The success of ‘Cobra Kai’ continues to startle Ralph Macchio, Billy Zabka

It’s a question that Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka probably have heard dozens of times since the first season of Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid reboot that was resurrected on YouTube last year and has been universally praised. But sitting in a conference room on the 23rd floor of a building in downtown Austin, a 15-minute walk from where most SXSW festivities are occurring this week, the two spontaneously acted and played off each other— the same way they’ve been doing for more than 35 years.

Were you surprised with the enormous amount of acclaim Cobra Kai has received since it was released on YouTube?

“Nooo,” Zabka, the consummate 1980s film villain who starred as Johnny Lawrence in the first two Karate Kid movies, said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Then, Macchio—who played the schlubby yet ultimately heroic Daniel LaRusso—chimed in. “Not at all. We expected it. It actually underwhelmed us,” Macchio said.

Both men laughed at that.

The truth is the response to Cobra Kai—which will return for a second season on April 24—was fantastic for Macchio and Zabka. They knew fans would probably enjoy the 10-episode series, but they weren’t necessarily prepared for the universal praise. They didn’t realize the show would be so well-received that it would receive a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It was above and beyond,” Macchio told the Daily Dot on Tuesday morning. “You never really know where it will land. There are butterflies jumping into the pool, not knowing how cold that water is.”

The series picks up from the end of the first Karate Kid movie—after LaRusso upsets Lawrence to win the All-Valley karate title—and fast forwards 30 years to see what happened to the two characters in the aftermath. LaRusso’s life is a success. Lawrence’s is not, and he’s still smarting from what had happened when he was a teenager.

He still holds a grudge against LaRusso, and he resurrects the Cobra Kai dojo where he reigned as a teenager and where Sensei John Kreese, played by Martin Kove, stoked fear into his students (Zabka on Tuesday called him the “Wicked Witch of the Valley”).

The first time LaRusso and Lawrence encountered each other in Cobra Kai, Macchio said the chemistry was instantaneous.

“I didn’t expect it. It just was,” Macchio said. “Some time had gone by. My hairline is not as thick as it used to be. Outside of that, it felt like yesterday with all new wisdom and growth of all these men 30 years later. It’s a great moment.”

That scene likely gave multiple generations of viewers—the people who grew up with the Karate Kid, which was released in 1984, and the offspring they’ve since produced—the same kind of verve that LaRusso experienced during filming.

That’s because the Karate Kid franchise never really left the cultural zeitgeist. There were two sequels after the original with Macchio as LaRusso. Then, there was a female karate kid film with Hilary Swank and, years later, a reboot with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.

Even without the films, there have been plenty of Karate Kid teases for the past decade or so: Ralph Macchio in a Funny or Die video called “Wax On, Fuck Off”; a music video titled “Sweep the Leg” from 2007 that featured a number of members of the original cast, including Zabka in a Speedo; Zabka popping up in How I Met Your Mother based on a story arc that asked whether Johnny Lawrence was the real hero of the movie (this YouTube video with nearly 10 million views showed why LaRusso was the real villain).

Those were tiny appetizers for anybody who grew up with and loved the franchise. Cobra Kai turned out to be the main course.

“It goes on and on,” Zabka said. “It was in the theater, then they came out with VHS, then they came out with cable TV, then they came out with the internet. Technology has amplified this thing around the world a zillion times. It’s connected generation to generation. Somehow it stuck, and the themes in the movie took root in people. It’s a part of people’s lives. There was interest in seeing where these guys are today.”

That includes the series’ biggest villain.

Kove— who played Sensei John Kreese in the first three films and returned for a cameo in the first season of Cobra Kai—will have a more featured role in season 2. On Tuesday, he remembered a moment with Macchio years ago when they were attending a fan convention in Atlanta. The two actors were sitting in the back of a convertible during a parade, and people kept shouting the film’s most iconic lines, including “Sweep the leg” and “No mercy” and “Get him a body bag.”

Macchio turned to Kove and said something along the lines of, “I’m the star of this movie. But you got all the good lines.”

The two laughed about that on Tuesday, and LaRusso, Zabka, and Kove were full of smiles and remembrances—about what the past 35 years have meant for their present and their future.

“The story is still just beginning,” Zabka said. “It’s that turning point of act 1, and we’re heading into the second act. The characters are stretching and breathing. It’s not a feature film where there’s this 1-2-3 climactic ending, moment of death, resurrection. The typical formula of ‘80s movies that felt good. But this is something like life. It’s ongoing. You can go deep and wide with the characters. The universe is expanded. I never could have imagined it.”

Then after a moment of thought, Zabka said, “It’s ready to go another 12 years.”

Macchio smiled at that. But the second season will have to contend with something the first season never did. Maybe people were expecting Cobra Kai to be cheesy and lame. Maybe they were expecting a cash grab by stars from the ‘80s. Instead, fans got quality programming.

Now, expectations have been raised for season 2. If it’s not as good, fans will likely have no mercy.

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Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.