Artwork by Grimoire
I don't know how I first heard about the 52 Blocks. Like much of New York City's urban mythology—such as the Decepticons gang, the tunnels under Alphabet City, or the albino alligators and alligator-sized rats in the sewers—the legendary hand-to-hand combat style seemed to always hover just outside my conscious knowledge, a whisper from an unclear direction.
Certainly, though, I heard references to the 52 scattered in lyrics by rappers such as Nas protégé Nature and Wu Tang affiliate Killa Sin. The Wu-Tang Clan, in particular, seems to have an affinity for the 52. GZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and various Killa Bee affiliates have all rhymed about the 52. The most memorable lyric about the 52 is probably Meth's line from his and Redman's "1,2,1,2": "52 cops/ Can't withstand the 52 Blocks/ Unless they bust like 52 shots."
While working as a night security guard in Manhattan several years ago, I got into a conversation with a guy on the maintenance crew. The man bragged about the various fighting styles he'd studied in his lifetime, swinging his mop handle like a like a Japanese bō. Considering that he had spent his youth in a reform school in the Rockaways in the '70s, and was ostensibly an expert in various fighting forms, I asked him if he knew anything about the 52 Blocks.
"52 Blocks?" he sneered. "That's ghetto shit. It's nothing."
A few minutes later, a buddy of mine who was also on the maintenance crew came upstairs. He was less of a martial arts aficionado, but was a tough guy and had spent some time locked upstate in the '90s, so I asked him the same question.
"Yeah." he said. A smile spread across his face. "Yeah." He quickly directed me to bring up YouTube on the security computer and search for round five of Judah vs. Mayweather. He knew the exact round of the fight off the top of his head. Chapter and verse. We watched the clip in silence. Mayweather dominates for the first couple minutes, landing several punches, and driving Zab Judah into the corner. Then, a switch flips, and Judah steps forward into the center of the ring. He pulls his elbows in tight, and his arms pivot back and forth across his face like a butterfly flapping its wings.
"You tell me what this is," an announcer says in disbelief. Mayweather steps backwards—his infamous cockiness drained away—and Judah lands a righteous combination. So this was the 52 Blocks. It was something after all. And it was beautiful.
Even the name of 52 Blocks is shrouded in mystery. Some say it describes a catalogue of individual moves with fanciful names like the "skull and crossbones." Others dismiss this, and say that the name is a metaphor for a general style, coming from the game of "52 pickup," where cards are allowed to fall where they may. Still others say that that the "block" in question is a specific cellblock. Indeed, an alternate name for the 52 is "the Comstock Shuffle," a reference to The Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York.
Whether it's 52 Blocks or Comstock, the term refers to a purported codified New York prison system-specific style of Jail House Boxing, aka Jail House Rock. This is held in contrast to related styles in other prison systems, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which are rumored to vary, be less codified, and go by different names. The moves themselves supposedly reflect the prison environment. The idea is that the tight stances, lack of far-ranging movement, and emphasis on survival and defense were designed to function in in the confines of a prison cell than a ring. Rumors abound online about a predatory gay 52 Blocks prison master named Mother Dear—and the authoritative Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia even implies that he originated the style himself at Rikers. There is no record of this man's actual identity.
The first reference in print to this type of fighting apparently came in a 1974 issue of Black Belt magazine, in a feature on prison karate. Most of the article focuses on the clandestine practice of traditional karate in prisons in New York State and elsewhere, but the conclusion focuses on the more interesting "In House Arts." Black Belt treats the prison fighting styles as "impromptu" variations on hand-to-hand combat styles used by incarcerated military veterans, and refers to them by facility-specific names, such as "Coxsackie variation" and "Comstock style."
Amazingly, the afroed-man photographed demonstrating the Comstock is Miguel Piñero, the famous poet and playwright of the Nuyorican arts movement. Black Belt could not have found a more appropriate model. In his, "A Lower East Side Poem," Piñero describes himself as, "a street fighting man." He goes on to explain that he is, "a dweller of prison time/ a cancer of Rockefeller's ghettocide/ this concrete tomb is my home/ to belong to survive you gotta be strong."
The first direct journalistic reference to 52 Blocks does not seem to have come until the late date of 1999, though, in Douglas Century's Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse, an immersive account of a Crown Heights gang in the early '90s. Century followed up two years later with an eye-opening article about the 52 Blocks in the recently-shuttered fashion magazine, Details. In his book, Century describes "fifty-two hand-blocks" as "a of hand-to-hand combat developed in the New York State Penal system and widely practiced amongst gang members on the streets of Brooklyn in the '70s and '80s." This is as good a definition as any (though some folks from the Bronx or Harlem might object to the geographic specificity). In the Details article, Century quotes Dennis Newsome, a well-known Capoeira master and martial arts scholar, providing his own definition of the 52 Blocks: "Basically it's an artistic butt-whuppin' ... It's just part of Black aesthetics." Newsome goes on to argue that the racially-segregated nature of prison meant that only African American inmates learned the style.
Lore has it that the 52 Blocks worked its way down from the prisons to the streets in the '70s. This is plausible; street style has always reflected prison culture, and moves that would work in the confines of prisons would work just as well in the confines of the similarly-designed housing projects which had come to dominate New York City's ghettos in the era of urban renewal. Because any effective fighting style would essentially be contraband, an illicit weapon smuggled in and out of prison, it would have had to remain underground. Whether it referred to legend or fact, the name 52 Blocks was restricted to argot. This secrecy is part of what makes it so difficult to trace or verify much of this history.
Through a shared association with the prison system, the 52 Blocks came to be connected in many people's minds with the self-mythologizing Nation of Gods and Earths, more commonly known as the Five Percenters. The history of the Five Percenters is too complex to get into here, but it is a fascinating movement which was founded by a former Nation of Islam minister named Clarence 13X, aka Father Allah, in Harlem in the '60s. The Five Percenters' unique approach to language has had a profound impact on Hip Hop, and modern American slang.
The Five Percenter lessons—themselves an enumerated code of arcane knowledge often learned in prison—could be seen as a mental parallel to the 52 Blocks, just as many Eastern practices have both a spiritual and physical aspect. In his book, Tao of 52, self-declared expert Diallo Frazier writes: "52 was called God Blocks because in the science of Supreme math, the number 7 is the number of GOD. When you add 5 and 2 you get 7 ..." Narratives of receiving esoteric transmission of religious and martial instruction behind bars have a strong appeal for many people have been incarcerated, as they allow the years spent in prison to be viewed as time spent gaining knowledge, rather than simply wasted.
In the early 1970s, perceptions of Asian martial arts began to influence New York street culture through the popular imported Kung Fu movies. Aficionados had long traveled to movie theatres on Canal Street in Chinatown, but the explosion of martial arts film screenings in midtown meant that a wider, non-Asian audience was exposed to the genre. A 1974 article in the film journal Cineaste proclaimed:
In a little more than two years, kung fu (also known as Chinese boxing), the centuries-old Chinese martial art, has caught the fancy of the American public and literally become the 'fist of fury.'
As the 2013 documentary The Black Kungfu Experience depicts, some African American fans of Kung Fu movies were inspired to actually train in Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Ron Van Clief, a Brooklyn native, became a martial arts champion after surviving a lynching down south in the early '60s, and serving in combat as a Marine in the Vietnam War. He was given the name "The Black Dragon" by none other than Bruce Lee, and eventually moved to Hong Kong to star in a plethora of Kung Fu movies. These movies, in turn, inspired a whole new generation of African American martial arts practitioners.
Van Clief was the fight choreographer for the 1985 Berry Gordy-produced film, The Last Dragon. The Last Dragon, which features a showdown between two black martial arts experts in Harlem, represented the confluence of Kung Fu cinema and New York street culture. Jim Jarmusch would build on the trope fifteen years later, in Ghost Dog, a movie scored by Wu Tang's leader, RZA. Considering that The Wu-Tang Clan's imagery draws so heavily from both Five Percenters and Kung Fu movies, it's no surprise that their lyrics contain so many 52 Blocks references.
The influence of film does not mean that the '70s martial arts trend was solely about play acting; street gangs like the Black Spades, the Nomads, and the Ghetto Brothers were actively engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Examples of this can be found in the excellent recent documentary, Rubble Kings, which chronicles the events leading up to the 1971 Hoe Avenue gang truce in the South Bronx. The film features an influential figure named "Karate Charlie" Suarez. Suarez—a Marine-turned-gang leader-turned-activist-turned-martial arts instructor—literally made a name for himself as a karate practitioner, and inspired a myriad of imitators.
Many 52 Blocks proponents argue that the true inspiration for the form does not come from Asia, but from Africa. 52 Blocks scholar Daniel Marks, who first learned of the form from street savvy recruits while in the Army, refers in a brief monograph to the southern African American fighting of "Knocking and Kicking." Frazier similarly connects Jail House Rock back to a "Virginia Scufflin" boxing practiced by slaves in the 1800s. The existence of enslaved bare knuckle boxers—like the famous Tom Molineaux—who were forced to fight for their masters' entertainment, is documented in other sources, including the foundational early-1800s prize fighting account, Boxiana. Marks and Frazier both connect Southern African American fighting styles back to African martial arts, such as Hausa Boxing (also known as Dambe) in Nigeria.
Within the martial arts community, there are many detractors who question if the 52 Blocks even exists at all, let alone possesses a history stretching back centuries. Considering that martial arts is a field filled with both Orientalist frauds and blustering bravado, and that there is so little hard evidence on the history of the 52 Blocks, some measure of skepticism is certainly warranted. That being said, much of the derision for the 52 Blocks goes well beyond careful critical appraisal. A typical attack is articulated by the right-wing writer Phil Elmore:
the system simply doesn't exist [...] we are asked to believe that a people sold into slavery and shipped across the ocean to serve as slaves in the United States somehow managed to transmit the coherent body of a complex, technically diverse martial arts system to their children, their children's children, and their children for generations, all under the watchful eye of slave owners who would not be eager to have their property learning to fight.
Elmore's essentially racist argument not only dismisses the 52, but the very idea that African American culture builds on traditions brought over from Africa. Apparently the man has never heard of blues music, or any other African Diaspora art form. And if he doesn't believe that martial organization could happen under "the watchful eye of slave owners," then someone should tell him about Nat Turner.
The crack epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s brought an unprecedented level of violence to the streets of America's cities. During this era, hand-to-hand street fighting gave way to gun violence. Those who posit that the 52 Blocks was a tradition passed down through generations point to this disruptive historical moment as the end of the form's practical use and transmission. In the song "Cold World," GZA raps about the inefficacy of the 52 Blocks in a burgeoning gun culture: "But with iron on the sides, thugs took no excuses/ Therefore, your fifty-two hand blocks was useless."
As the 52 Blocks became a relic of the past—historical or mythic—some people began to preserve and honor it as part of African American heritage and culture. Constellation 52 Global, a group which includes Marks and Kawaun Adon Akhenoten7 (aka "Big K" of Street Kingdom fame), works to document and perpetuate the tradition. Marks writes that he values the 52 Blocks, "as a testament of our struggle as Black people in the Diaspora fighting for equality."
The idea of the 52 Blocks has also gradually taken more of a presence in sports, entertainment, and popular culture. Some boxing fans speculate that in addition to Zab Judah, other boxers like Mike Tyson may have incorporated elements of the 52 into their fighting styles. This theory is rooted in the fact that Tyson received much of his fighting education in the streets of Brooklyn and in a New York State juvenile detention facility. After hearing tell of the form's fabled efficacy, some martial arts students are seeking to learn the 52 Blocks in more formal settings. This phenomenon was mentioned in a 2009 New York Times article which, in addition to Marks and Akhenoten7, focused on Lyte Burly, a trainer who teaches a version of the 52 Blocks as a business. The Times article also discussed a meeting between Marks and UFC Champion Rashad Evans, and Evans' interest in 52 Blocks techniques.
The 52 Blocks is finding its place on the screen as well, just as Kung Fu once did. Because of its speed and flash, the 52 Blocks is made for the medium. Indeed, many people now receive their first glimpse of the 52 in YouTube videos, just as I did. Strangely, the first mainstream use of 52 Blocks-style moves was by Mel Gibson in the 1987 film Lethal Weapon. The Australian learned his moves from Dennis Newsome. More recently, the 52 Blocks mythology plays a prominent role in the BET series Gun Hill. Larenz Tate's character, Bird, is an ex-convict posing as a law enforcement officer, so his knowledge of the 52 is somewhat logical to the plot. Though Tate's fighting technique—coordinated by Diallo Frazier—may very well be flash designed for TV, rather than an authentic reflection of a prison and street fighting tradition, its central use in the narrative demonstrates the continuing popular appeal of the legend of the 52 Blocks, two decades after the Wu-Tang era.
Despite the lights and cameras, the 52 Blocks remains, in its essence, an art form of bare hands, operating behind concrete and steel. Not too long ago, my girlfriend's work took her to Harlem early in the morning, just after dawn. Passing through Marcus Garvey Park, she saw a lone man in his fifties—with the weathered look of an ex-con—training inside the playground jungle gym, down the hill from the old fire tower. His half-century-old arms flashed in front of his face, cutting through the morning air.
"Was that 52 Blocks?" she asked me when she got home. "It was like nothing else I've ever seen."
Ben Nadler is a Brooklyn-based author who teaches creative and expository writing classes at colleges in Manhattan and the Bronx. Follow him on twitter @bwnadler and read his new novel, The Sea Beach Line.