52 Blocks / 52 Hand Blocks / Jailhouse Rock first officially appeared in a 1999 book entitled Street Kingdom and was also detailed in the essay Freeing the Afrikan Mind: the Role of Martial Arts in Contemporary African American Cultural Nationalism by Professor Tom Green of Texas A&M University. It is purportedly a system of fighting taught and known only by black inmates in jails and prisons in the United States. It has been given its own provenance and legends, as well as its own instructional DVDs and YouTube videos, and at least from these latter sources it appears to be nothing more than dirty boxing combined with some flash moves, or at best stand-up Capoeira without the grace and flowing moves. Of course it's always risky talking about any fighting style that is identified with a particular race; debates over Asian vs. American styles have existed since the turn of the 19th century, and many include nationalistic overtones in their arguments. Chinese styles such as Kung-Fu and Russian styles such as Systema are often spurned by Westerners because of the “heathen” origins of these arts. African and African-American arts suffer no less. My biggest complaint with calling 52 Blocks a “style”, and a newly-evolved one at that, is that it differs only very slightly from your regular, run-of-the-mill street-fighting techniques. Sure, they add a few elbows and a lot of rope-a-dope, a lot of flash moves that are totally unnecessary, but at heart it's Western boxing pure and simple. Another concern is that it plays into the current mania for black ghetto culture. Hollywood teaches us that anything that comes from a prison must be cool; anything done under the guise of black pride must be the real thing. Now, pride is fine – everyone should have a heapin' helpin' of it. But to pass off a cheap knock-off of an already-established art by adding a few bits of bling and calling it a “secret” style known only by hard-core gangbangers is a disservice to black culture as well as to martial artists in general. In fact it is highly probable that 52 came into being in the first decade of the 20th century when Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. His moves were mainly defensive, counter-punching and responding to mistakes his opponent made. Also at that time most fighters worked for tips, so a more showy, crowd-pleasing style was often employed – all of which is reflected in toady's 52 style. Rashad Evans, a former UFC light-heavyweight champion, credits 52 with some of his success in the ring. He said that while growing up he had heard stories from older men about 52 being used in prison fights, and saw what he assumed were parts of it being used in street fights. “What it comes down to is just really practical boxing” he said. If any one person could be said to have been responsible for the revelation of 52 it would be Dennis Newsome, who served as one of the fight consultants to Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Profiled by the San Diego Tribune in 2004, Newsome was said to be “one of the pioneers of African martial arts”. Newsome, as explained by the author of the piece, claimed his father and grandfather taught him “a type of leg wrestling passed down from African slaves in the Americas”. According to Newsome, Jailhouse Rock comprises multiple styles developed in different places and under different conditions, and thus each of these incorporate different techniques. These techniques range from striking to wrestling, using the hands, elbows, knees, head butts, and some low kicks. Practitioners of Jailhouse Rock supposedly learn in-depth knowledge of pressure points and vital striking areas, as well as foot sweeps and “Gangsta Locks” (which Newsome equates to trapping such as in Wing Chun or Jeet Kune Do). Also to hear Newsome tell it, 52 Blocks is an underground system. Unless you go to jail, hang out in underground fighting circles or are family to an ex-con, you’ll never learn it — and if you are a white guy, nobody will teach it to you. As Newsome’s interviewer, identified only as “Dempsy,” wrote, “The art is the art of the African who needs it for survival. Much like the Asians decades ago, who would not teach outside their race, the analogy is that you do not give your enemy your best weapon.” In other words, Jailhouse Rock is a racist, racially determined system, in which all of you who are white and NOT in prison are the enemy. As I mentioned earlier there is the strong appeal of gaining street cred from having a custom-made martial art at your disposal. Then there is the fact that a truly coherent and comprehensive “system” or “style” of martial arts could hardly be taught in a prison setting. Sure, bits and pieces could be passed onto new students, but as a complete system? No way. Finally there is the drive to have a culturally unique art to claim as one's one. Just as there are those who try (and fail) to link contemporary urban culture to the ancient society of Egypt, asserting that an African martial art has survived and been disseminated in America’s prisons fulfills the same need to identify cultural significance and differentiate it from Western culture. But regardless of the true provenance of 52 Hands, the instructors that have taught it to their felon friends have accomplished one thing: they've created the myth. 52 Hands is now a genuine style because … they said so. Congratulations, guys.