How William Zabka Went from Karate Kid Bully to Cobra Kai Master

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Actor William Zabka got his start as Johnny Lawrence, the high school antagonist in the classic coming-of-age 1984 film The Karate Kid. While a huge breakout role for the young actor, work in major Hollywood films would fall by the wayside in the decades to follow, leading to Zabka to explore other jobs in the entertainment industry. Interestingly, over 30 years since the premiere of his first film, Zabka would find himself once again portraying Johnny, his character's professional trajectory matching his own in several ways.

With Cobra Kai returning for its second season on YouTube Premium this week, here's a look at its star, from the dawn of his acting career as a teenage bully to his full circle arc decades later reprising the character in his middle age.

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RELATED: Cobra Kai: ESPN Takes a Look Back at Daniel LaRusso vs Johnny Lawrence


After several years of small television appearances, Zabka's first major role and feature film debut came with 1984's The Karate Kid. Instantly memorable as the coming-of-age classic's leering teen bully, the character mercilessly harassed Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso after he moved to a small Southern California town. A star student of the aggressive Cobra Kai dojo, Johnny's proficiency and eagerness to employ his martial arts acumen is what forces Daniel to study karate himself under his new mentor Mr. Miyagi.

After months of training, Daniel becomes an adept martial artist himself and enters the local All-Valley Karate Championships to face Johnny and his fellow Cobra Kai students. Encouraged by his mentor Kreese to use unethical moves, Johnny is disgusted by his teacher and develops a newfound respect for Daniel over the course of the tournament. After his defeat, Kreese attacks Johnny in the parking lot at the start of The Karate Kid Part II only to be rescued by Miyagi himself.


Following the widespread success of the first two Karate Kid films, Zabka was typecast for years as a bullying antagonistic figure as he appeared in teen comedies for the remainder of the decade. As mainstream Hollywood offers began to decrease, Zabka studied how to become a filmmaker himself while appearing in indie films throughout the 90s and 2000s. The greatest success Zabka achieved behind-the-scenes was as the producer and co-writer of the Czech short film Most which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003 and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

RELATED: Cobra Kai Season 2 Sneak Peek Reunites Kreese and Lawrence

Following Most, Zabka began to take roles poking fun at his past Karate Kid success, directing and appearing as a comedic version of himself in the music video "Sweep the Leg" by No More Kings. Zabka would also appear in the 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, as a nod to his roles in teen films in the 80s. However, several memorable appearances as himself on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother in the series' final two seasons would help return Zabka and his character's past in the public consciousness and sow the seeds for his full blossom three years later.


In 2017, it was announced that Zabka and Macchio would return to reprise their respective roles as Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso in a YouTube Premium exclusive series Cobra Kai. Taking place decades after the events of the original Karate Kid trilogy, a struggling Johnny reopens the Cobra Kai dojo and takes on the teacher role to train a new generation of hard-edged students in martial arts. Unnerved by this, Daniel similarly decides to start his own martial arts school setting the two men on a collision course as they reopen old grudges.

With Zabka and Macchio both executive producing, the series was an unmitigated success, earning universal critical acclaim and millions of viewers. Less than a month after its premiere, the series was renewed for a full second season and principal photography on the follow-up began by the end of the year.

RELATED: Cobra Kai Season 2 Trailer Teases the Series' Growing Miyagi-verse

William Zabka is an entertainment professional who grew beyond being a simple teen actor after mainstream opportunities stopped coming. Forced to make his own opportunities, Zabka expanded into independent film while learning the craft himself as a director, writer and producer. Having found his own degree of success behind the camera, Zabka is now back in his most iconic role to some of the strongest accolades of his entire career.

Just as Johnny Lawrence reopens his old haunts as a form of redemption and second chances, Cobra Kai presents William Zabka with his own well-realized  full circle moment that has certainly been a long time coming.

Cobra Kai Season 2 returns for YouTube Premium subscribers on April 24. The season sees the return of Zabka and Macchio in their iconic roles, as well Martin Kove reprising his Karate Kid role as the Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese.

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