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.

52 Blocks

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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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.

Deployment

Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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