You’re probably already familiar with “The Philly Shell” in Boxing as it was heavily utilized at a masterful level by Floyd Mayweather Junior.
Floyd has been using the shoulder roll to defend jabs from his chin and keep the rear hand high to protect against any incoming straight power shots.
Not only does Floyd have an undefeated record with this style but has also been able to amass hundreds of millions of dollars in fighting MMA fighters like Conor McGregor and YouTubers like Logan Paul.
The Philly Shell, also known as “The Crab”, has been popularized by Floyd in Boxing where you only need to worry about fists coming at you. But when it comes to mixed martial arts you have to always be thinking about such a wide range of strikes and takedowns that can come your way possibly making this stance and fighting style pointless.
But can you use the Philly shell in MMA? Here’s the short answer:
The Philly Shell can be used as a fighting stance in MMA and works particularly best as a takedown defense. The shoulder roll is effective against a cross but is more susceptible to leg and head kicks. It has been successfully used by MMA fighters Robert Whittaker and Bobby Green.
If you want to learn more about how the Philly shell works and see how this stance has been used effectively in actual UFC fights then keep on reading.
How the Philly shell works
The Philly shell is first and foremost a defensive posture that is aimed at blocking most of the regular punches that come your way, whilst offering the openings to counterpunch faster.
But it isn’t a perfect defense by any means and that’s why you’ll only ever see fighters at their peak actually using it. The stance requires an elite level of detection of the opponent and lightning-fast head movement.
Here’s how the basics work from an orthodox (same as Mayweather) stance:
The Philly shell orthodox stance
The stance is side-on so that your body doesn’t face your opponent but away to the side, creating a much smaller target area.
The left arm tucks in and around the body, protecting it from body shots.
The right arm stays up protecting the head, but can be either closer to your left shoulder to add protection on your chin on incoming strikes or when parrying the opponent’s jab or tucked tight to the side of the face to protect against hooks.
Working the jab
The Philly shell is a highly defensive position, but you need to be an expert boxer to be able to keep fighting whilst using it.
Working the jab is an important part of that, as you’ll need to have quick reflexes to bring the left hand all the way up from your waist and extend the whole arm to hit your target.
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Floyd Mayweather makes this look easy, but it takes a lot of training to be that fast to make what is a more difficult, energy-consuming, and slower attack look and work fast in the ring.
The left shoulder then plays the part in defending against a right cross from an orthodox opponent by lifting the shoulder up against an incoming cross and deflecting most of its power away from the chin.
Body hooks are defended by the left hand covering the body.
The right hand then does a lot of the work in parrying jabs, defending against hooks against the head, and used in the counter.
In the main Philly shell stance, most counters will come from when the opponent is making their power cross.
The shoulder should be lifted when the cross is coming in to parry its power away from the chin, which should swing your body inward if you perform it right. With the opponent then off balance and their cross falling to your right side, it leaves their face wide open for a counter cross punch.
This has been a staple in Floyd Mayweather’s tactics against many great fighters as he has been able to deflect most danger strikes, letting his opponent get more fatigued and simply being defensive and waiting for these openings.
Modified Philly shell for MMA
The Philly shell can be used not just in boxing, but in mixed martial arts as well. But it needs to be modified to be adaptable to the constantly changing dynamics of an MMA fight.
You have to be aware of all the variety of strikes coming at your head, body, and legs, as well as the takedowns from grappling fighters. Because the attack can come from anywhere, you can’t just stay in one stance for a whole fight and expect to win.
The Philly shell has been adapted quite well defensively against wrestlers by adjusting it to have the left hand dropped to the side. Robert Whittaker uses this technique successfully against Colton Smith at UFC 160 (more on that below, so keep reading!).
This stance could also be used to maintain a more grounded posture against an incoming takedown attempt. By being faced side-on and one leg further back behind the other, you would have more balance and the stability to shift your weight forward into the opponent making it more difficult for them to take you down.
With one hand lower than the other it makes you more likely to have an under-hook against the takedown which massively increases your chances to defend them.
When the Philly shell has been used in MMA
The Philly shell has been used not only in Boxing by the likes of Floyd Mayweather, James Toney, and Bernard Hopkins but also in mixed martial arts.
In the UFC, a handful of fighters with great levels of boxing have used variants of the Philly shell to protect themselves, bob and weave from big shots and even defend themselves from grapplers who have a strong base for wrestling.
Robert Whittaker vs Colton Smith
For UFC 160, Robert Whittaker utilized a modified version of the Philly shell to beat a dominant wrestler, Colton Smith.
Whittaker knew that Smith would try to go for takedown attempts to bring him to the ground and beat him there. Whittaker is at his best in the standup, so he decided to use a side-stance similar to that of the Philly shell.
The only difference was that in Whittaker’s version he kept his left hand (that would normally protect his body) down to his side. It meant that he could be more open to Colton’s powerful cross if he didn’t use the shoulder roll effectively and it actually dropped him in the first round.
With his left hand lowered he knew that in a takedown attempt from Smith he could have one hand underneath him for the under-hook which gives him an advantage in defending a takedown.
Whittaker talks more about the strategy in this interview.
He knew that in some ways he was at more risk of being dropped
Bobby “King” Green is another example of a highly skilled striker who used a style similar to the Philly shell against several fighters like Pat Healy, Lando Vannata, and Rashid Magomedov.
Bobby uses many similarities of the Philly shell, like lifting the left shoulder and rolling incoming punches away from his chin by twisting his body inward and usually swiftly responding with a counter cross.
A bit of the difference is that Bobby would use the lighter-footed ability in an octagon to spring backward away from punches.
He’d also have his hands very low up until the moment he was “in the pocket” with another fighter. At that point, you’d often see him swaying left and right to deflect the power of punches and finish with a bob underneath to getaway.
Common questions about the Philly shell
Now that you understand how the Philly shell works, let me answer a few of the questions I can see floating around in your brain.
Does the Philly shell work in MMA?
The Philly shell works in MMA if it’s adapted against grapplers. A lower lead hand allows a fighter to under-hook takedown attempts and the side-on stance gives them more upper stability to stop being pushed over.
Why do they call it the Philly shell?
The Philly shell is believed to have been coined because of George Benton’s boxing success with combining the cross-arm defense and shoulder roll and that he was born in Philadelphia. No one has proven exactly where it began, but this is the most common belief for the Philly shell origins.
How do you fight against the Philly shell?
To fight against the Philly shell and win, you’d need to use jabs and feints to create openings in their defense. Use your jab a lot to poke the Philly shell fighter to open their body defense wider before cracking them in the chest and ribs.
You can also make use of the low body jab to force them to bring their guard tighter and shoulder down before catching them with an overhand cross. The cross needs to come over their shoulder where they can’t deflect it and get them right between the eyes.
The Philly shell is primarily a defensive boxing style that, like most defensive styles, requires an expert level of fighting experience and agility. Floyd Mayweather was able to use this technique to become an undefeated boxer and it has also been used with some levels of success in MMA for high-level strikers.
I’ve been practicing a bit of this technique myself but after doing a lot of research about it for this article I know for sure I am going to try incorporating it even more into sparring practice.
I personally love defensive styles and being able to duck, weave, and deflect every swing coming at you not only looks cool but feels amazing.
Joe Bloom is the lead author and editor of MMA Hive. Joe has been a passionate mixed martial artist in training since 2019, having studied Boxing and Muay Thai at BaliMMA and Soma Fight Club, as well as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with RitualsJJ.