Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse rock or JHR is a name which is used to describe a collection of different fighting styles that are alleged to have been practiced and/or developed within urban street gang culture and US penal institutions. The different regional “styles” of JHR seem to vary greatly, with a common emphasis on improvisation governed by a specific set of underlying principles.

Some examples of the many styles of JHR are 52 Hand Blocks, Comstock Style, San Quentin style, Mount Meg, 42nd and Closing Gates. Many of these styles of JHR are thought to have evolved regionally in different penal institutions.

Some sources agree that these idiosyncratic variations of street fighting do not comprise a fully codified martial art, but should be considered as “street skills” comparable with other semi-codified urban skills and activities such as skateboarding, parkour and breakdancing, however with a recent boom of researchers and former practitioners coming out with more data it appears that Jailhouse Rock may in fact be America’s only “Native Martial Art” and should take a more prominent seat 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.

Existential controversy: The existence of this martial art has been debated, but some media exposure has contributed towards verifying the existence of Jailhouse rock. According to researcher Doug Century, professional boxers including Zab Judah and Mike Tyson have testified to the existence of the style and it is referred to in rap songs by artists including the Wu Tang Clan. Tales of the pugilistic exploits of legendary 1970’s New York prison fighter, “Mother Dear”, have also contributed to the extensive urban mythology surrounding this system.

The 52 Hand Blocks aspect of JHR is featured in a true crime book called Street Kingdom, published in 2002 and written by Douglas Century and is 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.

The name 52 may be a reference to the playing card games of 52 Pickup and to the expression “let the cards fall where they may.” Other theories relate the name to a combat training game involving the use of playing cards and/or to the Supreme Mathematics of the Nation of Gods and Earths.

Origin theories: According to some researchers and practitioners, JHR is an indigenous African American fighting art that has its origins in the 17th and 18th centuries, when slaves were first institutionalized and needed to defend themselves. Oral tradition has the skill evolving secretly within the U.S. penal system, with regional styles reflecting the physical realities of specific institutions.

This theory relates JHR to the 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, and also to the little-known African-American fighting skill known as “knocking and kicking”, which is said to be practiced clandestinely in parts of the Southern US and on the Sea Islands.

Alternatively, other practitioners claim that JHR was not a product of penal institutions but rather an evolution of the many African martial arts or fighting games which were practiced by slaves, with different styles evolving separately in different penal institutions. According to this theory, Jailhouse Rock may be a modern American manifestation of the many African martial arts that were disseminated throughout the African diaspora, comparable to martial arts including Brazilian Capoeira, Cuban Mani, Martiniquese Ladja, and Eritrean Testa.

Evolution of the style: Although modern versions of JHR are alleged to exist (e.g. Bum Rush, particularly associated with Chicago), it appears that the original styles have become extinct in the current penal systems, particularly due to the increasing influence of modern boxing.

Boxer Floyd Patterson’s “peek-a-boo” defense may illustrate the marriage between boxing and penal fighting arts, in that it was allegedly taught to him by convicts during his stay at the Coxsacki penal institution in New York, and later passed on to many other fighters by his trainer Cus D’Amato after he witnessed it’s effectiveness at Patterson’s hands.

A Version of Jail House Rock, referred to as “52 Hand Blocks” or “the 52s”, is said to have originated in the gang neighborhoods of Brooklyn and nearby boroughs of New York City during the late 1970s and early 1980s. 52 was created from old “black” boxing that was modified in the penal institutions such as Comstock, and Elmira and later used heavily on the streets as a male rite of passage.

It had a code of honor or street ethic that ensured that fighters would have no “beef” after a fight. It was flashy with moves such as switching baseball caps right before a knockout blow, yet at the same time was highly useful enabling many a gangster to survive both street and prison life.