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The Untold Truth Of Johnny Lawrence From The Karate Kid

There might just be no movie bully more iconic — or more cutthroat — than blonde terror Johnny Lawrence of "The Karate Kid." Played to perfection by William Zabka (who thankfully has never quite outgrown the role), Johnny spends much of the original martial arts classic beating up Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso (who may not be as innocent as you'd think) while pining after his ex-girlfriend Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). For decades, Johnny was just seen as the classic bully archetype who didn't have much else going on beyond his desire to torment the young karate prodigy, but that would all change in 2018 with the debut of "Cobra Kai."

While the series has gradually become about both Daniel and Johnny, the truth is that when "Cobra Kai" first started it was heavily focused on the latter and his "redemption arc" in becoming a karate sensei, though one who was completely unlike his own former master John Kreese (who also returned in the show). Since the original film, it's become clear that there's more to Johnny than what he did in high school, and "Cobra Kai" has managed to reinterpret the original film retroactively, making Johnny a bit more sympathetic in the hearts and minds of many. 

While Johnny Lawrence might've been the villain in the '80s, he's something of a hero now. Of course, even heroes have their fair share of secrets. Let's take a look at the untold truth of the "Karate Kid" and "Cobra Kai" legend, Johnny Lawrence.

Johnny was an abused kid

A little known fact about Johnny Lawrence — one that wasn't revealed until "Cobra Kai," decades after the original 1984 film — is that he was actually a victim of abuse. No, we're not talking about everything that happened with John Kreese (which certainly also qualifies), but rather everything that happened with his stepfather, a wealthy man named Sid Weinberg (played by the late Ed Asner) who abused the young boy verbally and emotionally. As Johnny got older, the abuse only got worse, and by the time Johnny lost the 1984 All Valley Tournament to Daniel LaRusso (due to a possibly illegal crane kick, we might add), Sid only became more enraged and frustrated with his "freeloading" stepson.

As Johnny got older and partied his way through his 20s and 30s, Sid only became more disdainful towards him and often belittled Johnny's accomplishments and goals. After the death of his wife, Johnny's mother Laura, Sid seemingly made a promise to always look out for his stepson, a promise he only sort of delivered on. He occasionally helped Johnny financially (though he always made a stink about it), but possibly the biggest "gift" he gave him was continuing to allow Johnny access to the Encino Oaks Country Club after the young Lawrence vandalized the building. After years of taking abuse from Sid, Johnny eventually repaid the man of all his debts and walked out of his stepfather's life forever.

He's not really the bad guy

Okay, for some this might be a stretch, but from a certain point of view Johnny Lawrence isn't actually the villain of "The Karate Kid" – Daniel LaRusso is. This has been a theory that's made its rounds throughout the "Karate Kid" fandom for years (even getting a write-up in Entertainment Weekly in 2015), only to be somewhat confirmed by "Cobra Kai." At one point in the series, Johnny explains his longtime rivalry with LaRusso to his new student (and surrogate son) Miguel Diaz, further emphasizing that, in Johnny's mind, it was Daniel who initiated the conflict all those years ago (Johnny was trying to turn his life around after all). Combine this with Daniel's adult bullying of Johnny ("I kicked him in his face") and it becomes pretty clear that Lawrence didn't set out to bully LaRusso from the beginning.

Of course, this doesn't absolve Johnny of all his own sins — especially beating on Daniel with his gang of Cobra Kais back in high school — but acknowledging that Johnny didn't start the feud is a good start. At the end of "The Karate Kid," Johnny is remorseful of his role in nearly crippling Daniel during the All Valley Tournament, and personally hands him the trophy after the karate rookie wins. ("You're alright, LaRusso!") In "The Karate Kid, Part II," it becomes even clearer that John Kreese, Johnny's sensai, is the real villain after he nearly kills Johnny in the parking lot. Thank God Mr. Miyagi stepped in.

His mother's death broke him

After Johnny's father left him and his mother Laura, Johnny developed deep abandonment issues that manifested in a few different ways, but mainly by holding onto objects that once belonged to his father. Eventually, Laura discovered Johnny's secret stash and explained that they would be living with her new husband and Johnny's new stepfather, Sid Weinberg. Since Johnny was still pretty young, he threw a tantrum and, naturally, had a hard time dealing with the change. Thankfully, his mother was there to help him through it. Even when Sid belittled Johnny, Laura often stood in the gap to protect her son.

It's no wonder, then, that when Laura passed away in 2002 it sent Johnny into a downward spiral of alcohol abuse. For months, Johnny continued to binge drink and work odd jobs to maintain his rocky lifestyle. In that time, he began seeing fellow alcoholic Shannon Keene, who got pregnant with his son, Robby. Unfortunately, while he was drowning in his own grief, Johnny missed the birth of his son, who would grow up just as troubled as Johnny did. This would haunt him for years, believing that he had "failed [his] kid on his very first day in the world." Sadly, rather than rectify that failure immediately, Johnny takes multiple seasons of "Cobra Kai" to even begin to try and be a father to his son.

How I Met Your Mother sparked Cobra Kai

Did you know that "How I Met Your Mother" featured appearances from both William Zabka and Ralph Macchio? First appearing in the episode "The Bro Mitzvah," Macchio and Zabka were invited to Barney Stinson's (Neil Patrick Harris) bachelor party, where it's revealed that Barney believes Johnny Lawrence is the true "Karate Kid," and that Daniel LaRusso is the movie's ultimate villain. Though Barney believes the wrong Karate Kid is attending his party, the party's clown removes his makeup at just the right time and reveals himself to be none other than William Zabka himself.

After this, Zabka became a recurring character throughout the series' final season, with plenty of "Karate Kid" related jokes to keep longtime fans sticking around for more. As fate would have it, Zabka's role on "How I Met Your Mother" heavily influenced the development of the "Karate Kid" sequel series "Cobra Kai," which began as a YouTube Red series before eventually moving to Netflix in its third season. Here, Johnny's story is explored in greater detail, with further emphasis on the fact that he's the hero of his own story — though, admittedly, not without his own faults. It's funny to think that a random guest stint on a popular sitcom is what helped bring us "Cobra Kai," but hey, who are we to complain?

It took Johnny decades to get over Ali

Johnny's entire character arc in the original "Karate Kid" is sparked by his desire to get back together with his ex-girlfriend Ali Mills, who he had been with for two years prior. That's why Johnny was initially on the beach that night, and why he insisted on talking to Ali (albeit, rudely) before Daniel (also rudely) intervened. Although Daniel began dating Ali not long after, Johnny regretfully kept his distance — at least until Daniel struck back on Halloween. Enraged and hoping to get Daniel out of the way so he could reunite with Ali, Johnny attacked Daniel and eventually fought him at the 1984 All Valley Tournament, though he lost. After this, he didn't speak to Ali again.

Sadly, Johnny never quite found closure in his relationship with Ali, at least not for another few decades. Eventually, Johnny's student Miguel was able to convince his sensei to reach out to Ali on Facebook, to accept her friend request and try and reconnect. While Johnny does eventually reconnect with Ali, he realizes that her life is messy too, just like his, and that he needs to stop living in the past and instead live for the present. After over 20 years of being hung up on his old high school girlfriend, Johnny finally moves on and is able to officially commit to his current love interest Carmen, who just so happens to also be Miguel's mom.

His favorite movie is a Top Gun ripoff

If there's one thing about Johnny Lawrence that everyone knows, it's that he's a fan of all things '80s. Whether he's blasting bands like Poison or Guns N Roses, or making his son's middle name "Swayze" (yes, really), Johnny knows how to keep the spirit of the '80s alive well into the 21st century. But did you know that his all-time favorite movie is actually a "Top Gun" ripoff? That's right, according to "Cobra Kai," Johnny's favorite film is a 1986 military action film called "Iron Eagle," which starred Jason Gedrick and Louis Gossett, Jr. It's no wonder he would end up naming his own dojo "Eagle Fang Karate."

Unsurprisingly, "Iron Eagle" wasn't all-too-well received by critics, especially since it was clearly hoping to capitalize on the success of "Top Gun." Two fighter pilot movies the same summer? Everyone (except Johnny) saw right through that one. Co-written and directed by Sidney J. Furie, "Iron Eagle, interestingly enough, ended up with a few more sequels than its Tom Cruise-led counterpart. While it took decades before "Top Gun: Maverick" materialized, "Iron Eagle" spawned three sequels in just nine years. Though it's unclear if Johnny was also a fan of these sequels, we know he hates "Top Gun" because he thought the film was somewhat ridiculous. It would be fascinating to learn what he thought of Cruise's sequel.

The Karate Kid was William Zabka's first film role

Did you know that "The Karate Kid" was not only William Zabka's breakout acting role, but also the first feature film he ever starred in? With family in the entertainment business, Zabka quickly broke into Hollywood after some commercial work and a small role in an episode of "The Greatest American Hero." Ironically, Zabka didn't know a lick of karate at the time he landed the role of Johnny Lawrence, though he had some wrestling experience that helped him along the way (per AV Club). Since then, he's grown into a second degree green belt, which is pretty cool since he's doing tons of karate now on "Cobra Kai."

Though the world knows Zabka best as Johnny Lawrence from "The Karate Kid," Zabka has made a name for himself elsewhere, including iconic "bully roles" in films like "National Lampoon's European Vacation," "Just One of The Guys," and "Back to School." He also found work on the original "Equalizer" series as Scott McCall, the estranged son of the titular character. He appeared in 12 episodes, making him one of the longest recurring characters on the '80s action series. But Zabka didn't just shine in front of the camera, he also was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for his short film "Most," which he co-produced and co-wrote. 

He starred in a No More Kings music video

Long before "Cobra Kai," and even a few years before Zabka's role on "How I Met Your Mother," he wrote and directed a music video for the No More Kings song "Sweep The Leg," all about, you guessed it, his role in "The Karate Kid." Premiering in 2007, this video predates "Cobra Kai" by a full decade, though it explores very similar themes and even brings back many of the same returning "Karate Kid" cast members who would also come back for the streaming series. The music video is pretty outlandish but in the absolute best ways possible. Zabka living in a trailer in the desert and getting run over by Ralph Macchio — not to mention the amazing recreation of the final "Karate Kid" fight — all really pull the video together.

There's little doubt that this experience, writing and directing a story about Johnny/himself, influenced Zabka's decision to reprise his role in "Cobra Kai," with a heavy (and healthy) emphasis on Johnny's road to redemption. Much like "Cobra Kai," the video sees the return of Martin Kove's John Kreese, once again as a foil who tries to bring Johnny down with him. Similarly, the car accident involving Ralph Macchio is seemingly referenced in "Cobra Kai" by the fact that Daniel LaRusso now owns his own car dealership, and his daughter Samantha all but destroyed Johnny's own car. And hey, the song itself isn't half bad, either.

He was inducted into the Fictitious Athletes Hall of Fame

Admittedly, making your way into a fictitious hall of fame isn't as impressive as a real one, but there's no doubt that Johnny Lawrence worked his butt off to get into the Fictitious Athletes Hall of Fame in 2020. Making it in alongside other fictitious athletes Al Bundy and Homer Simpson, Johnny is obviously the most accomplished of these three (especially since Zabka actually knows karate). While fans often highlight the fact that he lost the 1984 All Valley Tournament, many forget that he had actually won the tournament the previous two years. Not only that, but his pupil Miguel Diaz went on to win against Johnny's own son (and Daniel LaRusso's student) Robby in 2018.

Alongside Mr. Lawrence, "Karate Kid" characters Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso had been inducted into the Fictitious Athletes Hall of Fame years prior (Miyagi in 2015 and Daniel in 2018). Obviously, the success of "Cobra Kai," especially since the series moved to Netflix, helped push both Johnny and Daniel into the spotlight, though they arguably each deserved it on their own merit, having each won two different karate championships. Though they've been able to settle their personal rivalry and are working through their differences, Johnny and Daniel still have a long way to go if they're going to take down Cobra Kai for good.