometimes appears to be an unnecessary amount of arm motion. These movements are not always employed in actual fights, but are often just drills that aid the student in becoming at ease with his body’s natural movement patterns.
It is not a “hard” fighting method, despite the ferocity of its blocks. There is no “kata” employed as such, as in traditional karate, but an improvisational form of blocking patterns is used as a form of shadow boxing.
Haymaker punch (more often called the Overhand Right in MMA) is often used in 52. Why? Consider a situation where a man is waving a knife in your face. Your back’s up against a wall. At some point though, you get the chance to throw something at him. You want to go over his hands, rather than take a path that could land your knuckles on his blade. So the Haymaker is the obvious choice. Rashad Evans used the Haymaker in his UFC match against Chuck Liddell. This punch is Liddell’s favourite, his trademark almost. But Evans beat him at his own game, throwing one at the same time Liddell did. Evans landed a fraction of a second earlier, and knocked Liddell out.
52 employs a lot of techniques that involve a sort of hybrid of blocks and holds. These are designed to simultaneously defend, immobilize, and set up counter attacks. They are useful in real life self defense, and in mixed martial arts competition.
Practitioners sometimes refer to these techniques as catching punches. There are several techniques but the most famous is the “kiss and catch” which made Mother Dear famous. The move involves catching a haymaker or wild overhand throw. The opponents arm is then locked and a counter to either the head or body is dealt as the locked arm is maneuvered to open the opponent up. It can be used against jabs too, but requires speed and accuracy. Its a dangerous one for the novice as the back is exposed to a degree.
The New York Jiu-Jitsu Connection
If you have ever learnt Jiu-Jitsu (the original Japanese style, not Brazilian/Gracie Jiu-Jitsu), you might have noticed a lot of similarities with the blocking-holding moves in 52 Blocks. This is an odd “relationship” because Jiu-jitsu has almost became extinct in Japan. It is a lost art and no longer passed from generation to generation. A lot of you reading this won’t know too much about the original Jiu-Jitsu as its been overshadowed by BJJ. When you mention Jiu-Jitsu people think of the ground game they see in MMA. However, original Jiu-Jitsu was primarily a stand-up fighting art.
So where is the New York connection? Enter Professor Kiyose Nakae. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s he was considered the foremost instructor of authentic Jiu-Jitsu in the world. Seeing that the art was dying out in his native Japan, he moved to America and set up in New York City circa 1908. There he taught thousands of private students, and also the armed services and police department. He was like the original Bruce Lee, in that he shared a previously secret fighting art to a western audience. Its not surprising then that his influence on the New York martial arts scene has permeated 52 Blocks. My father was a student of a student of Nakae’s,the author of the book Jiu-Jitsu Complete. Below is a photo of me with the original hardcover published in 1958.
Rhythm, Synergy and Spatial Awareness
Coaches of the art maintain that paying attention to your own rhythm is vital. Without this, the essential “synergy” needed can’t be developed. The aim of this is to fight with natural, rather than contrived body movements.
At its core, 52 is an up close infighting system. Among coaches, the analogy of the ‘phone booth’ is used. This is to make students aware of the space they need to focus on in order to judge their opponents angles and movements. To this end, sparing often takes place in corners, stair wells, and roped off areas of not more than a few square feet.
Although the style is often slated as dirty boxing, it isn’t if looked at from an MMA perspective. Most trainers deny its dirty boxing but instead an effective form of self defence. They insist that it is as valid a style of martial art as boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai etc.
Capoeira, and 52 Blocks
Some people have said there are organic connections between Capoeira and 52. However, there are big differences in the techniques employed. For example, there are no roundhouse kicks, amadas (spinning back circular kick) or 45 degeree kicks in 52 Blocks.
There may have been a point in history where the two were similar due to the trafficking of slaves from Africa to Brazil and the Southern States of America. But as the two styles stand now, they are miles apart.
The Migration of 52 Blocks from the Prison System to the Gym
Some say this style has died and is no longer being passed down. The reason stated is that disputes in prison are seldom sorted by fist fights nowadays. I’ve asked ex-inmates about this and been told its generally true.. Most disputes are settled by merchandise (money, drugs, phones etc, all being exchanged to cool things off). Or a straight shank in the back of the neck.
The Death of Fist Fights
Up until the late 80’s though, it was still common to sort out a problem with your hands. Straight fights between two inmates, with a nod from a prison guard, were an accepted way of resolving issues. There was a code of conduct and the acceptance of defeat and victory that put an end to the matter. But Gangs and their ever growing use of weaponry on the outside ended all that. Nowadays, weapons are improvised from a variety of objects, including tuna cans, plastic chair legs, bone etc., in order to fashion tools that draw blood. And that is the bottom line.
Fist fights, if they do occur, are usually started by first timers who don’t have too much of an understanding about prison politics. Wanting to make a rep for themselves, they lash out when provoked. The consequences are usually dire. As the gang system controls most aspects of prison life, what takes place on the street, is merely transferred inside, but with a change of weaponry. So instead of a drive-by shooting, someone just walks up behind their target and an improvised knife does the business. It’s an unemotional solution to a problem. Nothing but business.
So if the days of “honour among thieves” are dead and buried, has 52 Blocks, aka Jailhouse Rock, ceased to exist? Well, thanks to the current popularity of mixed martial arts, it has found a way back from near extinction. It’s thriving in the boxing gyms and public parks of New York City.
Lyte Burly and 52 AOD
One of the most prominent trainers on the scene isLyte Burly. Burly (who teaches in and around Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan) is pushing 52 into a broader MMA technique. His new take on the style – 52 AOD (Art of Defense) – fuses it with the kicking aspects of Muay Thai, tae-kwon-do and wing-chun, and the ground fighting of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The logic behind this appraoch Burly takes is that nowadays men do not usually call each other out, and fight with fists like they used to. Things are more sneaky and vicious. If you went to ground in an “honour” match years ago, your opponent would do the decent thing and let you get back to your feet. Not so today! You’re more likely to get a kicking while you lay on the ground at best, and a knife in the back of the neck at worst. Or even shot.
So Burly looks at things holistically. He takes the Bruce Lee approach in using what works and discards the rest – even some of the more traditional 52 moves. The core elemental values of 52 Blocks are still there. Especially the rhythmical body movements. To this end he employs tai-chi, so his students can learn energy flow and leverage.
Marks is a scholar in the truest sense of the word. An accomplished fighter and trainer himself, he is on a mission to preserve 52 Blocks as an integral part of African American culture. He has been researching it and piecing together the bigger picture since he
first learnt of the style during his military service. He teaches the style, its history and cultural significance in New York and beyond. He compares it to Jazz, believing it is just as integral to Black American culture as the music form. He has lectured at Black History conferences to this effect.
Daniel Marks runs the 52 Blocks Preservation Program which helps helps ex-offenders re-integrate into society. It does this by an education program which helps them set themselves up as 52 Blocks instructors. Marks employs his professional social work experience to aid them in avoiding the too often easy path back into crime.
Born Justus (BJ)
BJ is is a fight trainer. He spent 33 years of his life “behind the wall” as he puts it. So he is well acquainted with the prison fighting styles that predominated back in the 60’s and 70’s. His take on 52 Blocks is that it is boxing taken to another level. He claims that a lot of the methods seen now, were created by boxing enthusiasts during the 1960’s and 70’s. These fighters worked off boxing as a foundation, and a lot of the techniques they created were a fusion of western boxing and eastern martial arts such as Karate, King Fu, Stato etc. It was a quest to find the perfect defense, and to break the accepted methodologies and “rules” employed by boxing trainers of the time to take fighting to another level.
BJ saw that boxers were trapped into fixed ways of fighting and training. His take on 52 is that you should be able to throw a hook or a jab from anywhere and still maintain guard, by the use of elbows and forearms. His philosophy is based on mentor-ship and brotherhood. He believes in passing on the art form free of charge, and encouraging his disciples to do the same.
Check back for more on 52 Blocks. I’m going to keep researching because I feel its well worth the effort. Every time I start turning over rocks, I find some real gems. I’m going to get down into the nitty grity of the actual moves next. See you soon!