The Philly Shell defence claimed notoriety when Floyd Mayweather Jr was riding through boxing with an undefeated record shutting down every opponent he was coming across. Opponents could not knock Mayweather Jr out let alone knock him down. I have previously written about the history of the shoulder roll – what is the difference between the shoulder roll and the philly shell? Truth be told there really is not much of a difference, the lead hand is held low and across the abdomen protecting the body, the rear hand is held under the chin to the parry/block the jab and block the hook with a slight movement and the lead shoulder acts as the first line of defence against the straight right(when fighting an orthodox opponent). Generally you are leaning slightly to your right(orthodox fighters) causing the opponents right hand to have to travel further to land, hence the counterpunching opportunities. This also means you head will be off centre, again making you harder to hit and ensuring you are not standing upright which will only end up working against you as you will be caught out. It is not a style everyone can use, if you are going to leave your lead hand low you must have great reflexes and be a naturally athletic person.
The two terms are intertwined, Mayweather Jr and James Toney both hail from Michigan and use variations of the shoulder roll. People may say they use the Philly Shell but a more accurate term would be the shoulder roll, we will get in why later.
Mayweather Jr learnt the shoulder roll from a young age from his father, his father who was a very competent professional boxer really only started to learn the shoulder roll from his trainers in Michigan after suffering an injury, the compact nature of the shoulder roll meant it was perfect for someone who was unable to fully use his legs, Sr having suffered a gunshot wound to the leg.
James Toney’s use of the shoulder roll was so good, he was able to fight from Middleweight all the up to Heavyweight, even defeating former World Champion Evander Holyfield in the process, Toney never was knocked out as a pro – that’s how good his chin and his defence was, you could even say that inside the pocket, there hasn’t been a better fighter than James Toney, his use of rolling punches with his shoulder and then countering with either hand made him a nightmare to deal with in close.
There have been other great exponents of the shoulder roll, Argentina’s Nicolino Locche is sometimes called the greatest defensive boxer in history and he also used the shoulder roll, becoming a light welterweight champion. It goes back further, I have just mentioned James Toney – Toney and his trainer Bill Miller were high on studying some of the old school greats and taking from their styles. These all time greats included Archie Moore, holder of the record for most number of knockouts. Moore may be better known for his cross arm guard but he also employed shoulder roll tactics to deflect punches and come back with his own right hand. Toney also studied fighters like Ezzard Charles, the former Heavyweight champion is also regarded as one of the greats in the light heavyweight division. Toney would watch endless hours of these fighters and then come into sparring and practice their methods. He would struggle at the start but with a lot of practice and putting in the hours inside the ring when sparring he was able to perfect the method and go on to have an extremely successful career winning multiple world titles.
We can go back even further, many great boxers used a form of the shoulder roll including two friends who would become the best in the world, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Louis was trained by a former boxer named Jack Blackburn, Blackburn trained Louis in the style of himself, Sam Langford and Joe Gans. They all used a form of the shoulder roll. An interesting note is that Joe Louis learnt his boxing in Detroit, Michigan, Sugar Ray Robinson also spent some of his childhood in Detroit. Also present at the boxing club as a young amateur fighter was future hall of fame trainer Eddie Futch.
So why is the term called the Philly shell when the style is as old as boxing itself? One of the reasons it got it’s term is because in Philadelphia, a number of gym warriors, basically successful amateur fighters, did not want to turn pro for various reasons but wanted to continue sparring. These men took up jobs and because of the long working hours did not have the time to do the same amount of road running they used to do when fighting as amateurs. This caused them to develop a style for sparring where they could defend themselves on the ropes whenever they felt they were tiring. Once they had gained a second wind and recovered, they would revert back to the standard style such as the high guard or both hands up as opposed to the lead hand down. This in turn became known as the philly shell style, it was not originally a stand alone style but used as just one part of an overall boxing style. Philadelphia was a hot bed of boxing talent and these gym wars in sparring were often hotly contested and as good as fighting as a professional!
George Benton who used this philly shell as his main guard and was from Philadelphia popularised the style of fighting, Benton was one of the top Middleweights in the 1950’s and 60’s and should have been a world champion had it not been for boxing politics preventing him from getting a shot at the title. You can read more about Benton in my book Forgotten Legends of the Ring. Benton would go on to become a successful trainer culminating in his masterpiece, Sweet Pea Pernell Whitaker, a four weight world champion who was for some time considered as the best boxer in the world. Now it is also interesting to note than when Benton became a trainer, he was initially learning under one of the greatest ever trainers, Eddie Futch. Futch although never a pro boxer because of a medical issue, was a very good amateur who often sparred with Joe Louis, here we can see the connection for the shoulder roll going back to Jack Blackburn again to Joe Louis to Eddie Futch and so on.
Benton’s success and the use of the shell began to gain prominence and the term philly shell began to get thrown around as a sort of de facto defensive guard but the truth is it is not very dissimilar to the style many old school fighters had been using for decades previously. In reality fighters do not use the philly shell defence, but just another form of the shoulder roll, some call it the philly shell because of the fighters hailing from Philadelphia, others call it Michigan defence because of the fighter coming from Michigan. In today’s boxing world Tevin Farmer, the IBF Super Featherweight champion who is known for his slick style of boxing, is a great example of someone who effectively uses the philly shell defence, Farmer also hails from Philadelphia.
I will credit Ummah Fight Camp for much of the info on the Philly Shell, a great trainer with a lot of wisdom, experience and knowledge. Check out his channel on Youtube for more pearls of wisdom.
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