To Roll or Not to Roll: The Case of Floyd Mayweather’s Shoulder Roll Defense

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Jayne Kamin Oncea USA TODAY Sports

In the build-up of what looms as one of the most important fights of the year, much has been said about the effectiveness of Floyd Mayweather’s vaunted defense against a heavy puncher such as Argentina’s Marcos Maidana.

And most of these comments have to do with Mayweather’s unique stance in the ring, a very peculiar defensive style commonly known as the shoulder roll, or “Philly crab defense”, or simply Philly defense among its most used names.

A good defense is always the most basic technical tool a fighter should have in his arsenal, but not only for defense’s sake, but also for the way in which it constitutes the foundation for the ensuing attack, because the way in which a fighter holds his hands defensively will be the initial position from which his attack will be launched.

Fighters who favor hooks and straight punches to the head as their most powerful tools usually leave their body intentionally unprotected (examples including Mike Tyson, Tommy Morrison and others) so they can launch their punches as soon as their opponents attempt to hit them in the midsection.

Others favor a more elusive style like the traditional bobbing and weaving technique (which requires lots of energy, which in turn can always backfire as a loss in the stamina department), and some prefer the cross-armed defense (an older, less refined version of the Philly roll), made famous by Joe Frazier, George Foreman (especially in the second part of his career in the ‘90s) and more.

But Mayweather’s technique is a very peculiar one, and it can be argued that Floyd has been the one who perfected it and gave it the most exposure. Most of shoulder roll practitioners (including defensive masters such as James Toney, Joan Guzman, Nicolino Locche and others) have used the technique somewhat sparingly, but Floyd uses it almost exclusively and has made it the backbone of his superb boxing style.

The question of whether Mayweather chose this style through trial and error or if it was imposed on him at an early age by his parent and uncles as the obvious choice that helped fill his style is not relevant. The obvious truth is that Mayweather and the Philly shoulder roll are now a boxing match made in heaven, and they continue to be one of the most effective successful partnerships in boxing.

The shoulder roll has as many advantages and disadvantages as all the others, but the difference here is how effectively Mayweather applies this defense in order to win fights. In other words, it doesn’t work just because it’s a very well-executed shoulder roll, it works because it’s Mayweather’s shoulder roll, and it is his personal mastery of this technique (as well as the many other features needed to make it work) what makes Floyd’s overall style so effective, especially aided by his undying dedication to his craft and his tireless training.

Here are some of the most salient features of the shoulder roll defense:

  • The basic posture requires the fighter to have his lead shoulder (left for orthodox fighters, right for southpaws) held high in front of his chin, protecting it and deflecting punches. That same arm is held low and the forearm is horizontally laid across the lower torso to protect the abdomen.
  • The opposite arm is held high over the opposite ear, protecting the other side of the face, and is occasionally used to deflect or block punches. Sometimes, catching a jab with the back hand can lead to a counter overhand right by simply sliding the punch over the opponent’s jab, deflecting it downwards and firing the quick straight right over it. The position of the body is slightly sideways, to avoid giving the opponent a wide frontal target that he can hit easily.
  • The style is best suited for counterpunchers, and it requires fighters to stand within arm’s reach of their opponents. Rolling the shoulders at the right moment not only renders your opponent’s attack ineffective, but also leaves him open to a counter on his weak side, on a weak defensive moment. Therefore, timing is of the essence in order to maximize the strength of the attack by connecting on the weakest spot at the weakest moment.
  • An advantage is the fact that the fighter rarely uses his hands to block punches, which is something that places a lot of stress and pain in the hands and joints. On the other hand, it exposes the lead shoulder too much, and the punches received in that area could affect the mobility and speed of that arm in the long run.
  • The fighter has to stand close to his opponent in a relatively stationary position to draw his attack, but this is compensated by the lack of exposure to an attack. If applied effectively, the punches are deflected or avoided with a very subtle head and shoulder movement, and it is a known fact that heavy punchers tend to more tired from missing than from landing their punches.
  • It is a style that requires the undivided attention of the practitioner to the action. The fighter saves energy by simply standing close to his foe and being able to pick his punches wisely and effectively, but in turn he will have to pay lots of attention to the action and remain unpredictable in his elusive movements. In other words, he should be one step ahead of the action even when counterpunching (which will be most of the time), guessing his opponent’s next move before he makes it and then making a counterattacking decision based on that combination. If the term “counter-mirroring” existed, I could use it here (or maybe I just came up with it and I’m humblebragging about it).

From all this, we can deduct that the shoulder roll is ideal for fighters with lots of hand speed, average or short reach, and an uncanny ability to counterattack effectively. But the most outstanding feature of the shoulder roll practitioner should be his ability to read his opponent’s combinations and be able to predict his moves. Maywether’s encyclopedic knowledge of boxing, nurtured through a career that started almost as soon as he was able to wear a pair of gloves, takes good care of this, and it may be the very reason why he is much more effective with this style than any other fighter who has ever used it.

But this, on the other hand, may also be the reason why Mayweather has avoided Manny Pacquiao so much, as the Filipino’s style is pure venom for Floyd’s defense. A successful counteraction to the shoulder roll would require an accurate jab and a strong follow-up right hand, and Pacquiao indeed possesses those two weapons. To make matters worse, the fleet-footed Pacquiao usually takes a step aside quickly after launching the one-two, leaving his opponent with no target to hit in his counterattack.

Also, the static position of the shoulder roller leaves him open to fighters who throw tons of punches from all angles in their combinations, and Pacquiao is the poster boy for that category. If Miguel Cotto was able to swarm Mayweather in the short range and land 23 percent of his power punches (a great percentage, considering that he managed to hold Mayweather to a meager 26 percent in total punches landed, one of his all-time lows) during those up-close attacks (probably aided by his “converted southpaw” status, which makes his jab more powerful and accurate than that of a naturally right-handed fighter jabbing with his weak hand), common sense indicates that Pacquiao (a fighter who can produce combinations of up to eight punches at a time with a high landing percentage) would give Mayweather more trouble than he is used to.

Sure, Pacquiao usually finds himself on the receiving end of lots of punches in every fight, and that only adds to the anticipation of a fight that everyone would love to see. But that will be the subject of a separate and much more intense analysis if it ever happens.

And once again, we’ll probably find that Mayweather is the favorite in that particular fight, especially considering how dominant he has been in the stats department. According to CompuBox, Mayweather owns a career plus/minus rating of +24, which means that he connects 24 percent more punches than what his opponents connect against him. That’s huge, considering that the second best (currently Gennady Golovkin) stands quite far at a +17.

This stat alone makes Mayweather the Jordan, the Gretzky or the Ruth of boxing. He is the best when it comes to hitting and not getting hit. And regardless of how this may translate into an attractive style for the casual fan, it still remains true and it is one of the most basic reasons why Mayweather is unanimously considered the best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound.

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