After years of not giving it any thought, I have been forced to revisit Daniel LaRusso’s controversial win over Johnny Lawrence at the end of the first Karate Kid movie. If you, like me, have recently begun watching the very good television series Cobra Kai, now on Netflix, you may have also been thinking about this seminal fight as well.
Cobra Kai is a hilarious, schmaltzy dramedy about what came after the original Karate Kid trilogy that introduced the adventures of Daniel LaRusso and his mentor, Mr. Miyagi. In the original Karate Kid movie, LaRusso has an epic faceoff with the town bully, Johnny Lawrence, who fights for the demented dojo Cobra Kai. Cobra Kai teaches students three simple rules: strike first, strike hard, no mercy.
The Cobra Kai series is set 30 years later, and Lawrence is a washed-up deadbeat who endears himself to the audience by sharing his side of the story on what really went down all those years ago. There is a point in the first season of Cobra Kai where Lawrence asks, “What about that illegal kick to the face?” referring to the crane kick that won LaRusso the tournament and made him famous in the Valley. This question now haunts my every waking hour.
Did Daniel LaRusso use an illegal kick to secure a win in 1984 or was this just an accusation from a jealous has-been? After all, the official in the match made it clear that Lawrence implemented illegal contact with LaRusso’s knee and vengeance would naturally be a swift kick to the face. But Mr. Miyagi spent an entire film teaching LaRusso to be above such petty things. Did his knowing smile mean the beloved Mr. Miyagi condoned the use of an illegal kick just to secure a win? If so, what did that say about the moral superiority bestowed on Miyagi and his independent dojo for all these years? Who was the real villain here and had we all been lied to for the majority of our lives? I had to know the truth.
As such I, a person who was prevented from doing karate as a child because my mother did not want people hitting me in the face, turned to the dark corners of internet debate forums to better understand how the crane kick was received versus the leg sweep and what was up with the legality of either move. It turns out that the internet doesn’t have a definitive answer! The consensus among the karate-knowledgable is that no true answer can be divined because Karate Kid was a movie and heretofore not bound by the real rules of karate. Also, it was unclear what style of competition the All-Valley tournament was. I was once again alone on my quest for the truth.
To bring peace into my mind and my home, I took the obvious path. Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso practice two different fighting styles. Den of Geek has a comprehensive breakdown of these styles and explains that Lawrence studied Tang Soo Do while LaRusso studied kata. Since Mr. Miyagi would never allow his only pupil to enter a competition that dishonored the foundations of kata it made sense to abide by the regulations of a kata competition.
According to the official competition rules for kata and Kumite karate, Johnny Lawrence’s first offense is that he broke rules of dress, which require competitors to wear white gis only. I choose not to hold this against Lawrence because LaRusso also broke a uniform rule by wearing a headband. So from the jump, they’re both rule-breakers.
Now here is where it gets tricky because according to the rules, a jodan kick, which is the kick LaRusso used to seal his victory, is a legal move and the face is a legal attack zone. So there is no dishonor in the house of LaRusso. But after my ninth rewatch of the match, something didn’t add up: the scores.
First of all, injured competitors are not allowed to compete for the obvious reasons of injury but also because “good form” is part of the rubric for getting awarded points in a match. Before Lawrence executed the infamous leg sweep, by my count the two boys were tied at two points each. Lawrence’s kick to the face, which knocked LaRusso down was, as the rules make clear, worth three points. Before the bout started the announcer said that the winner would be the first person to three points. Johnny Lawrence had five points before he even went for that bum ass leg. If that’s not enough to secure a win, Lawrence nailed LaRusso in the face with a legal punch, a sixth point.
Lawrence’s knee to elbow was definitely illegal and worthy of points removed, but even so, that is at most a one to two-point loss, still leaving him in the lead. Larusso’s crane kick was a three-pointer and somehow closed the match and secured him the win. But by my count, as dictated by the rules published by the World Karate Federation, that competition ended with Lawrence at seven points and LaRusso at five.
What is even more incensing is that for years, Johnny Lawrence has been vilified for using a leg sweep, which I discovered is a completely legal move! The rules state that any throw below the waist is prohibited but, “exceptions are conventional karate leg sweeping techniques.” This is a miscarriage of justice. Johnny Lawrence, who was clearly being abused by his sensei and neglected by his parents overcame all of that and was robbed of a win by some young upstart from New Jersey who had been practicing kata for 20 minutes before being given a black belt. I demand a recount!