How to Beat Or Dismantle The Shoulder Roll / Philly Shell


The shoulder roll is a very popular defensive move in boxing that uses the lead shoulder to deflect incoming punches. Many boxers use it occasionally, but then there are those who center their entire game around that move. Using a specific stance and style commonly referred to as the Philly shell, Michigan style defense, or the shoulder roll stance.

The Philly shell, as used by George Benton, the Mayweather family, James Toney, and Bernard Hopkins, to name a few, is characterized by a lead hand that is held across the body to guard against punches. Alongside an active lead shoulder ready to deflect punches and a very bladed stance. 

Many aspiring boxers are captivated by this style and want to use it as their own. But perhaps, even more, many want to know how to dismantle the shoulder roll. As this defensive stance can be extremely demoralizing if you have no way to counter it. Luckily, there are more than enough examples of fighters who broke the shell, and we can watch, analyze, and learn from them.

Here is how to beat the shoulder roll / philly shell. 

Know when to use the shoulder roll

Mayweather vs Canelo Shoulder roll
Floyd Mayweather vs Canelo Alvarez

If you want to be good at the Philly shell, it’s very important to also know when not to use it. As good as a style it is, it’s not the ultimate style to beat all others. Fortunately, there is no such style and each tactic has cracks. The shoulder roll in particular has some notable drawbacks, and you must understand both if you want to use it or if you fight against it.

The most important thing is to recognize when to pick your lead hand up and protect your head. As with everything else regarding this style of boxing, the best example is Floyd Mayweather. He was a complete master of the shoulder roll, and even he frequently put on the earmuffs and squared up his stance when the pressure got too much or he got hit flush.

The specific stance required to do shoulder rolls makes it hard to move sideways and somewhat limits footwork. Floyd Mayweather again broke the mold and managed to be very mobile, but in general, this is a defensive stance that facilitates deadly counterattacks. If you have to move around a lot, and especially if you want to apply forward pressure, it may be a good idea to switch to a more squared stance.

The classic boxing stance has remained a staple to this day because it is the most balanced stance that allows effective movement, attack, and defense at the same time. The Philly shell, on the other hand, is not that versatile and you must understand when and how to use it to make it work. And if you are fighting against one, this knowledge will help you put your opponent in a bad position. 

Negatives of the shoulder roll

Marcos Maidana vs Broner shoulder roll
(Photo Credit: Naoki Fukuda)

Just like everything else in boxing (or life for that matter), nothing is perfect. The shoulder roll defense and the Philly shells style as a whole are amazing. A perfect representation of the sweet science and how to use technique, precision, and tactics to beat brute force. But this style of boxing also has some notable drawbacks that every fighter should be aware of

Weak against southpaw

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the shoulder roll is its inefficiency in an open stance. Against a southpaw, everything that is great about the stance turns into a disadvantage. The lead shoulder acts as a perfect shield against the powerful right of a fellow orthodox fighter, but against a leftie, the power hand has a clean straight line to the chin.

While the southpaw jab can also act as a distraction to occupy or blind the opponent of their left-hand follow-up. (See examples below)

There are ways to defend, such as ducking and stepping back, but in general, the Philly shell has little to offer against the opposite stance (orthodox vs southpaw). 

Hard to master

A problem with the shoulder roll is that, despite it being a simple technique in itself, it is very difficult to actually use effectively in a fight or during sparring. There are different aspects that compound the Philly shell stance, and each of them should be mastered separately. This is the reason, not every fighter that uses a shoulder roll necessarily fights in the Philly shell-like Mayweather.

For example, mixing everything together may take years. Everything in boxing takes years to master, but you cannot fight exclusively off of the shoulder roll stance, so you will need to be good at the standard stance and forms of defense AND then learn all the intricacies of the shoulder roll.

Limits the offensive options

Another major negative of the Philly shell is that it limits your offensive options. This is valid for fighters that use the Philly shell as a full fighting style. As the Philly shell, you have a great flicker or up jab available, a short left hook, and a right straight or uppercut, but not much else. It relies much more on counterattacks than proactive offense.

The bladed stance takes away the power of the lead hand and limits the sideways movement options. Additionally, most fighters who’ve used it are very stationary and don’t use enough footwork to apply serious pressure.

In general, if you want to be aggressive, apply pressure, and land power punches while moving forward, it’s best to not let go of the shoulder roll stance, at least when on the offensive. 

How to beat the shoulder roll

Here are a few proven tactics and moves that work well against the shoulder roll. 

Switch stance

Competent switch hitters are few and far in between, but one of the best options against the shoulder roll stance is to go southpaw. This is the strongest tactic you can use and may even dissuade the opponent from using the shell and going into a more traditional stance.

Even if you are not so comfortable in a southpaw position, switching from time to time may be enough to keep him guessing. The shift technique might be a great option to use against some opponents using this stance. See Pirog using this against Jacobs below:

Jab to the chest

The jab to the chest is not often used in boxing as it’s basically impossible to hurt someone with it, but it bears tactical power against guys who fight with their lead hand low. First of all, the guard leaves the chest open to attacks, and it’s always a good idea to target the openings.

Once a few of those get in, the defending fighter usually starts anticipating and defending them, leaving openings for an overhand right or a right hook to the kidney. Again, the punch to the chest is not one to do damage but can be effectively used to disrupt rhythm and balance, and set up more dangerous punches. See Shane Mosely using this tactic below:

Use of Angles

Using footwork to secure dominant angles is key against every opponent and is the best way to land punches. But against shoulder roll boxers, getting the right angle maybe even more important. The very bladed stance and reliance on the shoulder to deflect punches is a very linear approach.

If you can get out of that center line, many more options are open to you. Philly shell boxers are often not very mobile and tend to be stuck in one place trying to catch and counter or use waist movement. This is where your footwork to create angles comes into play.

Step away to their right hand. The right straight or uppercut off of a successful roll is their top money shot. So moving to the right can stop a successful counter, however, be careful of a potential counter left hook.

Step to the left. Always be mindful of the right straight that might be coming at you and be ready to block or dodge this by moving quickly. See examples below:

Chopping overhand

An excellent punch to land against a shoulder roll is a chopping overhand that comes from the top. Triple G often uses this punch against all opponents, but it is a great one to land over the lead shoulder of the opponent. It is even better as a part of a combo after a lab to the body or chest or from a very close range.

This punch may not be very wise in a bare-knuckle fight, but smashing the temple in a boxing fight is a fine tactic when done correctly. 

Throw with volume

The shoulder roll is a precision defensive style. It picks up and negates perfectly separate shots and basic 1-2 or 1-2-3 combos. The shoulder roll and right-hand parry are also incredible at catching alternating left-right combos. But this style is also susceptible to being overwhelmed with aggression and wild combos.

Throw same-side combos, use odd timing and just let your hands go. Try weird and unorthodox punches. The shoulder roll is perfect against textbook boxing, so ditch the textbook and throw weird punches. Hit them everywhere and make them uncomfortable.

In the fighting examples section of this article, you will see that even the greats have a difficult time dealing with a barrage of fast combinations using the Philly shell. And if they have problems dealing with volume and speed, chances are your opponent will have even more. 

Fight examples

Sugar Ray Leonard vs Floyd Mayweather Snr 

Floyd Mayweather Snr was an amazing boxer, but Sugar Ray Leonard is one of the pound-for-pound greats and dismantled the shoulder roll stance of Floyd with a few of the tactics outlined above.

Of course, replicating prime Sugar Ray Leonard’s speed and accuracy is impossible, and they were the most important factors in his victory, but his constant level of mixing and heavy-pressure attacks near the ropes are excellent examples of how to shut down a Philly shell and force the user to resort to a high guard. Also on display were some beautiful angles and heavy left hooks from southpaw. 

Roy Jones Jr vs James Toney 

James Toney was one of the best users of the shoulder roll, but against Roy Jones, he didn’t have an answer. As with the other examples, the speed seemed to be too much for the Philly shell. The gazelle left hook is typically a good weapon against it, and Jones happened to have one of the best gazelle punches ever, that caught Toney time and time again.

Tony did land some very good counters but had little to offer in terms of offense, which has often been shown to be a negative side of the shoulder roll stance. But to be honest, the biggest deciding factor in this fight was Roy Jones’s significant speed and athletic advantage that trumped all other tactics. 

Mosley vs Mayweather Jr.

Shane Mosley did lose to Floyd Mayweather Jr but hurt Floyd more than any other fighter did before or after that fight. This fight is an excellent example of the jab-to-the-body tactic I outlined above. Mayweather got caught with an overhand right after defending a Mosley jab to the chest and lowered his left hand. A minute later, in the same round, Mosley landed another shot that works very well against the shoulder roll, the chopping overhand.

Floyd was a great boxer and retired undefeated. He was able to adjust and use much more than the Philly shell to outbox every single opponent he faced, but we can still use him as an example of the few times he was in real trouble. This fight is also a good example for Philly shell fighters of how to adapt and let go of the stance when it’s no longer the best option. 

Maidana vs Broner

Marcos Maidana gives us the best example of how to overwhelm a Philly shell fighter. From the very beginning of the fight, Maidana’s unorthodox punch selection and relentless aggression gave Broner great trouble. Here you can see how well the chopping right performs in a firefight.

In the second round, the lesson in tactics and unorthodox punching continued with the left hook from a feinted body jab Marcos used to drop Broner.

The punch is definitely not the prettiest you will ever see, but it caught Broner precisely because it was weird and unexpected. The biggest drawback of this fight (aside from the satisfaction of witnessing the showboater Broner lose badly) is the chopping right (as mentioned above) that Maidana used all night long.

Canelo vs Plant

Against Caleb Plant, Canelo was coming up against a big super middleweight who likes to move counter punch while using the Philly shell/shoulder roll stance. Something he had an absolute nightmare against when facing Floyd Mayweather in his younger years.  

Just like in the Mayweather fight, Plant was countering Canelo with the right hand as he was coming into range. Alvarez adjusted to this very intelligently when after throwing his left hook or jab he would immediately use it to control the body or head of Plant. Which would stop Plant from being able to counterpunch himself.

Therefore, Canelo was able to throw the right hand over the shoulder roll which Plant uses so well. Or also using it as an opportunity to throw the right hand to the body to wear down Plant. Which he used very well over the rounds and eventually led to knocking out his competitor.

If you enjoyed or found this blog useful, make sure to check out more boxing technique articles below:

Jamie - Boxing Life

I'm a boxing analyst, amateur boxer, and blogger looking to pass on my boxing experiences and passion to anyone looking to learn or find out more about the sport of boxing. Whether that be gear reviews, fighter analysis, news, training tips, or my own personal journey, I'll be covering it on 'Boxing Life'.

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