New Year’s Day marked the Season 3 premiere of Cobra Kai on Netflix, the perfect way to celebrate what’s regarded by many as one of the laziest days of the year (On a personal note, I recently transferred from Team “Up and at em! New Year, New Me.” to Team “Why didn’t I go to bed earlier? I’m going to feel like trash all day. And for what, Carson Daly? Oh lord, why don’t I respect myself?”). After the previous season’s dramatic finale, I, along with a projected 41 million households, couldn’t wait to dive back in and get caught up with arguably the world’s two most prolific fictional karate dojos.
After finishing the tenth and final episode of the season, I found myself inspired to watch 1984’s The Karate Kid (Cobra Kai is a modern continuation of the stories that began with the Karate Kid franchise) in its entirety, something I probably hadn’t done in a good 25, maybe 30 years. I walked away from the viewing with an unexpected sense of enlightenment, but before we get into that, I do have a few thoughts on Cobra Kai that I’d like to share. If you haven’t gotten the chance to watch it yet, and/or if you have no interest in hearing about it, I’ll post a photo of a chimp wearing a nice shirt when I’m done talking about it and you can just meet back up with the rest of us there.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously theorized that, in order to truly master a skill at an elite level, you’d have to practice that skill for 10,000 hours. Well, Gladwell clearly never tried learning karate, because it doesn’t seem like it takes much training at all. Daniel’s daughter Sam grew up studying it, so I get that, but based on the progress her classmates have demonstrated, I’m starting to think it takes a few weeks, maybe months, to get really, really good at it. Some of these kids show up with zero athletic ability, take a few lessons here and there, and three weeks later they’re power rangers.
Here’s my current theory: Much like how younger brains have been proven more receptive when it comes to learning a foreign language, perhaps teenagers just take to karate incredibly well, which is precisely why I now aim to never engage in a karate battle against a high schooler. Think about it — with every generation comes countless new leisure activities for teens to engage in, and instead of doing TikTok dances or flying a drone, you mean to tell me my potential opponent still chose to study more effective ways to hurt people? No thanks, I’m out. My window for karate battling teenagers sadly closed without a single battle, and that’s something I’m just going to have to live with. With that said, I do, however, stand my belief that if you see someone walking around in their karate attire, you should be allowed to challenge them for their belt right then and there. I’m just going to ask what grade they’re in before I strike.
And while we’re on the subject of high schoolers and karate battles: Granted, the second season ended with that incredible Kingsmen-esque brawl that spilled all over the high school and almost got a guy killed, and yes, I know you’ve got to continually raise the stakes to keep things fresh every year, but man, these kids are really committing CRIMES crimes now. I’m not sure how long they plan to keep airing this show, but one or two more seasons like this and we’re definitely heading into Breaking Bad territory before it’s all said and done.
The way things have gone down over the past two seasons in particular, I think it’s fair to say that the only difference between a karate dojo and a straight-up street gang comes down to how often you have to wear shoes. And by the way, are some of these other parents going to get a bit more involved anytime soon? Will Smith’s mom shipped him 3,000 miles west to live with his Auntie and Uncle after one little fight, and while that does seem like a bit of an overreaction, most of these Cobra Kai parents aren’t even showing up — they just keep sending their battered and bruised children back to their respective dojos with no questions asked. If you’re Demtri’s mother or father, and your son has his arm broken during a run-in with a rival dojo, I don’t know if you want him taking much more karate (obviously his defense leaves something to be desired) or much less (i.e., none at all), but you’ve got to step in and make a call either way. Also, let’s not gloss over the act of intentionally breaking someone’s arm — that’s assault, brother. Basically, all these kids are throwing their lives away, and karate’s at the root of the whole thing. You’ve got old-school vets fighting for control of the same locations, and you’ve got lower-tier representatives who know the power’s in the numbers, constantly trying to bring new kids over to their side. Long story short, Cobra Kai is The Wire of the West; karate the crack of The Valley.
Speaking of legitimate crimes, stealing a stuffed animal from a prize booth, as we saw some of the Cobra Kais do back in episode five, is far from an innocent prank. In fact, a gentleman was sentenced to some serious jail time for stealing some from a carnival back in 2013. It’s not exactly apples to apples because his original plan was to steal an ATM, and when he discovered that single-handedly stealing an ATM was tougher than expected, he was like “Well, I’m stealing something today,” called an audible and grabbed the stuffed animals. Also, he confessed to a bunch of other things like breaking into an RV and stealing a television and a space heater, and also stealing a motor from a boat in his neighborhood, so he had a few other things going on, but regardless, it’s still bad.
As can be expected, stealing an animal from a zoo, which they did in episode nine, is much, much worse. Take this teenager, for example, who stole a lemur and got three months in prison:
Lemurs are endangered, so the punishment there is likely a bit more severe than stealing a cobra, but I may never know for sure because I can’t think of a way to inquire about this without sounding exactly like someone who plans to steal some zoo animals. “Hello, Zoo? Hi, what’s the punishment if someone steals one of your snakes? Oh, I was just curious — it’s for an article I’m writing. What’s that? No, it’s about The Karate Kid, actually. Yes, the movie from 1984. What organization am I with? Um, well it’s independent research.” As you can see, there’s no way this story ends without my name being added to some kind of government watch list, so let’s just assume it’s not lemur bad, but bad nonetheless.
Oh, speaking of zoo animals, let’s go ahead and get everybody else back on board:
See, nice shirt, right? Anyway, as I said before, Cobra Kai inspired me to watch The Karate Kid from start to finish for the first time in probably a good 25–30 years, and it’s important to specify the “start to finish” part, because I’ve watched the ending a good three, maybe four thousand times over that same period. Whenever I turn on the television, and The Karate Kid is anywhere close to wrapping up, I immediately cancel my plans (of which I obviously have none, hence all the The Karate Kid watching) and check it out.
*Warning: Spoilers for a 37 year old karate movie ahead*
If you’re unfamiliar with The Karate Kid, here’s a quick summary: Daniel moves to California and starts getting in fights with a guy named Johnny. Johnny’s really good at karate, so Daniel needs to sharpen his karate as well. Fortunately, Daniel’s maintenance man happens to be an expert, and he teaches Daniel by basically making him clean his house. Daniel takes that new janitorial karate knowledge and enters the All Valley Karate Tournament, where he faces off against two-time champion Johnny in the finals.
We now return to the All Valley championship, already in progress:
Anyone who’s seen The Karate Kid knows it’s a shining example of quality storytelling, but it’s an absolute master class when it comes to story ending, which brings us to Life Lesson No. 1: A great storyteller never wears out his welcome.
The art of storytelling, like most things, is presumably some combination of natural ability, practice through repetition and internalized feedback; you probably know someone who can make a story about going to the DMV both hilarious and exciting, and you probably know someone else who can make what should be a hilarious, exciting story feel like going to the DMV.
What The Karate Kid did so incredibly well, is it ended as quickly as humanly possible, leaving the audience no time at all to start wishing it was over. Approximately 31.82 seconds after Daniel defeats Johnny with the unstoppable crane kick, the whole thing’s over. During those 31.82 seconds, Johnny says “You’re all right, La Russo,” Daniel gives a distracted “Thanks a lot” and starts celebrating, freeze frame on Mr. Miyagi to satisfy the law passed in 1982 that all movies had to end on a freeze frame, start the credits and we’re out of there. There’s no further resolution, no “the following day,” no post-credit scene, nothing. “Who won the big fight? Oh, Daniel? Dope, good for him.” And then everybody gets to go home. How’s Mrs. LaRusso’s new job? Who knows. Did Daniel pass any of his classes that semester? Who cares. The Karate Kid gave us exactly what we needed before immediately sending us on our way, and we should all be so courteous with other peoples’ time.
Say you’re hanging out with a few of your friends, and you decide to tell them about the time you spotted your ex across the room in a crowded bar. After you cap things off with something like, “So I’m all ‘Uh, check please!’ (you’re a very witty storyteller) and I run out the back door,” that’s that, story over. The end is the end; you don’t then start talking about how you took an Uber back to your neighborhood, stopped by the convenience store for some Gatorade, went home and watched Good Times episodes on TV One until you passed out on the couch. That’s not the story. Nobody needs that part.
As The Karate Kid reminds us, it’s always important to respect a story’s natural conclusion. I don’t want to put any pressure on you here, but once your story passes that point, everyone listening will start to hate your guts. Not necessarily a lot, mind you, and probably not forever, but just enough. It’s like they’re eating a delicious bag of popcorn and the final three pieces are all burnt — sure they had a great time overall, but still, what an awful conclusion.
The second great lesson of The Karate Kid is far less practical than the first, but extremely important nonetheless. When speaking of Abraham Lincoln, noted orator Robert Ingersoll once said that if you want to know a man’s character, give him power. Along those same lines, noted karate movie The Karate Kid teaches that if you want to know a man’s true potential, watch what happens when someone kicks him in the face.
Say you’re at a bar, party, sporting event etc. with a friend, and for whatever reason, someone kicks them in the face. As soon as you can get them to safety, maybe ask if they’ve got a five-year plan, or what they’d do for a living if money wasn’t a concern. You could try asking what they’d pitch if they found themselves on Shark Tank the following day, it’s really up to you. I don’t understand the science behind it, but there seems to be a moment of big-picture evaluation that comes with being kicked in the face. For some reason, that kick prompts you to finally see the light, and as long as it’s the “Oh, I get it now” kind of light and not the “Walk towards the light” kind, it’s a great opportunity for personal growth.
During the dramatic final showdown at the All Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny Lawrence continues to be the huge jerk he was for the previous 98% of the movie. He shoves Daniel between points, talks a little trash, fights super dirty (the “sweep the leg” part was just good strategy; jabbing his elbow into it later went beyond the pale), you name it. All of a sudden Daniel pulls out the crane kick, Johnny takes a foot to the face, and just like that, he realizes that maybe Daniel’s not such a bad guy after all. He even personally hands him the trophy, which was kind of rude because he ripped it out of the announcer’s hand to do so, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and Johnny had a rack of impulse control problems he was dealing with, so it’s the thought that counts. Long story short, sometimes a foot to the face is the hard reboot one’s system needs to get itself recalibrated, to which I offer you a pair of real world examples.
On April 30, 2011, Randy Couture, one of the most famous MMA fighters of all time, took to the octagon in a match against Lyoto Machida. Machida kicked him in the face, Couture hit the ground, and when he got up, he began looking for a new line of work.
(Warning: Video obviously features a guy getting kicked in the face)
This wasn’t Couture’s first attempt at retirement; he’d called it quits after a loss to Chuck Lidell five years before, but only managed to stay away for 11 months. The difference between the two retirements? Liddell merely punched him over and over again, an effective way to win but far less effective when it comes to changing one’s life. After Machida kicked Couture in the face, his thoughts of retirement finally stuck, and a world of new possibilities opened up for the first time. He became a coach on an MMA reality show, dove into a blossoming acting career, went on Dancing with the Stars, and in all likelihood, doesn’t get kicked in the face anymore. Things are really looking up for ol’ Randy.
The same thing happened on May 12, 2018, only this time to former UFC light heavyweight champ Vitor Belfort. Lyoto Machida kicked this guy in the head too, knocked him out, and when Belfort came to, he was like “Yup, that’s gonna do it.”
(Warning: Video features more face-kicking)
Belfort announced his retirement while still in the octagon that night:
“Life is about beginning, middle, and end, and I think I come to the end, so congratulations to Machida and I’m leaving my gloves here,” he said (you know, once he was putting complete sentences together again and what not ). “…I think it’s time for me to take care of my family and my endeavors.”
Time to take care of my family and my endeavors. You know who that sounds like? That’s right, it sounds like a dude who just got kicked in the face.
Rumor has it that Belfort is planning to come out of retirement this year for a fight in another promotion, but just like Johnny Lawrence’s eventual returns to jerk-dom, not all abrupt life changes are permanent, even if/when they should be. You can face-kick a guy to water, but you can’t face-kick him to drink.
My earlier praise for the perfect ending has left me all kinds of paranoid about taking too long to wrap this up, so in conclusion, think of The Karate Kid when you’re telling your friends a story, don’t strut around in a karate belt unless you’re prepared to defend it, and nothing prompts deep reflection and personal growth quite like a kick to the face.