Jailhouse Rock (JHR), also known as "52 Hand Blocks", "52s", Stato or short "Jailhouse" is a collective term used to describe different fighting styles historically associated with penal institutions in the United States.
The different regional "styles" of JHR vary but share a common emphasis on improvisation governed by a specific set of underlying principles.
Definition and Etymology
The term Jailhouse derives from the fact that the styles were developed within US penal institutions. The name Jailhouse rock probably refers to the Elvis Presley film and song of that name.
The most popular etymology for 52 is the allusion to the prank in which a victim is invited to play "52-card-pick-up". The first player asks the second player if he or she would like to play "52 Pickup" and if the second player agrees, the first throws the entire deck of playing cards onto the floor. The second player, who must be new to the game to fall for this practical joke, is then instructed to pick up all the cards, upon which the "game" ends. The similarity between the prank and the fighting system lies in the fact that in both cases trickery is used to improvise within an infinite range of possibilities.
Other theories relate the name to a combat training game involving the use of playing cards, where the number of reps or sets to do with each exercise would be defined by the numbers on the cards. It could even be a reference, coded, symbolic, or otherwise, to a specific cell block. However, a more likely explanation is that it simply refers to the fifty-two learning blocks and physical blocks encompassed in the art, referred to as The Program and based on the Supreme Mathematics of the Nation of Gods and Earths. One term for example is called 'build or destroy' represented by the number 8, meaning that before you can build on the foundation of 1 (knowledge) you have to destroy what you knew previously.
While JHR and 52s have the same origin, JHR is usually said to refer to systems used within the physical constraints and defensive necessities of prisons, while 52s would in this case refer to the street version of the same fighting system.
However, not all authors agree on this point of view. Other practitioners who are very familiar with JHR/52s oppose both the theory of an African origin and any stylistic variation between JHR and 52s.
History and Origin
According to the prevailing theory JHR may be traced back to fighting systems that slaves brought with them to the American continent, similarly to its Brazilian counterpart, Capoeira. Author Thomas A. Green says that "these methods survived into the present by being taught in prison, where they remained a black method of defense, in a country in which racist courts and penal laws created a system of de-facto slavery."
The art form followed the African-American migration Northeast and into the margins of large urban centers. Urban prisons, because of their ethnic breakdown as well as their social code, actually provided a more fertile ground for the art to expand, especially in allowing novices to dedicate themselves to ongoing training intensively. It was within the prison system that 52 evolved, fusing with urban dance and boxing tactics.
As with many fighting systems brought to public attention through movie heroes (Bartitsu, Keysi Fighting Method), many martial art practitioners questioned the fact that JHR existed outside the fight choreographer's imagination, i.e. as a genuine, real-life fighting style.
However, in a book called Street Kingdom: Five Years inside the Franklin Avenue Posse, journalist Douglas Century documented the existence of a Brooklyn street version of JHR known as the 52s.
Recently researchers such as Daniel Marks and Kammau Hunter as well as former practitioners have argued that Jailhouse Rock may in fact be America's only "Native Martial Art" and should take a more prominent place in the world of martial arts. As such, Jailhouse Rock, the 52 Hand Blocks and their variants may be compared to the martial arts of capoeira and savate, both of which were originally semi-codified fighting methods associated with urban criminal subcultures, which underwent a gradual process of codification before becoming established as martial arts accessible by the cultural mainstream.
Principles and Techniques
The main philosophy in JHR is to utilize your surroundings (i.e. the walls in a close space) to your advantage. The style also concentrates heavily on defending against armed (blade) attacks.
JHR is described as a defensive style of boxing or 'dirty boxing'.
It is close to a street style known as Knocking and Kicking, and to older styles of boxing as well as to Side Hold, an old form of wrestling where one would trip or sweep the opponent to the ground. Some say that old-style capoeira and silat bear the most resemblance to JHR, although JHR has no has no "large, circular kicks".
Following the indigenous African American fighting art theory JHR would be a fusion of African and European/American bare-knuckle fist-fighting styles known as "cutting", which is said to have been practiced by champions such as Tom Molineaux.
Most of the time attacks are directed to the head, aiming for a knockout. Techniques include kicking, sweeping and grappling. Elbow strikes, hammer fists, kness and head-butts are also commonly used.
Some variants such as the more flamboyant Queens 52 blocks are more strategic, using techniques to evade, redirect and bring the opponent off-balance.
Tactically every part of the body is a potential target. Jailhouse rock movements are characterized by a lot of cunning and trickery.
The fighting system definitely also has a dramatic element as proven by the "kiss move", where the fighter claps the forearms together to trap a jab, kisses the trapped fist, and then throws back the attacking fist.
The original styles have probably become nearly extinct in the current penal systems, largely due to the increasing influence of modern boxing.
In 2008, a number of researchers and practitioners came together in a consortium, known as Constellation 52 Blocks Combat and Fitness, to document the role of Jailhouse Rock, the 52s and related practices in African American cultural history. This has been the most ambitious effort so far to recognize, record and revitalize not only the 52s but also the related dance culture and physical training traditions.