When discussing the various martial arts and fighting styles from around the world, the little known urban system of 52 Blocks, a variation of the more broad style Jailhouse Rock, has to enter the conversation. Researchers Daniel Marks and Kammau Hunter have argued that Jailhouse Rock may in fact be America’s only “Native Martial Art.” With an African influence and believed to have originated in the 17th and 18th centuries by slaves, 52 Blocks went on to evolve in the streets of Brooklyn and US prisons. The style focuses on close quarter techniques, similar to those self defense situations found in environments like prisons, restrooms, alleys, and hallways where movement would be limited.
As mentioned above, 52 Blocks, also called “52 Hand Blocks” and “The 52’s”, is part of a larger collection of fighting styles referred to as “JHR”, or “Jailhouse Rock.” 52 Blocks and their variants are similar to the martial arts of capoeira and savate, both of which were fighting systems associated with urban criminal subcultures, which underwent a gradual process of codification before becoming established as martial arts accessible by the mainstream. Other variations from the JHR collection are Comstock, San Quentin style, Mount Meg, and Stato, each name in reference to the prison that it was started at. As it gained popularity and exposure in the early 70’s, Jail House Rock seems to have first showed up in the media in an article on Martial Arts in prison called, “KARATE IN PRISON: Menace, or Means of Spiritual Survival?,” in Black Belt Magazine from July, 1974.
Despite wide belief, 52 Blocks is not a style of Western boxing, nor is it Wing Chun mixed with Western boxing. Considered a defensive style that creates openings for offense through constant movement, the fighter blocks/catches punches with the forearms and elbows. Short power punches, flowing movement, and counter striking are all aspects of 52 that are emphasised, while using sharp and evasive footwork. Unlike boxing but similar to Muay Thai, the elbows are commonly used to strike the opponent.
Much of the argument and conflicting information about 52 Blocks stems from whether or not the style has been influenced at all by “uprocking” or what most of us call breakdancing. Some believe this link is the aspect of some of the fighting techniques inspired by or copied from the “diss moves” taken from the Brooklyn Rock or uprock style of breakdancing. It looks like you can find as many sources stating these links between 52 and urban dancing as you can to the contrary, making it the subject on 52 with the most conflicting information.
As many practitioners of 52 have felt that their system has long been overlooked, it’s now is starting to take its rightful place in martial arts history, the product of longtime growing media coverage. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight, is one of the high profile boxers to first endorse 52 and professional boxers including Mike Tyson Zab Judah, and Bernard Hopkins have testified to the existence of the style, giving it a voice of legitimacy from true fighters. Rashad Evans, former light heavyweight champion in the UFC, has also promoted 52 and its effectiveness.