Mark Hunt is renowned for his iron chin and his toughness, and rightfully so. The Super Samoan has been through more than his fair share of wars in the ring and in the cage, and very few have been able to break him. What few talk about, however, are the subtle tricks that Hunt uses to keep himself in the fight long enough to accomplish his goal: knock the other bloke out.
Mark Hunt is, to this day, one of the few fighters to use rolling defensive movements in both kickboxing and MMA. These movements are strikingly reminiscent of Philly fighters from the schools of Eddie Futch and George Benton, including Benton himself. Today we’re going to take a look at these movements, and how Hunt uses them to stay conscious, find angles, and put people away.
THE REAL “PHILLY SHELL”
The term “Philly Shell” is a funny one. Wherever it was coined, it was first popularized in EA’s series of Fight Night games. Since then, it has inexplicably become the lingua franca name for the style utilized by Floyd Mayweather Jr. (and his father as well), and the similar but distinct movements of James “Lights Out” Toney. There’s just one problem: these men are from Detroit which, despite sharing some similarities, is still a pretty long way from the city of brotherly love.
Fortune favors us, however, because there’s another school of boxers that actually do hail from Philadelphia, and yes: they do use a shell-like defense. The students of Eddie Futch and George Benton have a system of boxing that makes use of the gloves, arms, shoulders, and even the top of the head to block, deflect, and otherwise redirect punches from their intended targets. Men like Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and Bennie Briscoe, an underrated great who actually beat Benton, who was himself the finest example of the depth of the Philly style. Two of the men on that list, by the way, defeated Muhammad Ali.
Like the Detroit boxers, Philly fighters tended to fight out of what Floyd Mayweather Sr. calls the “crab” position. It’s a very old stance with a long and convoluted history in boxing. Essentially, it looks like this:
Whereas the Detroit fighters would stay mostly upright in this position, however, and use twisting movements of the upper body to bring the left shoulder and right hand into defensive action, the Philly fighters used their crossed arms to block body punches while they used rolling and dipping movements of the upper body to avoid shots to the head. The Philly Shell also made use of the top of the head as a tool for deflecting punches and creating openings. You can see “Bad” Bennie Briscoe doing plenty of that in this highlight.
This is also something you’ll notice in the movements of Bernard Hopkins, who was never a student of Benton or Futch, but shares many elements of their system nonetheless.
THE SAMOAN SHELL
So what does all of this have to do with Mark Hunt?
Well, if you watch Hunt on the defensive, you’ll spot some striking similarities to the Philly school of boxing. What is impressive is how well Hunt has adapted these techniques to kickboxing and MMA, sports which tend to frown upon “excessive” head movement, whatever that means.
This style seems to have evolved as a way for Hunt to conserve energy, because his style has always been one that relies on sudden, explosive movements to close the distance on much taller, longer opponents. To that end, a style rife with movement would only make it more difficult for Hunt to uncork the fight-ending punches for which he has become famous as the fight goes on–punches which a BE community member affectionately described as Hunt “slinging meteors from his waist.”
It’s an apt description.
To increase his chances of continuing to perform these movements late into the fight, Hunt has developed a simple but effective method of defense–one very similar to the Philly Shell. First, there is the guard.
Here, cornered by Jerome Le Banner, Hunt lowers his hands, which any tired fighter can tell you is far easier than keeping them constantly high. Using his forearms, he guards his body, and more or less allows Le Banner to throw knees and punches while he protects his head with little dips and twists of his upper body. Then, when Le Banner is starting to grow confident in the pocket, Hunt unleashes a scything left hook that just misses, but is more than enough to convince Le Banner to shove Hunt into the corner and retreat to reevaluate his chances with this cornered beast.
This is a highly strategic approach to fighting that George Benton used often. Covering his body and keeping an eye out for head punches, Benton would stand on the inside with his opponents and simply . . . let them throw.
Above, you can see Benton allowing Allen Thomas to throw punches at his forearms and elbows. His goal here is not to make himself a difficult target, but rather to make himself an ineffective one. By standing in range and picking off the shots as they come, Benton encourages his opponent to throw. This might seem counter-intuitive, but consider: if Benton is able to stop those flurried of punches from doing damage while making his opponent commit his energy to the hard work of throwing punches, then who is really winning in the long run?
This has been Hunt’s approach for a long time. Comfortable in a brawl, Hunt has nonetheless spent a vast amount of time making small adjustments on the inside, blocking body shots–and yes, eating punches–all while eying his opponent and biding his time for the right opportunity. Against Mark Hunt, it only takes one opening–a single misplaced punch or lazy defensive movement–to wind up a tangled heap on the canvas.
Next there is the upper body movement. Hunt, like the Philly fighters, favors small slips and dipping, rolling movements that stem from the hips and make his head a very difficult target to find. These evasive maneuvers were instrumental in Hunt’s thrilling win over Roy Nelson in September.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Roy Nelson approaches.
2. As Nelson feints with his left hand and winds up his right, Hunt begins to change levels.
3. Now fully lowered, Hunt rolls to his left, bringing his head toward his left knee. Nelson misses.
4. Hunt pops up on the other side . . .
5. . . . and safely resets.
Nelson has always had excellent timing and accuracy with his bomb of a right hand. To give him credit, his right hand in frame 3 passes right through the spot where Hunt’s head had been–only Hunt’s head isn’t there anymore, and Nelson’s whiffed punch costs him precious energy, and undoubtedly wears on his confidence.
There aren’t many mixed martial artists with the confidence and experience necessary to let their opponents attack them, but Hunt is not your average mixed martial artist. If anything, his approach has become more refined with time–he’s trimmed the fat, so to speak (haha). Where the Hunt of old would throw a wide variety of kicks and jump knees, the current iteration is more wont to throw simple, effective counter strikes. Stiff jabs, fade-away left hooks, and heavy right handed blows that go upward, downward, around, or straight on through depending on the circumstances and the openings Hunt sees.
In part this is due to Hunt’s age. The man is 40, and not getting any younger. But this is the way of all great, old fighters. As their age increases and their endurance fades, they pare down the elements of their styles until only the most tried and true techniques remain. Hunt no longer rushes headlong around the cage, throwing wild punches at every opportunity–his bursts are shorter, and less frequent, but no less dangerous. In fact, Hunt may be more accurate than ever before.
Of course, Hunt is no George Benton. His defense is, to put it bluntly, a bootleg version of the Philly Shell at best. It is efficient, though, and that’s really all that Hunt cares about. In a way, efficiency is really the predominate factor in modern heavyweight MMA, and heavyweight combat sports in general. With every punch that Hunt blocks or evades, his opponent is wasting energy–the kind of energy that most 265 lb men just don’t have. And the less energy Hunt himself can expend in the process, the more likely he is to overtake his opponent in the later stages of the fight (GIF).
It doesn’t sound as exciting as we might like, but heavyweight fights are precarious affairs in which a single punch, whether missed or landed, can change an entire fight.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. Tune in to Episode 26 to hear Connor and his co-host Patrick Wyman break down Hunt vs Werdum, as well as all of this weekend’s other important fights.
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