Yankees vs. Red Sox. Duke vs. North Carolina. Daniel LaRusso vs. Johnny Lawrence.
All are storied sports rivalries, though it’s that last matchup that speaks to those who grew up with the coming-of-age martial-arts film “The Karate Kid” as their generation’s Rocky.
Now, 34 years later, the 10-episode, half-hour streaming dramedy “Cobra Kai” rekindles the feud between now middle-aged rivals Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) while also introducing a new gang of bullied youngsters in need of a proper sensei. (The first two episodes debut free Wednesday on subscription streaming service YouTube Red, with the rest available for a $9.99 monthly fee.)
“We’re a little more crusty and wrinkly, but we still have that (old) energy,” says Macchio, 56.
“Karate Kid” crane-kicked its way into audiences’ hearts in 1984, but the finals of the All Valley Karate Tournament are still being felt by its principals. Johnny hasn’t been the same since his loss to underdog Daniel: Now, he’s a struggling handyman who drinks too much and is estranged from his son (Tanner Buchanan), while Daniel’s a successful car salesman trading on his fame as a local sports hero.
Not all is the same as it used to be, though. Johnny saves his teen neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) from mean classmates — which echoes Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) rescuing Daniel back in the day — then starts training the kid as part of his revamped Cobra Kai dojo. (The three main tenets remain “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy.”)
Cobra Kai’s return unnerves Daniel to his core. The bruises have healed, but not the memories of getting beaten up by Johnny and his friends, and he vows to shut Johnny down while also reconnecting with his karate love.
Macchio approaches “Daniel-san” just as he did years ago, blending what he considers his natural New York bravado with a “short-tempered, knee-jerk” stubbornness that the actor admits he lacks. “If I got my ass kicked the first time at the beach, I’m not so sure I would have come back. But then again, it’s a much better story if you have a feisty guy who’s not willing to back down.”
Yet Zabka says grown-up Johnny is almost a different character than his love-to-hate “Karate Kid” bad boy. He embraced the aspects of Johnny he connected with in the original movie, where “at his core he has good intentions but he’s just been trained wrong.”
But having the way of Cobra Kai back in Johnny’s life — the aggressive, win-no-matter-the-cost approach that made him a villain in the first place — is a Pandora’s box . “He’s playing with fire in a way, but he’s doing his best to not go in that direction (while) giving these kids all he knows,” says Zabka, who at 52 is the same age Morita was when he played Miyagi in the film.
There’s a “soulful magic” to Karate Kid, Macchio says, and lines such as “Wax on, wax off” and “Sweep the leg” have helped make the movie so iconic. But what makes it a special part of Americana — preserved in the new show — is that “it’s a story about a boy who needs a mentor, needs a father, and he’s got all the odds against him,” Zabka adds. “Everybody wants a Miyagi in their life, a magical man who has the secrets and leads you on a path that you don’t know.”
Brian Truitt, USA TODAY