Art of Africa, Not “Art of Incarceration”
Interview by Robert W. Young
Chances are you’ve heard about 52 Blocks, possibly because of its supposed link to the prison system or because of celebrities like Wesley Snipes who have taken to it. I’m betting, however, that you don’t know much more than that. I didn’t. Which is why I linked up with Mahaliel Bethea, aka Professor Mo. The New York City–based martial artist is one of America’s most prominent proponents of 52 Blocks, and as such, he possesses unique insight into its history and development, as well as its current state. Sit back and prepare to be educated on this up-and-coming art.
First, I’d like to get the name of the art straight. Is 52 Blocks the same as 52 Hand Blocks?
They’re the same. Different people teach it different ways and call it different things, but they’re the same system.
And is 52 Blocks the same as Jailhouse Rock?
Yes. Jailhouse Rock was what they called it before they started using the name 52 Blocks. It’s also been called “wall fighting.” But over the past few years, 52 Blocks has become the most widely accepted name.
Where did the system originate?
Some people will tell you it comes from incarceration, but actually it’s a very Afrocentric system. But when you look at its history, you find that because of mass incarceration, the fighting system evolved in the jails. Some people mistakenly say that the name Jailhouse Rock means it comes from the jails. Most masters of 52 Blocks will tell you that it’s a martial art from Africa.
Does that mean the martial art came here with African slaves centuries ago, or did it come afterward?
I think it’s related to genetic memory. Let me explain. If you watch how capoeiristas move and you study how hip-hop and break dancing evolved, you’ll see similarities. Break dancing evolved in the Bronx, and those kids in the Bronx never knew anything about Brazil, but their movements were very similar to the jinga of capoeira. Their movements — the head spins and so on — were very similar to what the capoeiristas did.
Did the kids who created break dancing watch capoeira and say, “Let me copy that”? If not, where did the kids learn it? How did they know it? We believe it’s a genetic memory from their African roots.
We do know that a lot of fighting systems were used in fights that took place on plantations. Plantation owners would take their slaves from place to place and let people gamble on the fights. So slaves did have a form of fighting.
Do you think capoeira looks similar to what you do in 52 Blocks?
No. I think capoeira looks very similar to break dancing. A lot of the traditions that you see in capoeira are also in break dancing. Many articles have been written about this link, especially about the jinga.
Has 52 Blocks in its current incarnation been influenced by any other martial arts? Is there any Brazilian jiu-jitsu in it? Is there any karate or kickboxing? Or is it pure?
The 52 Blocks that I teach, because of my experience in other arts, includes gun disarms, joint locks, knife defense and knife offense. It’s always been an art that’s evolving. When I learned from my Uncle Johnny Muhammad, his 52 Blocks was different from what mine is now because he had his boxing. A lot of people had boxing skills, which is why the boxing element is very much a part of 52 Blocks.
But then my Uncle Johnny also had a couple of kicks in there because he’d done karate. In the past, 52 Blocks depended a lot on the practitioner. Now, however, people are putting together a curriculum so you get gun disarms, strangulations and things like that.
When I started, it didn’t have a curriculum. Some guys were better than others at certain things, and you went from place to place to learn. In a way, 52 Blocks is like savate. They say it came from the ghettos of France and evolved over the years — with the uniforms, the boxing and the ring being added. Now it’s their national fighting art.
The thing about 52 Blocks is that for a lot of people of color, it was our first martial art. Why? Because it was free. Because it was taught in the neighborhood. Because many of us had somebody in the family who had spent a couple of years in jail, and when he came back, he’d show us how to fight.
Does 52 Blocks have a philosophy, or is it all technique?
Its philosophy is the philosophy of survival. There are no real rules. You do what you have to do to survive. Your job is to embarrass your opponent. If you embarrass your opponent, other people won’t want to fight you. It’s about tricking him. Making him look left while you punch him on the right. Dazzling him with your hands and then kicking him.
As I said, the philosophy is that of a survival art. That’s one of the reasons it’s evolving. Look at krav maga — survival means you’ve got to be able to disarm a person with a gun. In 52 Blocks, we believe that sticks, knives and guns are weapons you have to understand how to deal with. And the animal you’ve got to know how to deal with is the dog. Dogs are part of our neighborhoods.
Why are so many celebrities doing 52 Blocks?
Ludacris did a fight scene in Fast and Furious using 52 Blocks. Larenz Tate did a film called Gun Hill that featured 52 Blocks. I think they like it because it’s an Afrocentric martial art. They want to study an art that’s relevant to them. The thing about 52 Blocks is that a lot of people grew up with it. The public doesn’t know it, but for many people, this was our first martial art.
When I was a kid, I saw a Jerome Mackey commercial on TV. Mackey was the first guy to have a commercial. He was franchising martial arts schools — the big time. I asked my mother to take me there. She said, “We can’t afford Jerome Mackey. Go see your uncle.”
So I did. What did my uncle start showing me? 52 Blocks. People love it because their uncles and cousins talked about it. I’ve had grandfathers come to my dojo with their grandsons and do 52 Blocks together.
Did Wesley Snipes train in it?
Of course! I was Wesley Snipes’ bodyguard. It was fun because we were two martial artists who loved to train — and by the way, he’s a real martial artist with several belts and he’s really good. His introduction to the martial arts was 52 Blocks.
In the past, we didn’t think people would understand 52 Blocks, so we always said, “Yeah, I’m a karate guy.” Many of us never wanted to be identified with the jail thing. We didn’t want to have to debate people about it. But then my instructor Reno Moralez told me, “This is an African martial art, and you need to put out a video on it.” So, being an obedient student, I did.
The point I’m trying to make is that Wesley Snipes might not have said in the beginning, “Yeah, this is 52 Blocks,” but he knows the art. In the past, people would refer to it as street fighting. They would say, “Yeah, I do karate, jujitsu and street fighting.” The street fighting always represented 52 Blocks. Now it’s finally being uncovered, and people like me are working hard to give it a name. We’re thankful that Black Belt magazine is giving it a name.
Is it true that many of the blocks you do are intended to injure the opponent — like blocking a punch by putting your elbow in the path of the fist?
Exactly. It’s a close-quarters style of fighting. Even though some guys think, Oh, it’s boxing, so they’re squaring off, it’s really about close contact. That’s why they used to call it wall fighting. It’s for fighting in a closet or on a staircase. Often, instead of a jab or cross, we’ll use an elbow, a head butt or a knee. The elbow is often used when somebody gives you a long shot and you want to break their fingers or break their hand. As a matter of fact, you’ll hear rap singers talk about “throw them bows.” They’re talking about elbows — again, without saying 52 Blocks.
Do practitioners of 52 Blocks do much punching, or is it mostly open-hand striking?
It depends on the artist, but punching will usually be the foundation. The punches are similar to boxing punches. There’s also a lot of open-hand striking and gouging.
What about kicking?
The front kick is what you usually see in our system. If you see a roundhouse kick, it’s probably a hybrid system. For leg techniques, the big things in 52 Blocks are the front kick, the knee strike and the stomp. We do a lot of stomps.
And ground fighting?
There is ground fighting, but it’s not as extensive as in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. On the street, the thing is to not stay on the ground. The 52 Blocks martial artist always wants to get up. If I can’t finish you within 20 seconds, I’ve got to get up.
We always teach that when you stay on the ground, you have to assume that your opponent has another person with him. That other person can be a wife who’s about to stab you or a guy who’s about to hit you with a chair. In ground fighting, we try to finish quick. Once we stabilize the person, we look around. We’re always looking for who the next attacker might be. That’s why a good 52 Blocks guy likes to “play the wall.” When your back is against the wall, nobody can hit you from behind.
Earlier, you mentioned the knife. Do you teach knife offense as well as defense?
Yes. We teach about different kinds of knives — of course, the ice pick is the most popular. We do less slashing and more poking. Most of what we focus on is using makeshift knives. If you’re on the streets or in jail, you make your own knife. We don’t use fancy knives, and flashy is not part of the system. We might try to puncture the inside of the attacker’s thigh or his groin. We’ll start with his lower body and work our way up. Of course, this is only for life-and-death situations. We’re not looking to kill people. It’s called 52 Blocks because it’s about blocking first!
The name “52 Blocks,” by the way, comes from a game we used to play where we would throw a deck of 52 cards down and whatever number you saw was the number of techniques you got. If you got a 2, you got two punches. If you threw a 10, you got 10 shots. It could mean defense or offense.
What else is part of 52 Blocks?
Takedowns. The most common takedowns are the double-leg and single-leg — and picking a guy up to dump him. There’s also an over-the-back throw. The fancy martial arts throws would never get used in 52 Blocks.
Is there anything similar to kata?
If you put together a sequence of hand moves, that would be what we would call a kata. We also do a lot of shadowboxing. A shadowboxing sequence might include a punch, moving around, an elbow strike and so on — it’s like kata, but it’s not rigid from beginning to end. It’s a freestyle movement.
You said your system is designed for close-range fighting. Do you have a particular strategy for closing the gap?
It’s usually about waiting for the guy to come to you because, again, it’s 52 Blocks. You want to see what he’s got so you can block it. If a fight was starting from a conversation, I might “stack the deck” with my hands — reach out and pull his hands down — and then head-butt him. A lot of 52 Blocks guys like to start with a head butt or a knee or something like that.
A big part of the system is using trickery through deceptive head movements, hand movements and body movements. If you watch the evolution of boxing, especially the way black boxers moved, you’ll see that they didn’t move the way the old-time boxers did. With the black boxers, all the stiffness was gone. They were bobbing and weaving — all that stuff comes from somewhere, right? After Jack Johnson and then Jersey Joe Walcott, you saw a lot of 52 Blocks in the way boxers moved. That’s not the way boxing was originally designed; that’s where they took it.
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