The Philly Shell, the Shoulder Roll and the Mayweather Defense

Header Photo Credits: John Gurzinski

People often use the term Philly Shell or Shoulder Roll to describe the way that Floyd Mayweather fights. To use either of the aforementioned terms to describe Floyd’s fighting style is incorrect and an oversimplification of the fighting style Mayweather used throughout his career. I’m going to explain to you the difference between the Philly Shell, a basic shoulder roll and what I call the Mayweather defence.

The Philly Shell

George Benton Philly Shell

Where did it come from?

No one is certain about who created the Philly Shell or when it came into existence, but ill give you a bit of information about its history. Before I get into the history I'll clear up a popular misconception. The Philly Shell and the art of rolling with punches (whether it be with your head or shoulders) is not a style of fighting, it’s a defensive tactic.

The Philly Shell is said to be used mainly in boxing gyms in the city of Philadelphia. Philadelphia has produced legendary fighters like George Benton, Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins largely because it’s gyms like Joe Hand’s have no dearth of talent. There are always boxers there that have skills and maybe even a great amateur backgrounds but never went pro, though these fighters didn’t go pro they never stopped boxing, many earn their living as sparring partners or spar regularly just to stay in shape, its these fighters that are said to have developed the Philly Shell out of necessity because some don’t (or can’t) train as often as a pro or active fighter some of these fighters are a bit older they see a decrease in stamina, so, out of necessity they came up with the tactic.

Hopkins Philly Shell

How is it used in a fight?

For the best illustration of why the Philly Shell was created and how its used in a fight/sparring session is seen when you take a look at any of Bernard Hopkins later fights, you see that he uses the Philly Shell to lure his opponents sparingly throughout the early parts of the fight, the movement frustrates the opponents as they can’t land any solid punches and their offense opens them up to sharp counters. When the fight goes into the mid to later rounds, Hopkins will go to the ropes an “Shell Up” his opponent is now hesitant to take the bait for fear of the counter, Hopkins knows this and uses it (along with feints) to take advantage of the clock and get a second wind so that he can mount his offense later in the fight…It’s genius!

James Toney Philly Shell. Photo Credits: Thierry Gourjon Visuals

There are other fighters that are masters of the Philly Shell but apply it a bit differently (maybe even in its purest form) these guys often don’t get mentioned I’m talking about legendary fighters like George Benton (who later went on to become a great trainer) and James Toney come to mind. Toney and Benton apply the Philly Shell as the main part of their arsenal as they stand in front of you, flat-footed, and almost dare you to hit them Toney and Benton both have fights and highlight reels online look them up, you’ll be glad you did.

Boxing is often called a game of inches, a subtle variation or adjustment can make all of the difference. The Mayweather Defense is slightly different from the Philly Shell, as a result, Floyd takes less punishment largely because of the angles his body creates when in a defensive posture these same angles also allow him to create escape routes when on the ropes or even in the centre of the ring.

Mayweather Defence

The Mayweather Defense

Where did it come from?

The Mayweather defence starts with Dale Williams. Williams was a trainer in the Detroit area and worked with Mayweather, Sr. early on in his boxing career. Mayweather credits Williams with teaching him much of what he knew initially about defence, it said that Williams later taught the older Mayweather how to roll, block and counter punches while remaining in the pocket due to Mayweather’s decreased mobility after a gunshot to the leg. Just like that, the Mayweather Defense was born. 

Mayweather Should Roll. Photo Credits: Ethan Miller/GETTY Images

How is it different from the Philly Shell?

Bare with me, this is where we get a bit technical, I’ll outline the major differences between the Mayweather Defense and the Philly Shell below from the ground up

Footwork - The Mayweather defence relies on footwork in a way that the Philly Shell doesn’t. A fighter using the Philly Shell is usually flat footed and in the pocket. Mayweather uses his defence to get himself out of trouble and to change the look he gives his opponents, but more times than not he doesn’t stay in the pocket, as soon as there is an angle, he counters (if he can) then darts out. Footwork also plays a part in the counters Mayweather uses out of this stance based on where his feet are (and the punch that was thrown) Floyd’s counter is usually a short, straight right hand, and uppercut or less frequently a right hook.

Mayweather defence bent knees

Knees - In the Philly Shell often times fighters knees aren’t bent, he’s using his hands, head and upper body to evade block and catch punches in his gloves. The Mayweather defense is predicated on Floyd's’ knees being bent, he bends his right knee, pulls his body away from his opponent and dips downward (while remaining upright) so that punches have a harder time of connecting also softer knees allow Floyd to be more mobile and move along the ropes as he needs to 

Shoulder - The posture when in the Philly Shell isn’t dramatically different from what a fighter is squared up (both shoulders facing forward) usually the fighter takes a quarter step back on the back foot as they “Shell up”. Floyd’s lead shoulder is always directly in front of him when in the Mayweather defense, this gives the opponent a smaller target to hit and allows him to mask the counter on the right hand, an opponent jabs, Floyd can catch the jab and come over the top with a straight right hand or deflect the jab by turning his shoulder and come back with a sharp straight right hand almost instantly.

The combination of these three elements is what makes the Mayweather Defense different from the Philly Shell and a part of what allowed Mayweather to last so long in the sport. As Mayweather got older and needed to master time and his activity level differently he began to use his defence to bide time, just like Hopkins did with the Philly Shell. Boxing is such a nuanced sport that a subtle variation or adjustment can make all of the difference in the outcome of a fight or the creation of a fighting style. So there you have it the comparison between the Mayweather defence and the Philly Shell, as always. Thanks for reading.