The Real Martial Arts Behind Cobra Kai and The Karate Kid

Cobra Kai – Strike Hard, Strike Fast, No Mercy

The martial arts depicted in The Karate Kid must be attributed to Grandmaster Pat E. Johnson. He was the martial arts choreographer for the original films and played the Referee. Johnson is a student of Chuck Norris and captained Norris’ Black Belt Competition team to win 33-consecutive national and international championships. And despite not disqualifying Daniel’s illegal winning crane kick, Johnson is a highly respected martial arts referee. Beyond The Karate Kid, he worked on other films including Enter the Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mortal Kombat. Johnson and Norris practice Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art, but this is where translation of the terminology gets complicated. 

Tang Soo Do means “Way of the Tang Hand.” Do means “the Way,” same character as the Dao in Chinese. It’s the same word in Korean and Japanese and serves as a suffix for many martial arts like Karate-Do, Judo, and Taekwondo. Soo literally means “hand.” Tang refers to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) indicating the Chinese origins of the art. According to legend, all Asian martial arts trace back to China’s Shaolin Temple, the legendary cradle of Kung Fu. For simplicity, many English translators shortened “Way of the Tang Hand” to “Way of the Chinese Hand.” It’s a respectful nod to that origin tale. 

Korean and Japanese characters are derived from Chinese too. Translate the characters for Tang Soo Do into Japanese and it is Karate-Do. However in 1935, Japan changed the character for Kara (or Tang) to a homophonic character that means “empty” in order to distinguish its martial art from China. To complicate matters even more, Tang Soo Do was commonly dubbed “Korean Karate” in the United States. Nevertheless, Tang Soo Do and Karate are distinct disciplines. 

Cobra Kai is the name of the school, not the style. The Kai in Cobra Kai literally means “assembly” or “meeting” and within the Karate vernacular, it’s a suffix that denotes an organization or group. Cobra is just a name, the school mascot. While there are many snake styles of martial arts, particularly in Kung Fu, the Cobra is seldom commonly specified in Asian systems. More often, it is seen in American school logos, like the symbol of William’s Kenpo Karate Dojo in Enter the Dragon. There’s a nod to Kung Fu legend in the name. The rival of Snake Kung Fu is Crane style. In the Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith redux of The Karate Kid, the snake comes into play. 

Given Johnson’s choreography Tang Soo Do influences Cobra Kai more than Karate. Throughout the series, there are subtle clues alluding to this. From the first film to Cobra Kai, when Johnny spars, he deploys a lot of high kicks characteristic of Korean martial arts. After the first film, Zabka continued to study Tang Soo Do with Johnson for many years so it is his foundation style. Another big tell is in The Karate Kid Part III. When Kreese’s comrade Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) visits Miyagi’s Dojo to lie about Kreese’s death, he couches it in an apology from their mutual South Korean master. In real life, Griffith is a black belt in Kenpo Karate and Taekwondo. Cobra Kai perpetuated the Tang Soo Do influence very subtly in Season 1. In episode 7, Johnny barks out a command that sounds like “jun be” which means “get ready” in Korean. 

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