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Why Do Fighters Put Ice On The Back Of Their Neck?

If you’ve ever seen a MMA or Boxing match that went past the first round, you may have seen the fighters’ respective corners putting ice on the back of their fighter’s neck. Sometimes, they may place the ice in different areas depending on the damage within the fight, such as on the legs or the chest.

Intuitively, you can guess that ice helps the fighter recover quicker. But what exactly is the effect of using ice in between rounds? Why do fighters put ice on the back of their necks? 

In short, fighters place ice on their neck in between rounds to cool down, control blood flow, and control their breathing. The muscles of the back tend to get hot during a fight, and cooling them with ice can help the muscle recover in between rounds. For the same reason, ice may be placed in areas injured during the fight, such as the thigh if a fighter has taken many leg kicks. 

There are many more cases in which ice has been applied to fighters, especially in MMA, where injuries can occur in many parts of the body. 

How Ice Helps Performance When Fighting

So as mentioned already, ice basically prevents a fighter from overheating and gassing out in the fight due to high activity in the muscles. Cooling down the muscles is crucial for the fighter in between rounds, as they only have one minute to recover from both damage and exhaustion taken during the previous round. 

The muscles of the back are used extensively by fighters, as you can note through Alistair Overeem's (right) back definition, noticeable in most fighters.
The muscles of the back are used extensively by fighters, as you can note through Alistair Overeem’s (right) back definition, noticeable in most fighters.

Cooling down the body in between rounds allows the fighter to recover quicker than if they didn’t use ice. This allows them to emerge from the break with less pain, and less exhaustion. 

Icing a fighter’s back can quickly rejuvenate the muscles and get them ready for another few minutes of tension and stress on the muscle.

Also, icing a part of the body can help numb the pain. According to this article, when ice is applied to a muscle, it causes the blood vessels of the muscle to constrict. Constricted blood vessels decrease blood flow to the damaged area. According to the article, “The decreased blood flow helps to decrease swelling, inflammation, pain, and muscle spasm”.

Anthony Pettis (right) has taken extensive damage to the inside of his leg, effectively limiting his ability to use it.
Anthony Pettis (right) has taken extensive damage to the inside of his leg, effectively limiting his ability to use it.

Feeling less pain in the muscles allows the fighter to use their full range of motion. This is important in a fight because having a greater range of motion means you can strike your opponent from more angles. It is the same reason a fighter’s reach is emphasized in Boxing and MMA.

Why Ice The Neck?

We know now that ice can help a fighter temporarily recover from pain, exhaustion, and inflammation. But why the neck in particular? It may seem like an arbitrary area to put ice on, as most of the punches are to the chest or stomach.

There are several reasons why icing the neck/back in particular is important. The first is how much work the back muscles do during a fight. If you’ve ever boxed before, you’ll know that it is a great back workout. Many of the muscles used to move the arms and shoulders are located in the upper back.

The majority of the upper back is used when extending the arms to punch as well as when holding them up to block.
The majority of the upper back is used when extending the arms to punch as well as when holding them up to block.

A fighter uses these back muscles extensively during a fight, usually keeping these muscles under constant tension and stress. This is not ideal for the muscles, as they can use excessive energy when under constant use.

In order to prevent overexertion of the muscles, ice is placed on the back to cool them down, reducing inflammation and slowing down the blood flow. Choosing to cool down the back versus any other part of the body makes sense when you consider the load carried by your back while boxing.

Another reason why ice might be applied to the neck is to help the fighter subdue the pain from potential whiplash. Whiplash is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a neck injury due to forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like the cracking of a whip”.

Whiplash is caused by sudden jolting of the head, such as when Francis Ngannou (left) knocked out Alistair Overeem.
Whiplash is caused by sudden jolting of the head, such as when Francis Ngannou (left) knocked out Alistair Overeem.

This forceful back-and-forth movement of the neck occurs when a fighter takes a punch, making whiplash especially common in Boxing and MMA competitions. Whiplash can also hinder performance during the fight, due to pain and stiffness in the neck. To hide the symptoms, ice is applied to the neck.

Icing Other Parts Of The Body

In boxing, ice bags are almost always reserved for the neck and the chest area. This makes sense, as the majority of shots that don’t land on the face are aimed at the chest and stomach. Placing ice on the chest is probably the next best option after icing the back and neck.

However in MMA and Kickboxing, strikes can land in various different areas, the main difference being the legs. Leg kicks are a devastating strike that can cripple a fighter’s legs quickly. These kicks can be aimed to the outside of the thigh, the inside of the thigh, and to the crook between the calf and the thigh (the back of the knee).

Former UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo (right) lands a leg kick behind Frankie Edgar's knee, in between the thigh and calf.
Former UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo (right) lands a leg kick behind Frankie Edgar’s knee, in between the thigh and calf.

When a fighter is repeatedly kicked to the legs, it is critical that the cornermen take notice, and apply ice to the area that is kicked. Leg kicks can cause fight-ending pain due to the kick landing with the shin bone, making it stronger than a punch or even an elbow. For that reason, many fighters ice the legs in between rounds.

This was the case when Henry Cejudo challenged Demetrious Johnson for the UFC Flyweight title at UFC 227. During round 1, it seemed like Demetrious landed a kick to the back of Cejudo’s knee that caused him to buckle. When Cejudo went back to his corner after round 1, his corner immediately applied ice to the back of the knee.

Considering how red the back of his knee was after the first round, that was a smart decision. Icing the back of the knee allowed Cejudo to continue fighting, eventually winning via split-decision.

A similar scenario occurred during another UFC fight between Lightweights Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. Gaethje is infamous for his use of leg kicks, and has even finished fights by TKO via leg kicks.

Dustin Poirier getting ice on his right leg in a fight where his opponent (Gaethje) kicked him relentlessly.
Dustin Poirier getting ice on his right leg in a fight where his opponent (Gaethje) kicked him relentlessly.

Early in the fight, Gaethje was landing leg kicks at will. When Dustin Poirier went back to his corner in between rounds, his cornermen applied ice to the inside of his left thigh, helping ease the pain so that he could remain in the fight.

He decided to take the leg kicks and focus on boxing Gaethje, a strategy that paid off in a 4th round knockout, and that was most likely possible due to icing his legs.

Lastly, I wanted to mention temporary relief from damage to the head, as this is obviously an area that takes damage in any fight. Icing can help alleviate the pain from blows received to the head. Former UFC Champ Georges St. Pierre famously held an ice pack to his head at the post-fight press conference after his fight against Johny Hendricks.

Ice For Injury Recovery

Placing ice on an injury in between rounds of a fight can help to temporarily alleviate the pain during the fight. However, some athletes use ice outside of the fight to help them recover further.

UFC Heavyweight Junior Dos Santos frequently uses ice baths for recovery during training camp.
UFC Heavyweight Junior Dos Santos frequently uses ice baths for recovery during training camp.

A prime example of this is the use of ice baths. Athletes in every sport use ice baths to recover after hard training sessions. According to Men’s Health, ice baths are effective because they flush away metabolic waste that builds up during a workout.

This is because ice causes the blood vessels to constrict while sitting in it. When you get out of the ice bath, the blood vessels open back up, allowing the fluids that were built up within to flush out of the vessels. Clearing the blood vessels increases blood flow, providing the cells with more nutrients and oxygen.

Another example of ice being used for recovery after a fight is when fighters dip their hands into ice water. This is done due to the damage fighters take to their hands from landing punches on the skull, which is the densest bone in the body. A good example of this is Floyd Mayweather, who injures his hands in most of his fights.

Pro boxer Paulie Malignaggi (right) places his hands in ice-water after his bare knuckle fight with Artem Lobov.
Pro boxer Paulie Malignaggi (right) places his hands in ice-water after his bare knuckle fight with Artem Lobov.

Although there is not much evidence to suggest that placing the hands in ice water will speed up recovery, it is a good way to numb the hands naturally so as not to deal with the pain while recovering.

Conclusion

Fighters use ice packs to temporarily alleviate pain during a fight. The reason they place ice on the neck and back is because this is the area that takes the highest toll during a fight, due to whiplash and extensive stress and constriction of the back muscles.

In terms of recovery, ice may help deal with pain, but there is not much evidence to suggest that ice on skin is effective at all. Ice baths however have shown to increase blood flow, helping in muscle recovery.

If you’re interested in learning more about techniques used by fighters, check out the Training Tips page. Thanks for reading!