How Real Is the Karate in The Karate Kid?

As hokey as they look, Mr. Miyagi’s movie martial arts are rooted in the real thing
This is a photo of Karate Kid. Crane kick
When the dust settled, it was Daniel LaRusso who put Johnny Lawrence in a body bag.

Nearly 40 years ago (February 16, 1985, to be exact), the release of the first installment of The Karate Kid films brought combat sports to arguably its widest audience. Thanks to streaming services, the legend continues today with Cobra Kai. The sibling franchises have spawned millions of attempted martial artists worldwide hoping to master Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” technique and the infamous “crane kick” that Daniel LaRusso inflicts upon his rival Johnny Lawrence in the championship climax. In fact, Ralph Macchio (LaRusso) and William Zabka (Johnny Lawrence), then a pair of Hollywood babyfaces, were trying karate for the first time themselves during filming. And, thanks to a ton of movie magic – and perhaps more embellishment – they pulled off looking like pros marvelously.

Run down the rabbit hole on YouTube and you’ll find that for every one authentic martial arts film – those flicks that capture combat and culture tastefully – there are roughly 10,000 movies that are absolute pieces of trash. At worst, martial arts films have been filled with nonsensical haiku poems, illogical plot lines, bizarre villains, and cheap unrealistic gore. The best martial arts films capture the discipline and dedication needed to practice combat sports. But even films that aren’t quite as stupid are filled with exaggerated action.

At their core, many of the moves seen in martial arts films are based on some sort of authentic technique. Danny Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Martial Arts in New York City, says he was inspired to learn how to defend himself after seeing films starring the likes of legendary martial artists, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, even the Muscles from Brussels is the real deal.

“Are there hokey, funny things out there? One hundred percent,” Anderson says. “It’s obviously subjective to whoever’s watching it and thinking that it’s completely unrealistic. And I’m going to say that there are a lot of completely unrealistic films out there.”

Season 4 of Cobra Kai premiered on December 31, 2021 on Netflix, so we spoke with Anderson to weigh in on how close the action seen in The Karate Kid franchise is to real-life martial arts combat.

Daniel LaRusso’s trademark crane kick

In The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso delivers the All Valley Karate Championship winning blow via a devastating, yet questionable kick to the alpha dog Johnny Lawrence. A Hollywood take on the Mae Tobi Geri, the “crane kick” is sort of like the jump kicks that are common in karate, taekwondo and kung fu. Martial artist Darryl Vidal was tasked with creating an on-screen kick that would heighten the drama, so he took a kick that is used in almost every system and focused on how to include his arms. While LaRusso – and kids who attempted it worldwide – did look dumb holding his arms like twin swans in the air above his head, Anderson says that the kick itself is rooted in actual martial arts.

 

“If you look at the crane kick where Daniel LaRusso put his arms up and kicked Johnny in the face, it’s a little ridiculous, right? But take that same kick and you look at how Anderson Silva (delivered) it to Vitor Belfort [at UFC 126 in February 2011]. He did the same exact thing. But his hands are in and his elbows are tucked. It’s the same kick though,” Anderson says.

“Sometimes for film they want to see these humongous and flowery, beautiful motions. Could it work? Maybe. Is it practical? Probably not. But you can take the same kick and make it work.”

Not practical and if applied to the face, totally illegal. In The Karate Kid, the referee instructs the fighters that strikes to the face are illegal. However, even before the “crane kick,” Johnny Lawrence should have been disqualified for his illegal elbow to LaRusso’s knee. But who wants to end the movie on a DQ?

Mr. Miyagi’s ‘Wax On, Wax Off’

Besides being one of the most echoed of all ‘80s movie catchphrases, Anderson says that Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” training technique actually teaches Daniel a motion that is utilized in several different disciplines.

 

“Wax on, wax off is just a parry – an exaggerated parry. Similar to boxers parrying a punch or parrying their jab or a parry cross. But the hand movements are more subtle versus this really big, half circle motion,” Anderson explains. “There’s a wax on wax off type of motion in Muay Thai, and Muay Thai is extremely real and perfect for street fighting. You would make that wax on, wax off motion with your hands if someone front kicks you. That scooping motion is one hundred percent being done every day in real combat. You see it in Glory Kickboxing or any other organization; so it’s there.”

Cobra Kai dojo vs. Miyagi Do

Anderson says that both the Cobra Kai way and the Miyagi way have merit when preparing students for combat sports competition. Mr. Miyagi’s teachings encompass kata and the Gōjū-ryū style, both of which have roots in his hometown, the Japanese island of Okinawa. It embraces the deeply spiritual nature of the martial artist. Cobra Kai on the other hand, well, it’s centered around grit and ass-kicking.

 

“Even before they launched the TV series, I would joke with my students that both philosophies are right. The Cobra Kai ‘strike first, strike hard, no mercy’ is like, ‘shut your mouth and do this and do a hundred of these. Just shut up and do it.’ That produces a really incredible fighter when you teach people like that,” Anderson says.

“Then there’s the Miyagi and LaRusso way that is more about philosophy, about being a better person and understanding when and where to use your martial arts. Now, it just sounds like the opposite of what a normal person wants to learn in martial arts. They don’t learn to be soft and be a better person and learn the codes – they want to learn how to kick ass. But really, the merger of the two makes the best fighters in the world.”

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