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Before Cobra Kai, the last time Karate Kid fans saw Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was in the opening scene of The Karate Kid Part II. The series caught up with Johnny as an adult who never really got over losing the Karate tournament to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). Zabka says the Johnny of Cobra Kai is a completely different character than he played in the ’80s.

Cobra Kai Season 3: William Zabka holds up an Eagle Fang shirt
William Zabka | Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix

Zabka was a guest on the Jim Norton and Sam Roberts show on June 21. He told them why he feels Cobra Kai is like starting over with a brand new character. 

Johnny Lawrence is in a very different place when ‘Cobra Kai’ begins

Cobra Kai premiered in 2018. The first episode saw Johnny hanging TVs for rude customers, and drowning his sorrows in Coors Banquet. A montage of scenes from The Karate Kid served as Johnny’s memories of his ’80s high school days.

Cobra Kai: William Zabka poses for Johnny Lawrence's mugshot
William Zabka | Netflix

“It’s amazing doing the show this many years later,” Zabka said. “Who ever would have thought? Not me. It’s awesome to get to play this character, Johnny Lawrence, 35 years later after the crane kick and see what happened to him, see where he’s at now which isn’t too good. We get to meet this guy flat on his face, Coors Banquet in his hand, trying to fix a television. Kind of a hermit all to himself and then he meets this kid and he turns into sort of a Miyagi by saving him and opening up this dojo again.”

‘Cobra Kai’ is the new Johnny Lawrence for William Zabka

The passage of time changed Johnny drastically enough that Zabka felt he was starting over. As the three seasons emerged, Johnny’s bond with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) and fraught relationship with his own son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) were the sorts of things he never got to play in The Karate Kid.

'Cobra Kai' Season 3 with Xolo Mariduena as Miguel Diaz and William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence
‘Cobra Kai’ Season 3 with Xolo Maridueña as Miguel Diaz and William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence | Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix

William Zabka Says the Real Villain of ‘Cobra Kai’ Is Not John Kreese or Daniel LaRusso

“He’s an antihero now,” Zabka said. “He’s not the quintessential villain of the story of The Karate Kid, he’s a three dimensional person. So in many ways Johnny Lawrence is a brand new character. He’s Johnny Lawrence today. We’ve changed since high school so he’s got 35 years in him. It’s really like playing a brand new character altogether with the history of The Karate Kid as his built in backstory that everybody’s along for on that ride. It gives it a lot of depth. That’s why it’s working.”

The universal appeal of ‘Cobra Kai’

The evolution of Johnny Lawrence is part of what makes Cobra Kai such a hit, Zabka says. To different degrees, Zabka feels everyone can relate to reliving their glory days.

As the years go by, that high school jacket sits in the closet. It becomes a sore reminder. You’ve got to shove it to the side. I don’t think anybody’s wearing it 20 years later but it’s in there, and it’s this little reminder of your glory days. And then you look in the mirror and go what the hell happened? That’s what’s happening in the show. All his Karate trophies are in his closet, shoved to the side. There’s his second place broken trophy, his original first place. You don’t let go of those things. Those are things you hang onto and these characters are hanging onto them for better or worse.

William Zabka, Jim Norton and Sam Roberts, 6/21/21

Source: Jim Norton and Sam Roberts