The Riddle of the 52
Over the last decade much has been said on the topic of “52 Hand-Blocks” also referred to as “The 52,” Stato, Jailhouse Rock, or any of the other generational or geographic terms associated with this style of pugilism. Varying opinions on its history and namesake include the 52 deck of cards and some pin its beginnings in the penal system while others in traditional African arts of the diaspora handed down post slavery and melded with western boxing. On the surface it appears flashy, often intertwining rapidly fanning and cross arm movements in a purely defensive rhythmic manner. A deeper look however, reveals sound concepts, including tight guard positions, the offensive punches of western boxing and numerous “close quarter in-fighting” techniques.
While it’s modern influence can be found everywhere from hip-hop and b-boying to professional boxing there are those who refuse to even believe it exists much less consider it a codified method of self- defense. As a professional MMA and striking coach with a background in FMA and over 30 years of training and researching in various disciplines (hoplology) I have had the opportunity to have experienced and reported on this arts history, culture and development via one of the oldest proponent organizations – Constellation Global.
The following entries will look at 52 comparatively to similar cultures and schools of thought relative to preserving the knowledge for future generations.
Common threads of Tribal Society: FMA and African martial arts
Before you set fire to my flag here, please take a moment to realize the commonalities in the two.
FMA would not qualify as a codified martial art due either to lack of written records, scrolls and other circumstances which would seem foreign to those outside this culture and especially those in western mindset who need rational explanation of everything in their world. So too then would all of the martial heritage of Polynesia, Africa, Melanesia and Micronesia where oral traditions were the standard due to lack of written record. This could also conclude then, that longstanding warrior traditions like Hawaiian Lua, Maori Rongomamau or Rakau, and many others of those regions are less than legitimate as, well right? Wrong. Let’s first look at the similarities in societal structure where martial arts remain social interaction and are not so much rigid as methods of play and self-defense handed down over generations under the watchful eye of an elder or big brother who will in turn add his personal “tricks” or flavor that have proven effective for himself over time.
(Notably, while maintained through oral tradition, Polynesian methods WERE practiced in formalized schools but preserved orally)
This is also indicative of African methods of martial technology like stick fighting (Itonga/ Tchaa) or Dambe boxing and is largely due to the longstanding history of tribal structure versus what we might think of as contemporary Asian martial arts.
Tribal structure deems a loose yet pragmatic teaching approach often based upon a combination of social interaction, dance, rhythm, protocol and tradition without adhering to set curriculum or handed down “scrolls.” Even within the Filipino methods of teaching there are what we might call systems, but within those systems you also have “styles” which often refer to certain methods of defense or combinations of characteristic techniques within a system. i.e. ocho-ocho or “figure 8 movement” or Crossada or “crossing style” of play.
The Claim of Racism
So why then is it unfathomable to think that at least loose groupings of techniques herein called the 52 blocks could be passed down orally by demonstration, or mimicry through the “play” as stated before even as an inner- city rite of passage? (slap boxing) A few years ago I read an article in which a critic referred to the 52 in context as a “racist martial art” due to the supposed opposition to teaching outsiders. Is this not the root of all martial arts? The term martial itself implies warfare and martial arts in this case, would be designed as a method of self -preservation against an oppressor whether it be a slave owner or prison guards and therefore whomever was responsible for passing it on would be thoroughly justified in teaching only whomever they deemed worthy.
While I do agree that the history of 52 as an art continues to reveal itself I believe that there are enough unrelated sources who have witnessed this style of play in action, or corroborated life experience either through training or otherwise over the years to deem that there are unmistakable commonalities in the movements of its purported practitioners to support 52’s existence. Even if it is a rebirth or revival of something thought not to exist, then why is the effort to propagate it as such not enough for the masses to qualify it as a martial art? In Southeast Asia you have many trying to revive various older or near forgotten arts and they are considered legitimate. Lua was only rebirthed and reborn through Olohe Charles Kenn’s extensive work with his students Dr. Mitchell Eli and Richard Paglinawan and David Nu’uhiwa so why not 52? FMA continues to be rebuilt and modernized all the time because its dynamic and flexible adaptations to current environments and needs are the keys to its effectiveness.
One could at any point make the same arguments against other modern arts like Krav Maga or even Aikido which was only born this century.
Looking to the Future
While I, as a mere disciple of the craft of 52 and the sweet science of boxing agree that more research is necessary, I hope that this art continues to be unearthed and revived for future generations. I am content to believe that many of the techniques contained within its categories are effective and viable and have been proven so for a long time whether it be in a 1920’s era prize ring, the urban streets of 1970’s Bronx or Brooklyn, a beach in Gullah 100 years ago or simply within our urban areas where it can be used as a tool of empowerment, self-defense and confidence for the youth.