Thursday, June 18, 2009

52 HAND BLOCKS: Justin Porter's NY Times article on 52

Cut and pasted from My sincerest thanks to my friend P. for the heads up.

William Pearce, left, and Joseph Raven Ravera practice 52 Blocks fighting at Ultimate Karate in Harlem.

Please click for bigger image.

June 18, 2009
In Tight, a New (Old) Martial Art Gains Followers

IT has developed just below the surface of popular culture in the United States, in the streets, prisons and boxing rings. It’s gone by a few names: Stato, Jailhouse Rock, the 52 Hand Blocks, 52 Blocks and, for short, the 52.

For a long time it has been a kind of martial arts Loch Ness monster: an American fighting form with supposedly sinister origins that many have heard of but few have seen or experienced. No one, it seemed, had any concrete proof that it existed, or at least none they were willing to share.

Until recently.

Several instructors have begun teaching this quasi martial art. Videos are up on YouTube. And the name 52 Blocks seems to be gaining respect as the most accepted. To watch it demonstrated is to see quick strikes suited to a fight exploding in surroundings like a jail cell, staircase or hallway.

Lyte Burly, 34, teaches and trains in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. He was one of the first to put videos on YouTube. “There was a lot of chatter, a lot of audio but no video,” he said of the discussion forums and Web sites that would offer hints of 52 Blocks, but little information about where to go to find out more.

Mr. Burly has a background in boxing and Chinese martial arts. Now, 52 Blocks has become his main focus.

“They say offense wins fights but defense wins championships,” Mr. Burly said. He said the 52 Blocks’ great strength was what he saw as its ability to let the user control the pace of a fight, while avoiding being hit. When Mr. Burly moves, his compact frame easily slips around and away from punches and attempts to grab him. He blocks punches with the tips of his elbows and drops to a crouch to attack his opponent’s legs.

At the start of a session, Mr. Burly and his student used an empty basketball court. But 52’s flavor seemed diluted in such a large area. Mr. Burly and his training partner eventually moved into the confines of a jungle gym.

Now in a five-foot-square space, hemmed in on all sides by metal bars — but visible — the fighting style’s strengths became clearer. In these confines, Mr. Burly’s size is a clear asset. He shoved his opponent into the bars, using these “walls” as weapons. In tight quarters where a punch might be too long, Mr. Burly used his elbows to strike and shove.

After the workout, Mr. Burly talked about his desire to eliminate the secretive attitude that has added to 52 Blocks’ obscurity — but also given it some buzz.

At a martial arts school called Ultimate Karate in East Harlem, Daniel Marks taught the 52 Blocks on a recent Sunday. The school itself is huge, and often seems more so because Mr. Marks’s classes are usually small. Blue mats cover the floors, and the students and Mr. Marks train in gym clothes and socks.

Mr. Marks — who is not affiliated with Mr. Burly — towers over many of his students and instructs with a gentle, patient manner. After a warm-up that includes jogging, calisthenics and some basic shadow boxing, he teaches specific concepts of the 52 Blocks. Here it looks a bit more like boxing, but with a twist.

It is a style built for the inside game, short hard punches best suited to fighting in tight spaces, like hallways and cells. The guard is tighter to allow for bare fists and is a constantly shifting mosaic of elbows, twists and turns.

When 52 Blocks practitioners hit, they can target anything from the legs to the shoulders. Footwork is taught in small, tight patterns. Rather than dancing on the balls of the feet the way boxers often do, a practitioner of the 52 Blocks has footwork that is closer to the ground, lower and tighter, both in the width of the stance and the distance traveled with each shuffle.

Mr. Marks demonstrated a technique to break the opponent down by first defending against an oncoming punch and then systematically striking at the body’s flex points, like the shoulders and hips. When Mr. Marks talks about hitting an opponent, he’s looking to hurt, but also to force a reaction. If he wants his opponent to turn, he strikes the shoulder, aiming to turn him. If he wants his opponent to lean forward, he strikes the hip. Each reaction is a setup for another. As he showed these different options on a student, he spoke to the rest of the class.

“Your training should take you to a natural pause in the action,” he said. This pause allows a person defending his life to make a choice — finish the fight or escape, an option he advocates. By this time, the student being demonstrated upon is prone on the ground, unhurt but pinned by one of Mr. Marks’s knees.

The goal is to get where you were going safely, Mr. Marks said.

“Or if you got to use the bathroom!” said Mike Baltazar, a new student. The rest of the class laughed as Mr. Marks rolled his eyes.

A man who goes by Kawaun Adon Akhenaten7 — and would not provide another name — taught Mr. Marks 52 Blocks and acts as a kind of guide. Mr. Akhenaten7 lives in Philadelphia and, like Mr. Marks, is large and soft-spoken. He said he learned the style on the streets of Brooklyn while running with a gang of armed robbers, and was impressed after seeing it used in a street fight.

“It looked like a ghetto ballet, kind of like it was choreographed,” he said. “Men threw punches at each other that looked dainty until they made contact. It was barbaric but it was finessed. They were out to hurt each other and make each other look bad.”

Because the 52 Blocks exists practically as an oral tradition, its history is a bit murky.

Mr. Marks believes the system evolved mostly through prizefighting in the southern and eastern United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

No black man was allowed to contend for the world heavyweight championship until Jack Johnson in 1908. His victory changed boxing and history. Mr. Johnson fought in an unorthodox manner: he played a defensive game, preferring to counterpunch and capitalize on his opponent’s mistakes, qualities also found in the 52 Blocks. Also, Mr. Marks said, fighters worked for tips, so they often developed flashy, crowd-pleasing moves.

At least one writer in the white press at the time labeled Mr. Johnson’s style “cowardly.” Mr. Marks believes that this was one of the first signs of a style that might have become the 52 Blocks. He doesn’t think Mr. Johnson’s style could have just come from thin air.

“Who taught him?” Mr. Marks asked with a smile.

Mr. Burly also talked about racial stereotypes during this era. He mentioned a commonly held belief that black boxers “couldn’t take punishment,” that they were physically weaker. He thinks that this belief, later disproved completely by Mr. Johnson, may have influenced some of the ways black fighters were taught to box — more evasively as counter-punchers.

FIGHTERS in the ring have often been spoken of in connection with the 52 Blocks. Rashad Evans is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight titleholder. Speaking by phone from Greg Jackson’s Gym in Albuquerque, N.M., he said that while growing up, he had heard stories about the 52 Blocks from older men when discussing prison fights, and saw what he assumed were parts of it in street fights.

In 2005 he met Daniel Marks at a seminar in Baltimore and found value beneath the legends, stories and memories.

“What it comes down to is just really practical boxing,” he said. From the 52 Blocks, he said, he gained a better knowledge of the use of angles in a fight. He said that while he’s nowhere near a master at the skill, he has seen his game improve.



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