William Zabka swept the Karate Kid’s leg to great infamy in the ’80s movie classic. Now he’s the heart of the hit Netflix reboot series Cobra Kai. Read our Q&A with the star—but first, a rapid-fire round:
- Favorite martial arts discipline? Korean Tang Soo Do.
- Highest karate belt you’ve earned? Green.
- Best parental advice? Treat work like a sport.
- Go-to headbangers? Def Leppard, Whitesnake, and Zebra.
- Is Johnny a hero? More of an anti-hero.
Men’s Journal: Why does Cobra Kai make us laugh more than The Karate Kid did?
William Zabka: The show was pitched as a dramedy, but the writers come from Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold & Kumar, so while it has action, heart and nostalgia, they stretch the boundaries with humor. Originally, I was told the show could stand on its own without a Karate Kid character and we’d call it Bad Sensei.
Back in 1984, did you have any clue how iconic your bully character Johnny Lawrence would become?
I was just turning 18—I didn’t know what “iconic” meant. Even if nobody had ever seen the movie, it was already one of the most special experiences in my life because it was my first film and I was working with the director who made Rocky, John Avildsen. But The Karate Kid was like catching lightning in a bottle. It’s never gone away.
What’s the over/under on how many times you’ve had “Sweep the leg” quoted at you?
“Sweep the leg.” “No mercy.” “Get him a body bag.” All those quotes have followed me for three decades. It’s part of the culture, and it’s all good. My alarm clock says “Sweep the leg” when I wake up. No, no, that’s not true.
Do you get challenged to bar fights?
I think the end of the movie, where Johnny hands Daniel the trophy and has a moment of redemption, saved me from a lot of that. But after the film I trained in martial arts, and the real black belts would show off a bit by getting in a good shot on Johnny.
The Internet theorizes that Daniel was a bully and Johnny the good guy.
I produced those videos, and my plan worked! No, but my POV always was that Johnny was operating with the tools given to him by life and his sensei. He overdid it, but he didn’t instigate any of those fights. Like, here was this new guy who came to town and stole his girl!
Do you and Ralph Macchio ever draw blood in your fight scenes?
We shoot fast and hard on Cobra Kai, so don’t have time to practice perfectly. Luckily, nobody has been kicked in the face so far, but stuff does happen, so we compare bruises. We’re definitely taking Epsom salt baths at night.
Care to admit your ’80s guilty pleasures?
I’m all ’80s guilty pleasures. There’s something special about the music and art from the ’80s. About five years ago I got to go backstage at a Van Halen concert at the Hollywood Bowl and ended up playing my version of “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” on Eddie’s guitar. It was incredible.
The series has referenced some cheesy old photos from when you were super ripped.
If you were a teen star in the ’80s, you’d have those teen magazines coming at you, and next thing you know you’re standing next to a rock on the beach with your shirt off.
How do you keep fit now?
I buckle down with cardio and a high-protein diet with lots of vegetables. I’m standing next to Ralph, who weighs a buck fifty-five, so I have to keep slim.
But Johnny gets to binge on Coors and junk food.
Yeah, that guy must have a superhero metabolism. I mean, he eats Manwiches.
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