Friday, September 9, 2011

On the Front Lines: An Interview With Writer Douglas Century (Part 2)

In part two of ‘On the Front Lines: An Interview With Writer Douglas Century’ (Click here to read part one), Douglas discusses the validity of the 52 Hand Blocks as a fighting system. 

Scott “Tre” Wilson: How effective, in your opinion, is the 52 Hand Blocks as a fighting system?  Can it be it employed in a real fight, or is it just mythology?

Douglas Century:  Good question.  More than once I’ve been accused of making the whole thing up.  “Hey, that 52 Blocks thing— it’s an urban myth.”  When I first learned about it, when I first saw it, I was around K and another brother named Life from Crown Heights.  There was a slightly older dude, in the book (Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse) I called him Razor.   His real name is Duffy.  He was a beast at this shit!  Within their own worlds—in their own neighborhoods—these were famous dudes, man.  The 52 was famous in Brooklyn.  So when I was hanging out there, I started to write about it.  I first wrote about it in the book.  Then I did this article just on 52 Blocks in Details magazine.  Funny thing—I just assumed that a lot of folks already knew about it.  I mean, the cats in the Wu-Tang Clan referenced it in their lyrics.   Lines like, “52 cops can’t withstand the 52 blocks.”  So what’s up—now you think it’s just an urban myth?

Those guys that really mastered it are a little bit older than K.  His brother Rique who I met, died really tragically.  He had done a ten-year bid and come out from Clinton/Danemmora.   He’d been hit with night sticks by correction officers and suffered brain injuries.  Before he went away, I heard about how he was really wicked with the 52’s.  That was this crew of guys who were like a few years older than K.  They were from Washington Avenue in Crown Heights, known as the Ave-Ave Crew.

Scott “Tre” Wilson: So what do you think happened?  Why did the 52 Blocks disappear?

Douglas Century: What basically changed is that when young guys started to pick up guns, the 52 Hand Blocks started to become a dying art.  If you talk to guys from New York City back when—I know more about the guys from Brooklyn, but it’s true of all the boroughs—there would be 52 Blocks fights on the regular.  Obviously, I wasn’t in prison to see it, but I’ve heard enough people talk about guys being locked up and multiple attackers coming at them.

The main thing about 52 is that it’s deceptive movement.  It’s a way of basically blocking and redirecting multiple attackers.  And it was a generational thing, passed down from older brother to younger brothers, with actual contact—not light sparring.  So it’s not like you can go to some dojo and learn this shit.  And it takes years and years to really master.  Part of it is you have to have very powerful forearms.  You do a lot of blocking with your forearms and shoulders.  That’s where those intense bar workouts that you see Giant and the Bartendaz doing—I’ve heard guys inside call it “gettin’ drunk”—because you develop such powerful forearms for blocking.

One way to describe it would be to say it’s a peek-a-boo style of boxing with a lot of flashy, rhythmic, deceptive movement.  In its heyday— let’s say in the’ 70s and ‘80s—dudes will tell you that it was very effective in the real world.  When I first wrote about it, I started to get involved with these mixed-martial arts forums and all these guys who are into MMA started to question me about it.  Some were genuinely interested in it and some were just skeptical and mocking.

But it doesn’t make sense to put 52 Blocks in the same conversation as sport fighting.  Street fighting isn’t designed for the ring or cage.  Nowadays, Big K and his guys have begun to modify 52 Blocks for a gym or sports setting—they have their group called Constellation that’s training people in 52—but I think it’s still tough to take any real-world street/prison system and put it into a cage.  For example, dudes in the hood don’t go down and turtle up and do a Jujitsu thing with their back on the ground because other guys would stomp them in the face.  People talk about how BJJ is the most street effective system.  Well, not if Suge Knight’s going to drop his size 13 boot on your fucking head.   That’s the real world.  Guys don’t want to go down on the ground if they’re fighting in the streets of Flatbush or Crown Heights. 

Daniel Marks, who is K’s partner in Constellation, has really researched this to the point of its African origins.  Again this is something that really pisses certain people off.  They don’t want to hear it.  Slaves came to the New World and brought styles of music, dance and religion from diverse regions in Africa.   So my question to the skeptics is: Why wouldn’t they also have fighting traditions?  Why wouldn’t they bring some aspect of African fighting systems?  Maybe it’s not a pure system from Senegal or Nigeria or Angola, and people will really knock you by saying “Well, 52 isn’t African.”

Kawaun Adon Akhenoten 7 aka Big K and Daniel Marks.

As far as the aesthetics, you can make an analogy to basketball.  Basketball began as a predominantly white sport, right?  For a long time—funny as this sounds today—it was a very Jewish sport actually.  Well, Black people wanted to see a different style of basketball.  They wanted to bring their own flavor.  So the sick dunks, the crossover dribbles, the no-look passing—that’s really what the NBA is about nowadays.  That’s a certain aesthetic, right? That’s the same aesthetic you see in 52.  There’s only so many ways to curl up your fists and box.  Of course 52 Hand Blocks is a subset of striking.  It’s a style of boxing, but it’s much slicker than you’d see in conventional prizefighting.  You don’t want to just knock a guy out like Rocky Marciano.  You want to fake him out and backslap him.  You’ll want to feint like you’re going to pull his pant leg and then hit him with a looping overhead “dead-arm” punch. 

Scott “Tre” Wilson:  Why do so many people question its real-world application?

Douglas Century: The reason people question whether it’s effective in the real world is that people simply don’t square up and fight like that for hours and hours in the street any more.  The descriptions I would hear of the 70’s is that dudes would stand on the corner or in the playground for hours practicing the blocks.  That cat Duffy that I mentioned, who would go to this one park, St. John’s Place, and he would do his blocks.  He’d just do his routine.  He would do pull ups, and other guys would come out.  The thing about 52 is there’s no sparring.  You don’t light spar, you’re hitting guys—full speed, full power.  So they became warriors with this shit, they really got lumped up.  You don’t see too many dudes in the real world standing on a corner fighting for fifteen minutes.   Also, New York has changed, and the cops will lock them up for assault real quick.  

Part of it is a code of chivalry too—or whatever you want to call it.  Guys felt an honor in handling shit with your fists.  To be considered a tough guy back in the ’60s and ‘70s—up until crack hit—you had to have hand skills.  You weren’t a tough guy just with a gun.  But that’s all changed, man.  There are a lot of killers out here who are 17 years old and really can’t fight toe-to-toe, but as long as they’ve got a lot of ammunition and their gun doesn’t jam, they can control their block.  They’re tough enough to kill you.  Guys don’t want to fight with their hands that much anymore.

Prison changed too.  When K was last locked up, he was telling me—back in about 2000—that the art of 52 had pretty much died out inside.  There are still some cats upstate doing life who know it, but they’re not going to be seeing the free world again.  When I went up to do that article for Details and they brought K into this room, the correction officers left me and this photographer alone, locked up in this tiny room with K.   This female CO was just outside, watching.  The photographer said (about K), “If this dude wanted to just take us prisoner and just knock us out, what the fuck are these correction officers going to do?” (Laughs). They don’t have guns.  K’s a big enough dude—and the speed he moves with his 52—a bunch of CO’s would have had to swarm him with nightsticks and all that shit.

The bottom line with it is that it’s very effective, but I think we should also consider it a lost art.  I wouldn’t call it a dead art, because there are guys like Daniel and K and Constellation that are still trying to keep it alive.  They’ve created a revival, with proper seminars and training camps all around the country.   

Just like you’ll still find old dudes from the South who can play the authentic blues, right?  It still exists.  You’d see these documentaries about prison down in Louisiana and all these guys singing these blues songs.  Well Black culture changed, right?  Kids who listen to Drake or Lil Wayne or whoever is hot at the moment in Hip-Hop don’t care about some old Delta blues.  If you went to a blues club (today) it would probably be 95 percent white people.  Black culture changed—52 Blocks wasn’t valued.  As I said, there’s couple of guys like K, Daniel and Constellation that are trying to keep it alive as an art.  I just think as long as the young kids aren’t into it, they’re not going to respect it.  As much as the old heads would tell them “Yo, back in the day people fought.  You had to stand your square and trade blows.”  It doesn’t mean much to a 16 year old kid, because that’s not his reality, right?  He’ll only do that on a Playstation or an Xbox (laughs). 

Scott “Tre” Wilson: You write in Street Kingdom about K being locked up as a juvenile in Spofford with Mike Tyson and you say that Mike knows some 52 Hand Blocks.

Douglas Century: Yeah.  Mike Tyson knows a little 52.  Certain of his early fights – if you go back to when he was a young undefeated heavyweight, terrorizing the division – you can perceive elements of 52 in his head movement, some of his blocks and that stalking style.  A lot of the elements of 52 Blocks aren’t legal in prizefighting, so a guy like Mike would have had to “unlearn” them in order to fight the way that Cus D’Amato and Kevin Rooney were training him.

Now, here’s a “what if” question that always comes up.  If a powerful guy of Tyson’s stature were doing 52 and had been in MMA and had some elemental takedown defense – if he knew how to sprawl a bit and not get tied up easily in wrestling holds—how would he have done?  I think he would have owned that shit.  His head movement and punching power alone was just on another level when he was young.  And the tightness of the guard in a 52 stance would be hard to penetrate. The striking in 52 is unpredictable, it’s coming from so many different angles, and the sense of rhythm is very sophisticated.  But remember back in the days, guys were trained to fight in prison.  K always called them “Gladiator Schools” when he was a kid— even the juvenile joints like Spofford in the Bronx.    There were moves and styles named after all these upstate prisons: Comstock, Elmira, what-have-you.  That’s as real as it gets.  This is a style of fighting that people use to survive in prison.  Why would it not be effective?  You think guys would invent movements that didn’t work?  In prison they are basically trying to survive. 

A lot of people don’t realize this, in the earliest formative years of Hip-Hop there was the style of battle dance called Up-Rocking, right?  Up-Rocking was basically guys studying their older brothers, usually hardcore gangsters, guys who’d come home from upstate doing 52 and who were sparring.  So if you look at those Up-Rock battles, they’re dipping down, feinting, and throwing shadow punches, but they aren’t making contact.  They’re just taking 52 where the guys would actually be landing blows, and they removed the contact from the equation.   So the 52 Blocks really has a powerful connection to the origins of Hip-Hop culture.

Click here to read part one!


  1. I come from that world and time... shout out to rique, darryl and 9 , Rothschild..

  2. the Whole story will come out real soon. Forever Brooklyn Rip