Boxing History – The Shoulder Roll


Ah the shoulder roll, made popular by undefeated champion and the biggest money maker Boxing has ever seen, Floyd Mayweather Jnr. Every once in a while, the sporting world finds a figure so great that they capture the public’s imagination and give birth to numerous copy cats, everyone wants to be like them. In the 1980’s as Mike Tyson blasted his way to heavyweight fame everyone wanted to learn the peek-a-boo style and you can bet any short fighter wanted to fight like him too, especially if they happened to have a stocky physique! Before that, we had Muhammad Ali, everyone wanted to move like Ali, flick jabs out like Ali and even trash talk like him, indeed Ali himself styled his Boxing on another great who captured the public’s imagination – Sugar Ray Robinson. We even saw this in other sports, when Imran Khan, the legendary captain of the Pakistan cricket team became the 1st real express pace bowler from the nation, all the youngsters wanted to bowl like him, bowl inswinging yorkers and even style their hair like him! It ended up giving rise to greats such as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and thus the fast bowling conveyor belt was born, and now we have the Mayweather effect…

So where did the Shoulder Roll originate from? Many have differing opinions, it is a style which has been used for a long time. Lots of old school boxers did actually use a variation of the shoulder roll or employ it fully as part of their defence, Jersey Joe Walcott the former Heavyweight Champion who competed from 1930 – 1953 was one such name. Archie Moore, one of the all time greats also used variations of the shoulder roll, as did Sugar Ray Robinson. Charley Burley, one of the greatest ever defensive fighters fighting in the 30’s and 40’s also used the shoulder roll(you can read an article I wrote about him here). It seems the shoulder roll was quite a common defensive strategy employed by old school Boxer’s which makes you wonder whether it is actually a dieing art?
The Shoulder Roll is also commonly known as the ‘Philly Shell’ the most famous exponent of the Philly Shell was a man from ‘Philly’ Philadelphia – hence the term Philly Shell named George Benton, you can read about his career here. Benton was a great defensive fighter who also went on to train several great fighters including the defensive wizard Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker. Bernard Hopkins, who held multiple world titles at Middleweight(with a record 20 defences) and Light Heavyweight also uses the shoulder roll and hails from Philadelphia. The Argentinian Nicolino Locche, who some would say was the greatest ever shoulder roller was the Light Welterweight Champion between 1968-1972, losing just 4 times in 136 fights! If you want to read more about this defensive master click here for an article I wrote last year.

The shoulder roll helped Hopkins fight into his 50's
The shoulder roll helped Hopkins fight into his 50’s

The shoulder roll is also known as the Michigan Defense, taking its name from Boxers of the area who practiced the art and learnt it from old school trainers based in Michigan. Indeed James Toney, a three weight world champion out of Grand Rapids, Michigan(the same area as Floyd Mayweather Jnr) is undoubtedly one of the best when it comes to employing the shoulder roll and countering effectively. He himself learnt the art with his trainers and basing his style on old school Boxers, most notably Hall of Fame great Ezzard Charles.
Floyd Mayweather Snr, the father of Jnr and also a world class Boxer was the man who taught his son the Shoulder Roll defence, Floyd Snr himself learnt it from the old school trainers in Michigan and claims to have added some wrinkles to it for Jnr’s benefit. Roger Mayweather, Jnr’s uncle and a former world champion who also trained Floyd Jnr was also trained by his brother Floyd Snr. So you can see, the training given to Floyd Jnr was from the highest level available.

It is difficult to find a club who can teach this style effectively, here in the UK are there any coaches who can teach the shoulder roll? Most often employed is the high guard defense, and it is fair to say this is also far easier to learn. This is because the Shoulder Roll requires greater reflexes and athleticism to succeed and be effective. It is a defense built on great timing and inches, simply using a high guard enables you to block punches with your gloves. With the shoulder roll you are employing your lead shoulder as your first line of defence, the right glove(orthodox fighters) is kept high by the chin to protect against the opponents left hook. It is also used to parry the jab, not necessarily always, Floyd Jnr does not always use the rear hand parry which is why at times he can be suspect to the jab but by ensuring his rear hand is kept high he protects against the dangerous left hook , and against punches you don’t see coming, and they are the ones which tend to knock you out. The left hand is kept low, protecting against body shots and the jab is fired from beneath. But what makes this defense so hard to penetrate is the rolling of the shoulders, it means punches are deflected, thus lessening the power of the blows and it is often this fact which is overlooked when employing the shoulder roll, you are rolling with the right cross and rolling with the left hook – essentially rolling away from these shots. The Shoulder roll is also effective because it has built in counter punching abilities, for example roll with the right cross, counter with either your own right hand or right uppercut. It is an efficient form of defense which requires less energy expenditure because you are not using as much footwork as another Boxer who uses his feet to get out of range to avoid shots and then uses footwork again to get back into range to punch. James Toney is a great example of this, he was able to move up from middlewight and fight at heavyweight employing the shoulder roll and simply stand in the pocket and roll with the punches and counter, a former middleweight champion he was even able to defeat one of the all time great Heavyweights Evander Holyfield. Nicolino Locche, mentioned above was known as a chain smoker who wasn’t very fond of training used the shoulder roll and an uncanny punch radar in becoming world champion. Bernard Hopkins, would become the oldest Boxer in history to win a world title and fought until he was 51!

Now we have the recently retired(on un-retired) Floyd Mayweather Jnr, but we would be doing a disservice to him if based his success on the shoulder roll alone, what makes Mayweather Jnr so special is not the shoulder roll, he often employed the high guard defence as well, but he was also a prime athlete with amazing reflexes, you could not put the shoulder roll on another world champion and expect him to be as good as Jnr, indeed Floyd Snr trained World Champions such as Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton who were unable to use the Shoulder Roll effectively. Mayweather Jnr has over 30yrs of experience and practice perfecting the art coupled with an astute Boxing IQ, the latter being the real reason he was such a formidable champion, his ring IQ and ability to figure out his opponents was a huge part of his success.

So what do you do if you want to learn the Shoulder Roll? Beyond finding a coach who can teach the Shoulder Roll your best bet would be to start young and practice, practice, practice because it is the sort of style you will suffer a lot of knocks on early because of its timing based strategy but as you learn and practice(ie sparring) eventually you will find yourself improving and naturally rolling with it, it is a style based on timing and rhythm which is why it is much more difficult to pick up than the standard high guard defense. You also need great balance to be effective with the shoulder roll, this is because you have to pretty much stand your ground and defend/roll as punches whizz at you and around you and remain in a position to counter attack, if you lose balance or step out of position you are going to find it harder to defend and counter. It would also benefit you to study videos on some of the old school Boxers listed in this article. Good luck!


About the author 


Boxing Coach
Strength and Conditioning Coach
Boxing Author of:

The Boxing Cheat Sheet - Your Ultimate Guide to Ring Survival

Strength and Conditioning for Boxing - Work out Hits to get you Fighting Fit!

Forgotten Legends of the Ring - Ten Past Masters of the Squared Circle

*Any videos or images used on this site to support my articles that are copyrighted are used for educational purposes and in accordance to the fair use act and are not my own - all credit is due to the respective owners. No copyright infringement intended.


archie moore, bernard hopkins, ezzard charles, floyd mayweather jnr, george benton, james toney, jersey joe walcott, nicolino locche, pernell whitaker, shoulder roll

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