Johnny Lawrence Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai, the streaming spin-off of the Karate Kid film franchise, is some of the best popcorn viewing around. The ongoing saga of middle-aged karate masters Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and the emotional teenagers who populate their rival karate schools has won over fans with its compelling melodrama and self-effacing humor. But what truly sets Cobra Kai apart from other series is its best-in-class fight sequences, orchestrated by stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman.

Cobra Kai is a two-time nominee for the Emmy for Outstanding Stunt Coordination For A Comedy Series Or Variety Program (losing both times to GLOW). Koda and Curfman (and the actors they work with) deserve those accolades and more for the consistently high-quality action they deliver, episode after episode. Cobra Kai‘s fight scenes aren’t just cool — they move the story and convey character so concisely that a one- to two-minute sequence feels like a full meal.

In celebration of their work, we’ve analyzed and ranked every fight scene from the show’s first two seasons on the basis of quality of action and dramatic contribution to the story. Ready? FIGHT!

Cobra Kai Classic gets in a bar fight

Bar fight Cobra Kai

The fight staging on Cobra Kai is consistently very good — so much so that there aren’t really any bad fight scenes in the series. The fight at the bottom of our list earns its place not by being bad, but by being pointless.

In the second season episode "Take a Right," Johnny reunites with three of his old friends from the dojo, Tommy, Bobby, and Jimmy, portrayed by original Karate Kid actors Rob Garrison, Ron Thomas, and Tony O’Dell. Tommy has terminal cancer, and asks his pals to bust him out of hospice for one last adventure. While on their way to a campsite, they stop at a roadside bar, where they encounter a gauged, tattooed tough guy who harasses a waitress and talks smack about Tommy’s illness.

The barroom brawl that ensues is markedly different from most fights in the series in that it has no real character stakes. Apart from Johnny, none of the participants in this fight ever appear again, and the fight itself is just a pit stop on the quartet’s road trip. The entire sequence could be excised from the episode and never be missed. It also suffers from the guest stars being long out of practice and having to learn the choreography on-set during the four-hour shoot.

To its credit, this brawl compensates for its weaknesses through uncommonly fast cutting and the use of Sister Sin’s badass "Fight Song."

Aisha’s initiation

Many of the fight sequences in Cobra Kai are so brief that they only just sneak onto this list — but even those still serve a function. One of the show’s shortest bouts arrives in season one’s "Counterbalance," when Aisha Robinson (Nichole Brown) first arrives at the dojo looking for training. Johnny, an ignorant alpha male still at the beginning of his character arc, immediately dismisses the idea of teaching a young woman to fight. But Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), then his only pupil, convinces him that he can’t afford to turn away students.

Johnny relents, on the condition that the totally untrained Aisha must fight Miguel to earn her spot. A reluctant Miguel obeys his sensei and kicks Aisha to the ground. Rather than stay down and admit defeat, Aisha gets angry — and gets even. She charges Miguel, tackles him like a linebacker, and then drops her elbow on his chest for good measure.

Aisha has been suffering abuse from mean girls Yasmine and Moon and comes to Cobra Kai looking for a way to defend herself. What she finds is a much needed release valve for her rage. We get this realization not through dialogue, but through a fight scene that’s only three moves and 30 seconds long. The fight itself isn’t impressive enough to win a higher spot on our list, but it serves a purpose, which keeps it from being on the bottom.

Miguel gets clobbered by Kyler’s crew at the Halloween dance

In the third episode of the series, kind-hearted high schooler Miguel Diaz has recently begun training as Johnny Lawrence’s first student. He’s driven to learn karate in order to defend himself and his friends from the bullying of his classmate Kyler (Joe Seo) and his cronies. Though it’s contrary to his sweet demeanor, Miguel has pledged himself to Johnny’s credo: Strike first, strike hard, no mercy.

During the Halloween dance, Miguel overhears Kyler in the men’s locker room bragging to his boys about a cheap ploy to get into his girlfriend Sam LaRusso’s pants. Miguel, who has a crush on Sam, can’t stand for this and kicks Kyler in the chest. This is the only blow he manages to land, as he’s quickly overpowered by Kyler’s gang and gets himself beaten in the gut with a lacrosse stick. It’s a mirror of the scene in which Johnny’s own crew wails on Daniel LaRusso on Halloween in the first Karate Kid.

This scene is essentially act two of the Miguel vs. Kyler saga, in which Miguel attempts to stand up for himself but doesn’t quite have the skills to do so effectively. As a result, it’s not so much a fight as a punishment. It’s effective, like almost every action scene in the series, but it doesn’t compare to later sequences when the characters are more skilled and the reality of the show has grown more heightened.

Tory challenges Miguel on her first day

In "The Moment of Truth," Cobra Kai greets another wave of fresh recruits won over by their dramatic promotional demonstration at Valley Fest. Sensei Lawrence routinely makes sure that someone’s first day in the dojo is their worst, so he issues a challenge to the new arrivals: One of them must step up and take on Miguel Diaz, reigning Under-18 All-Valley Champion. No one is crazy enough to volunteer until one final student arrives late and makes an entrance — Tory (Peyton List), a working-class teenager with a chip on her shoulder.

This isn’t the first time we see Miguel participate in an initiation-by-combat, but this time, both he and his opponent are confident and know what they’re doing. Their match is hard-hitting but playful, as Tory demonstrates that she is tough and unpredictable. They have instant chemistry, and the seeds of their romance are planted.

Peyton List was cast only a few days before this episode was shot and had no prior fighting experience. She used the limited time available to drill the scene extensively with stunt coordinator Jahnel Curfman and eventually trained up to the level of her peers. But given the time constraints, much of Tory’s first fight had to be shot with Tory’s back to the camera, allowing Curfman to perform Tory’s more impressive moves. This creates a slight distance between the character and the audience, which Cobra Kai is typically able to avoid.

Miguel and Tory team up at Coyote Creek

Cobra Kai juggles a lot of characters, which necessitates making every scene count towards establishing, reaffirming, and/or transforming relationships. After Miguel and Tory kiss for the first time in season two’s "All In," their relationship goes unremarked upon in the following episode. A short sequence in the next chapter, "Lull," establishes their new status quo while also delivering action.

In "Lull," John Kreese (Martin Kove) brings Cobra Kai out into the woods of Coyote Creek for a training exercise that pits the students against each other. Divided into two teams, competitors must hunt down and defeat the opposition and steal their color-coded headbands until only their own team remains. Miguel and Tory find themselves on the same side, and spend the early minutes of the exercise strolling through the woods together.

When an opposing student (stunt actor Austin Raines) tries and fails to sneak up on them, the couple turns wailing on him into a date activity. Easily deflecting his attacks, Tory and Miguel essentially pass this guy back and forth using punches and kicks while exchanging flirty banter. Working together, neither is ever threatened — they’re just enjoying their time together, sharing their favorite activity.

It’s a brief, one-sided fight, but it cements an important relationship between characters. Plus, it features a cartoonishly exaggerated sell of one of Miguel’s kicks that recalls stunt coordinator Hiro Koda’s work on Power Rangers, and we’ll call that a plus.

Daniel rescues Robby from his past

Despite being the eponymous Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso has very few fight scenes on Cobra Kai. This is in part due to his school of karate’s more passive attitude towards the martial arts: Unlike Johnny and the rest of Cobra Kai, Daniel doesn’t start fights, and only employs his skills against others as a last resort. Daniel doesn’t have his first real fight scene until midway through season two, in "The Moment of Truth," and it’s only because circumstances leave him no choice.

In this episode, Daniel and his pupils Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser) and Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) set out in the hopes of convincing some of Daniel’s upper-crust friends at the beach club to enroll their kids at Miyagi-Do rather than at Cobra Kai. When that bears no fruit, Robby seizes an opportunity to demonstrate his skills on camera without starting a fight by confronting his former partners-in-crime Trey (Terayle Hill) and Cruz (Jeff Kaplan) over some stolen purses stashed in their old hiding spot beneath the boardwalk. Robby expects to film himself defending against their attack, but is immediately knocked out by the new third member of their crew. Daniel comes to his rescue, defeating all three ruffians on his own.

The beach fight gets a boost in rank from the novelty of seeing Daniel in action, employing Miyagi-Do as it’s intended — no aggression, no tricks, just graceful use of your opponent’s force against them.

Robby vs. Trey and Cruz

One of the more interesting character arcs of Cobra Kai‘s first season belongs to Robby Keene, juvenile delinquent and estranged son of Johnny Lawrence. Robby is a thief and con artist, pulling small but clever jobs with his comrades, Trey and Cruz. Robby gets a job at LaRusso Auto in order to case the joint for a heist, with the added bonus of annoying his father, LaRusso’s karate rival. But when Robby is unexpectedly welcomed into Daniel LaRusso’s life as his martial arts pupil, he has a change of heart and decides not to go through with the crime.

In "All Valley," Robby confronts his accomplices outside the La Russo Auto garage, where instead of letting them inside as planned, he tells them the deal is off. When Trey throws a punch, Robby blocks, and Robby is shocked by his own reflexes. This is the first time that he’s had to apply his karate training in practice, and even he’s surprised when it works.

What follows is a fast-paced and exciting sequence that highlights Robby’s new skills while conveying a real sense of danger. Robby holds his own, demonstrating the defensive techniques of Miyagi-Do, but he’s also a bit overwhelmed. Once he’s lost a chance of winning, he finds another way to end the fight by luring his attackers into the view of the security cameras.

This scene is a pivotal moment for Robby, and our first glimpse of Miyagi-Do karate in action.

Johnny defends Miguel from Kyler’s crew

There’s a lot riding on the first fight sequence in an action series, particularly a dramedy like Cobra Kai. How realistic will the martial arts be? How violent? Will the action be played for laughs, or for tension? What style of cinematography will capture the action?

The scene in which Johnny Lawrence takes on a gang of bullies takes place 10 minutes into the series premiere, "Ace Degenerate," and it establishes the rules that Cobra Kai fight scenes go on to follow throughout the series. Actor William Zabka has remained a practitioner of Tang Soo Do on and off since shooting The Karate Kid in the 1980s, and he sets the bar for the technique expected of actors on the show. This allows fights to be shot using long takes during which the actor’s face can be seen, rather than relying heavily on quick cuts to hide stunt doubles. Fights are fast, tightly choreographed, and mostly bloodless, which keeps the tone of the action light and allows for laughs.

This fight also works to establish character, demonstrating that Johnny is a tough fighter who hits hard while mostly keeping his cool, and that he’s got no qualms escalating a fight, even against a bunch of snotty teenagers. Kyler opens with a schoolyard shove — Johnny responds by kicking him in the face.

Miguel Diaz vs. Xander Stone, 2018 All Valley Semi-Finals

The first season finale, "Mercy," centers around the 2018 Under-18 All Valley Karate Tournament, the event that the Cobra Kai dojo has been training toward for months. It’s the same tournament that serves as the climax to The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid Part III, which Johnny Lawrence won twice in the early 1980s. Not that you’d know it watching Cobra Kai, where Daniel LaRusso, also a two-time champ, is treated as a conquering hero, while no one ever seems to acknowledge Johnny’s pre-Karate Kid victories. Since it’s focused on the tournament, "Mercy" features more fight sequences than any other episode, and many number among the best in the series.

In the semi-finals, Cobra Kai’s Miguel Diaz faces defending champion Xander Stone of Topanga Karate. Stone is a cartoonishly flashy fighter, employing flips and dramatic kung fu movie dodges, whereas Miguel’s fighting style is sharp and focused by comparison. There’s a fierceness in his eyes that you could barely imagine him having at the start of the season, brought out by the most serious challenge he’s faced since the beginning of his training.

The beauty of the choreography and the level of skill employed by both fighters elevates this scene, despite the total dramatic certainty that Miguel will win and reach the finals.

Johnny vs. Louie and the "Sons of Anarchy"

While the best fight scenes are typically those that have some back and forth between opponents, it’s occasionally more entertaining to see a character wipe the floor with guys who deserve it.

In season one’s "Molting," Johnny is encouraged by Miguel’s mother Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) to take a look at his life and not let his past mistakes define him. He cleans up his apartment, breaks ties with his abusive stepfather (Ed Asner), and recommits himself to being a better father to his estranged son, Robby. He’s sitting at his kitchen table writing an apology letter to Robby, at the peak of an arc of positive change set in motion by his mentorship of Miguel, when he hears a crashing sound from outside. There, he finds Daniel LaRusso’s good-for-nothing cousin Louie (Bret Ernst) and two of his biker buddies trashing his beloved 1991 Pontiac Firebird in retaliation for a stupid prank he pulled earlier in the season.

For the first time in decades, Johnny is really trying to get his life back on track — and along come these three jokers to violently interrupt his self-actualization. Watching Johnny take them apart with clinical skill and totally focused rage, despite two of them being armed, is almost shamefully satisfying. The fight is interrupted when one of the wounded bikers sets fire to Johnny’s car. Ironically, destroying this totem of the old Johnny may have been doing him a favor.

Hawk vs. Robby Keene, 2018 All Valley Semi-Finals

The fight between Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) of Cobra Kai and Robby Keene, fighting unaffiliated after his falling out with Daniel LaRusso, acts as the Diaz/Stone bout’s opposite. Diaz vs. Stone is the more technically exciting of the two semi-finals, but Hawk vs. Keene has the upper hand in terms of drama.

Daniel has recently learned that Robby withheld the truth — that he’s the son of Daniel’s sworn enemy — and has thrown him out of the house. Now spiritually orphaned, Robby has to endure the punishing tournament on his own. Daniel refuses to openly cheer for him during the tournament’s early rounds, but the bout against Hawk forces a reconciliation. After seeing Robby lose focus and go on a reckless offensive during the first round of the fight, Daniel comes around to lending his support, shouting encouragement from the stands. This helps to center Robby for the rest of this fight, and the next.

Meanwhile, Johnny has to hide his concern over Robby’s well-being as he faces Cobra Kai’s most ferocious fighter. In a stroke of irony, the fight ends with Hawk deliberately injuring Robby between rounds, unknowingly echoing the semi-final round of the 1984 tournament in which Cobra Kai fighter Bobby Brown attacked Daniel LaRusso to soften him up for Johnny. Seeing his teachings applied to hurt his own son is a major turning point for Johnny.

Daniel vs. Johnny, at last

It’s the fight fans had been waiting for since the show began … almost. Ever since Cobra Kai reignited the decades-old conflict between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, it was only a matter of time before it set up a rematch. In the season two finale "No Mercy," we finally get it — though it’s just a taste to tide us over for a likely inevitable duel in the future.

This short rematch takes place the morning after Johnny and Daniel accidentally end up on a double date, where they bury the hatchet somewhat. Fate throws a wrench in their newfound peace when Robby brings Sam home to Johnny’s place to recuperate after a drunken party. Daniel tracks Sam back to Johnny’s and demands to see her, but Johnny won’t let him in until he’s cooled off. In a reversal of their typical dynamic, Daniel strikes first, breaking down the door and trying to fight past Johnny. The two begin trading blows, intercut with footage from their 1984 fight. The tension and pace of the action pick up until Sam and Robby arrive to break up the fight, stalling a full-blown LaRusso-Lawrence rematch for another day.

Between the emotion Ralph Macchio and William Zabka bring to the scene, the cross-cutting with old footage, and the close quarters of Johnny’s apartment, this skirmish is one of the most tense and dramatic fights in the entire series.

The return of John Kreese

"Mercy, Part II," the second season premiere, picks up immediately where season one ends, with the surprising return of Cobra Kai founder John Kreese, who Johnny Lawrence had presumed dead. Kreese has returned to congratulate Johnny on Cobra Kai winning the 2018 All Valley Tournament, and to get his fangs back into the dojo he founded. But Johnny remembers how Kreese treated him back in The Karate Kid Part II, and he’s been through a whole season of growth and soul-searching. He’s not about to let his abusive mentor just walk back into his life.

The two fight on the dojo mat in a close-quarters duel, in which Johnny is enraged and Kreese is frustratingly calm and cold, exhibiting raw supervillain energy. Despite his age, Kreese is still a highly skilled karate master who’s ready for almost anything Johnny can throw at him. Johnny finally gets the upper hand when he sets aside karate and tries to out-wrestle him instead, finally locking Kreese in a choke hold. When Johnny sees his reflection in a shattered mirror, recalling when Kreese nearly choked him to death in 1984, he releases him, rather than become his enemy. Meanwhile, a fire threatens the dojo.

Subtle? Not remotely. But this is Cobra Kai, where action, comedy, and melodrama go hand in hand. This opening fight is a microcosm of the entire second season to come, as Johnny tries and fails to save Kreese — but does manage to save himself.

Miguel confronts Hawk at Coyote Creek

The climax of the Coyote Creek combat exercise in "Lull" is the confrontation between Miguel and Hawk, seemingly the last man standing from each team. Miguel and Hawk have a long friendship that predates their time at Cobra Kai. Only a year ago, they were nerds, harmless but helpless. Now, Miguel is a karate champion and Hawk is a fight-happy wrecking ball. This fight would be cool to watch even if all they were fighting over were bragging rights, but there are additional stakes added when Hawk wagers Mr. Miyagi’s Medal of Honor, which he stole when he trashed Miyagi-Do. If Miguel wins, he can punish Hawk for dishonoring both dojos and maybe even patch things up with Sam LaRusso by returning it.

Miguel vs. Hawk is a full-on action movie fight in the woods, fast and intense with a great sense of drama. The camera stays tight on the actors throughout almost the entire fight, giving it a sense of danger and emotion. It’s during fights like this that Cobra Kai benefits most from training the actors to fight — the less the camera needs to fall away to hide the use of a stunt double, the more intimacy can be conveyed through the action. There are, of course, still moves and falls too difficult or dangerous for Xolo Maridueña and Jacob Bertrand, but it’s only noticeable twice in this very dense minute-long sequence, and only if you’re really looking.

Miguel stands tall in the lunchroom

Miguel’s journey begins when Johnny Lawrence rescues him from Kyler. At the midpoint of season one, "Counterbalance," Miguel completes the first phase of his character arc by successfully defending someone else from Kyler, after which he’s never bullied at school again. The lunchroom fight, during which Miguel defeats not just Kyler but also three of his friends, is the point when Miguel goes from victim to hero.

Miguel isn’t done changing, of course, and the killer instinct he develops between here and the next school year often does him a disservice. It could be argued that this is Miguel at his best, fighting hard for others before the thirst for victory and competition overtake his better nature. In "Counterbalance," Miguel fights Kyler to defend the honor of Sam LaRusso, about whom Kyler’s been spreading hurtful rumors. After this, however, Miguel mostly fights for himself or for the dojo, which is an extension of his own pride.

The lunchroom fight is also the show’s first fully-realized, over-the-top action sequence. It represents not just Miguel coming into his own, but the series revealing itself. By the end of the lunchroom fight, you know whether or not you’re in the bag for Cobra Kai. You’re either rolling your eyes or pumping your fist and hooting at the screen.

The early rounds of the 2018 All Valley Karate Tournament

The climactic tournament of the first season begins with portions of seven different qualifying and quarter-final rounds. Rather than treat them each as an individual 10- to 15-second fight, we’re going to treat them the way the show treats them: As a single sequence, which admittedly gives it a serious advantage in our rankings. Joined together by consistent momentum and a nonstop musical score, the first half of the bracket juggles multiple character storylines while building up tension for the grand finale.

The Johnny-Daniel conflict is advanced when Johnny taunts Danny by instructing Miguel to open his first match with Daniel’s famous Crane Kick. Robby’s momentum in the tournament affects both Johnny and Daniel, who are both secretly rooting for him but won’t cheer him on for different reasons. Sam is visibly put off by her newly ex-boyfriend Miguel’s ferocity in his fights, but is encouraging towards Aisha, with whom she hopes to reconcile. We’re trained to dislike defending champion Xander Stone when he defeats Aisha with a desperate move.

There’s a lot going on underneath these fights, but the fights themselves are fun to watch on a simple technical level. Each one gives the audience an opportunity to see each character show off their skills in a structured competitive environment. There are no scrubs here — even the unnamed fighters from other dojos have a specific personality to their fighting styles.

The mall fight

In season two’s "All In," the schism between comic book nerd Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) and his former best friend Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz finally comes to a head over, of all things, a negative Yelp review. Hawk, backed up by Cobra Kai pledges Mitch (Aedin Mincks), Chris (Khalil Everage), and two more Cobras, confronts Demetri at the comic book store in the local mall, demanding that he take his review down. When Demetri refuses, things get physical, and Demetri’s five minutes of barely trying at Miyagi-Do didn’t teach him enough to defend against an All Valley semi-finalist. Luckily, he’s able to escape to the food court, where Sam and Robby protect him from all five opponents with their hard-practiced Wheel Technique.

According to stunt coordinators Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman, this was one of the most complex fights in the series. It’s a very dense 60 seconds, with characters constantly in motion and at least two sets of fighters in combat at any given time. It’s also cross-cut with Sam and Robby practicing the wheel on the Miyagi-Do pond, match-cutting certain moves between locations.

In terms of narrative importance, it’s Sam’s first fight on the show, and a demonstration of how well she and Robby work together and how close they’ve become through their training. It’s also the first battle between Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai, and as such, a portent of the war to come.

Miguel Diaz vs. Robby Keene, 2018 All Valley Finals

The entire first season of Cobra Kai builds up to a final confrontation between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso’s students, mirroring their own championship match in The Karate Kid. Like Daniel before him, Robby was deliberately injured by a Cobra Kai competitor in the semi-finals, putting him at a major disadvantage in the title match. For Daniel, nothing has changed, other than he is now playing the role of his late mentor, Mr. Miyagi.

But for Johnny Lawrence, the parallels are much more haunting. In 1984, it was his Machiavellian mentor John Kreese who commanded his students to fight dirty and ensure Johnny’s victory in the tournament. Now, Johnny has passed on Kreese’s teachings to his own students so well that the students are on autopilot, taking pages out of Kreese’s playbook without even being asked. The victim ends up being his own son. Thus, Johnny helplessly watches one of the worst days of his life replayed.

Meanwhile, the competitors themselves have their own beef. Like Johnny, Miguel’s toxic Cobra Kai attitude has cost him the trust and affection of his first love, who he believes has left him for Robby. The fight choreography is very good, but the drama is delicious. It’s the ’80s sports movie equivalent to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but more self-aware and with a dark twist ending.

Rumble at West Valley High

Cobra Kai‘s 10-minute barnburner of a fight scene, from the second season finale, "No Mercy," is the show’s unquestioned masterpiece. Every conflict between the younger characters on the series comes to a head in one massive, interconnected array of martial arts.

Tory challenges Sam over the school’s PA system. Miguel and Robby arrive to support their girlfriends, then let their own rivalry come to a boil. Demetri finally stands up to Hawk. Even minor characters get attention, like former best friends Chris and Mitch, and pint-sized rivals Bert (Owen Morgan) and Nathaniel (Nathaniel Oh). The stakes ratchet up steadily throughout the sequence, and seeds planted weeks earlier, like Tory’s spike bracelet, are paid off dramatically. By the end of the fight, every character relationship on the show has been turned on its head, and Miguel’s life has been changed forever.

From a production standpoint, the rumble at West Valley High is a remarkable achievement. It includes a complicated 88-second unbroken take involving multiple "Texas Switches" between actors and stunt doubles that was accomplished in just six takes. Moreover, all of the action was shot in about two and half days. Stunt coordinators Koda and Curfman accomplished a movie-quality action sequence with a fraction of the time and money and a cast of teenagers, and somehow didn’t take home the Emmy. Now that’s something worth starting a fight over.