They kept going after Daniel LaRusso's leg.
That was their strategy. As directed by sensei John Kreese, the Cobra Kai were to take the skinny Cinderella "out of commission." And they would indeed attempt to follow that directive.
First, in the semifinals, scruffy Cobra Kai dojo denizen Bobby Brown (no relation)—who a year prior had finished second to star teammate John Lawrence in this same tournament—accepted certain disqualification by intentionally leaping toward and landing directly upon LaRusso's knee. Next, down 2-0 and again at Kreese's instruction, reigning champ Lawrence targeted and struck LaRusso's injured leg with a front sweep—a strong, tough-to-defend move that spurred a response-run from Lawrence that would tie the 1984 Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championship finals at two points apiece.
Momentum firmly on his side, Lawrence was emboldened, and continued to fearlessly charge at his wounded, heretofore unknown foe. He chased LaRusso out of the ring; he felled him immediately upon re-entry; and though a still-writhing LaRusso somehow managed to counter that knockdown by similarly taking Lawrence to the mat, the decorated Cobra Kai champion then purposefully and somewhat literally showcased his upper hand by planting a right fist across LaRusso's face.
According to many observers that day, the match should've ended right then and there.
The punch certainly looked like a legal strike—and had it been deemed as such, the history books would read differently. Lawrence would've gone out a back-to-back champion, and Kreese never would've slipped into a deep depression, his Cobra Kai dojo washed up as both a business and a brand.
But veteran referee Pat Johnson saw the punch differently. He called a foul on Lawrence, Kreese's prized pupil. The match—through a decision still openly questioned on internet message boards three decades later—would continue.
Which was not necessarily good news for LaRusso. His goal throughout this tournament—as his own teacher, the diminutive Kesuke Miyagi, so frequently reminded him—should've simply been to earn respect from his tormentors in the Cobra Kai. And just by reaching the finals in this, his first-ever organized tournament, where he realistically couldn't have expected to score even a single point, the kid had surely mustered at least a little. Facing mammoth odds, he'd definitely shown guts—not just in the six tournament matches he'd already fought and won (all but one pitting him against other members of the Cobra Kai), but in the months leading up to this moment, too. Shuttled across the country—from Newark, N.J., to Reseda, Calif.—by his job-hunting mother just before his senior year of high school, LaRusso almost immediately found himself dodging falling coconuts in these newer, warmer climes: Within a day of his arrival, he found himself awkwardly placed at the more-angular peak of a testy love triangle and recast as his new school's personal whipping boy, a toy readily at the mercy (or lack thereof) of Lawrence, Brown, and the rest of their black-belt-donning goons.
And yet, here on the mat, LaRusso still (barely) stood, all of two months into his first-ever formal—and surprisingly rudimentary—karate teachings, just a lost momentum swing removed and a point away from stealing a towering trophy from the grasp of his highly trained rivals. Already, his was a remarkable accomplishment.
But somehow, the most astonishing—and internationally legendary—moment in documented Southern Californian martial-arts history, as captured on December 19, 1984, was still to come.
And that's because Lawrence, still fuming over Johnson's disputed call, immediately fell back on the Cobra Kai dojo's stated game plan for defeating LaRusso, goading his seemingly overmatched opponent into tossing a weak, ill-advised kick—an attack stopped with a second-nature flick of Lawrence's elbow. Then, the reigning champ made his own move.
One last time, he went after LaRusso's leg.
Thirty years after the fact, it's easy to get swept up in the nostalgia of the 1984 U-18 All-Valley Karate Championship, to remember it for the shocker that it was rather than the cakewalk of a coronation that it wasn't.
But, right up until its final seconds, the outcome had been as given as given gets: For the second year in a row, Lawrence was going to win the title. With ease.
It had been all but decided for months. Heading into his senior year of high school—and his final year of U-18 eligibility—Lawrence had taken steps to ensure a repeat victory. As his fellow Cobra Kai brazenly reveled in the privilege of their regional athletic dominance—openly drinking underage and gallivanting around the San Fernando Valley on their matching motorbikes, even causing multi-car crashes in the school parking lot with their overall disregard for rules—Lawrence mostly abstained. A joint here and there? Sure, bad habits are tough to break. But, for the most part, his fierce determination provided all the high he would need. His reputation as "ace degenerate" was largely on ice.
"I've got one year to make it all work," he told his fellow Cobra Kai just prior to his final months of training for the All-Valley. "And that's what I'm gonna do: Make it work."
He seemed to be doing just that. Everything was going Lawrence's way in that fall of 1984. He was the quintessential, golden-haired Golden State golden boy: More than just a decorated fighter; he also played varsity high school soccer and was idolized by his peers, who followed his lead with little protest or debate.
Nowhere was this leadership more clear than in Kreese's Cobra Kai dojo, where Lawrence led his fellow students by example with his unwavering dedication to their master's teachings, and was in turn entrusted to lead the class in warm-ups and drills.
Kreese had reason to trust Lawrence—and all of his students, really. His regiment was ruthless: If a student so much as flinched with distraction, he's be tasked with 60 knuckle-pushups as punishment. That was a lesson their overlord had learned in the Army: Discipline pays off. It had certainly paid off for him. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Kreese earned the rank of captain and, for three straight years (1970-1972), held the title of that service branch's "Karate Champion." No surprise that he'd take a drill sergeant's approach to his civilian life, especially in his role as Cobra Kai sensei.
Still, many decried his practices as over-the-top, and his teachings—which focused on "the way of the fist," directed his students to "strike first, strike hard" and without mercy, and required that his students remove the very notions of "fear," "pain," and "defeat" from their lexicon—as immoral.
"That guy just doesn't know what karate's all about," his most vocal detractors, among them referee Johnson, would complain when pressed in later years.
But Kreese had a built-in response to those challenges: "We do not train to be merciful here," he would announce, almost shouting. "Mercy is for the weak. Here, on the street, in competition—a man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy."
He certainly got results: Brown and Lawrence occupied the top two slots of the 1983 Championship; in his dojo's 1984 run, those two highly skilled fighters would be joined by a third Cobra Kai member named Dutch among the tournament's final eight competitors.
So Lawrence and Kreese shared many an attribute; above all, they simply made things work. Heading into the All-Valley, they'd been mostly successful in their various efforts—in all ways but one. Through the reformation of his ways, Lawrence had hoped to also win back the affection of his ex-girlfriend, a fellow senior (and blonde) named Ali Mills. Problem was, the popular cheerleader wasn't interested.
Verily, as Lawrence vowed to turn a corner in his life, Mills was moving on—specifically, moving on with some scrawny new kid at school named Daniel LaRusso.
It was only after Lawrence dropped his final elbow into his adversary's battered and defenseless knee that the crowd turned on its once-beloved champion. But when the tone of the room finally shifted, it shifted entirely.
As he kneeled and faced his corner, waiting for LaRusso to rise to his feet with some help from referee Johnson, boos rained down from the rafters of the Cal State Northridge gymnasium, squarely directed at Lawrence, Kreese, and the rest of the Cobra Kai. But Lawrence was unfazed. With an animalistic scowl on his face, he kept in place, mentally readying himself to score that elusive, final point over a dilapidated opponent who, meanwhile, could barely keep still. The pain was too much. Wide-eyed and hobbled, he found his left knee unable to bear any of his weight.
"LaRusso," Johnson said, leaning in, perhaps a bit too concerned. "Are you OK?"
LaRusso nodded, but he really wasn't. Not in this moment. Not for some time, really. Over the course of his five-month stay in Reseda, his fish-out-of-water tale found him gasping for air almost constantly.
Lawrence's bullying was to blame for some of that, to be sure. But LaRusso made his own bed within minutes of arriving at the South Seas apartment complex he now called home. He lied to the very first person he met there—a friendly neighbor and fellow high school senior named Freddy Fernandez—by implying that the karate classes he'd taken at a New Jersey YMCA had taught him anything beyond the most basic of basics. He lied to himself in that regard, too: The night he joined Fernandez at a beach party and met Mills, LaRusso ignored her many warnings to avoid meddling in her then-unfolding spat with Lawrence; instead, the new kid's hubris found him engaging—and faring badly—in the first of many fisticuffs he'd share with his soon-to-be Cobra Kai rival. Worse, this particular misstep turned LaRusso into a punching-bag-style joke among his peers, who began mockingly referring to him as "The Karate Kid" at every opportunity.
Not helping matters was the fact that Rocket Computers, the company that first lured LaRusso's mother to California, had gone belly-up, which her deflated son took as further evidence that their cross-country move had been colossally ill-advised. Nonetheless, she quickly found work as the hostess at an Asian restaurant called the Orient Express, with aspirations of eventually being a manager there; having persevered herself, she demanded that her son do the same.
In this, LaRusso received help from an unlikely source. And not a moment too soon: The poor kid's idea of pushing forward was to either avoid the Cobra Kai altogether or to snap back at them by pulling pranks on its members at school dances. But in Miyagi, who worked as the custodian at the South Seas Apartments, LaRusso finally found an ally—and an advisor—in California beyond the hot-and-cold Mills. It was Miyagi who first questioned how much karate LaRusso actually knew. It was Miyagi who fixed the boy's bike after another encounter with the Cobra Kai left it essentially unusable. And, no fewer than three times, it was Miyagi who would save his new charge's hide.
Interestingly, Miyagi was a war hero himself, but unlike Kreese, he rarely mentioned it. A veteran of World War II and a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare—Miyagi had earned the Medal of Valor. From there, though, he just sort of receded into his own, sad bubble. Had it not been for LaRusso, he probably would've stayed there, too. But, for still-unknown reasons, Miyagi took pity on the troubled boy.
More than that, he stepped in to defend him. First, upon discovering five Cobra Kai beating up LaRusso outside the apartment complex one night, Miyagi, acting almost as if he were Reseda's own friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, leaped into the fray and warded off the attack. The very next morning, inside the Cobra Kai Dojo, he took his shielding of LaRusso a step farther, brokering a deal to keep the Cobra Kai off the kid's case for the next two months—provided LaRusso agree to enter the All-Valley. And then, over the course of that ceasefire, he imparted— rather unconventionally, through a series of household chores—what little karate knowledge he could, given the time constraints.
Miyagi mended LaRusso, too—and not just metaphorically. After he tasked the boy with painting his house and the chore left his trainee complaining of a sore shoulder, Miyagi magically healed the wound by rubbing his hands together and grabbing the injured appendage. LaRusso's pain, inexplicably, dissipated immediately. This was a mysterious gift that Miyagi never explained, to anyone, through his death in November 2005.
But, on the day of the tournament and following Brown's illegal attack on LaRusso's knee, Miyagi reluctantly gave in to the young man he called Daniel-San's demands, and, for the second and final time, used his mystical power.
In no uncertain terms, that moment is what afforded LaRusso his audience with Lawrence in the All-Valley finals. There's no doubt about it: So far as tournament officials and on-site medical personnel were concerned, Brown's strike had left the Karate Kid wholly incapable of even competing against Lawrence at all—hence the surprise in the tournament announcer's voice when Mills ran out onto the mat to interrupt Lawrence's premature trophy-presentation ceremony and inform everyone of LaRusso's stable condition.
"Daniel LaRusso's gonna fight?" the announcer replied in disbelief to Mills, before confirming his own query for the rest of the viewing audience. "Daniel LaRusso's gonna fight! Now isn't this what it's all about, folks? You know it!"
In that moment, the crowd erupted in cheers—just as they would again once the embattled LaRusso, back on his feet, squared to face Lawrence for the final point of the tournament.
It's tough to say what was going through the kid's mind as he glanced across the mat, looking Lawrence directly in the eyes, both of their fates hanging in the balance. Maybe nothing. Because, out of context, what LaRusso did next didn't make sense. And what would immediately follow that move would only further defy logic.
Over audible shouts from Lawrence's Cobra Kai teammates that LaRusso was finished and more in need of a body bag than anything else, the battered Newarker calmly shifted his weight—all of it—to his healthy right knee. Then he lifted his injured left knee into the air in front of him and simultaneously hoisted both of his arms above his head, mimicking the stance of a crane about to take flight.
Miyagi, watching on from the sidelines, quietly nodded with approval.
LaRusso had no business even making it to this point, of course. In fact, he never should've been allowed to compete in the first place. The All-Valley tournament's "open division" only lives up to its name in that it's open to karate students who've earned a brown or black belt. But the Karate Kid never got that far in his training, in part because Miyagi hadn't, either: "In Okinawa," he joked, "'belt' mean[s] [you] no [sic] need rope [to] hold up [your] pants."
And so, to skirt that rule, Miyagi committed two cardinal sins: First, he lied to the tournament's check-in official and pronounced LaRusso a black belt; then, when the official wasn't looking, Miyagi stole that very official's own black belt and slipped it to Mills, who in turn slipped it to LaRusso.
Had anyone paid close enough attention to LaRusso's pre-tournament dressing in the Cal State Northridge locker room, they would've immediately caught on to this ruse. The Cobra Kai certainly noticed: As the Karate Kid struggled to dress himself in his tournament gi, his rivals lampooned his inability to properly do so, noting that it marked his lack of even the simplest bit of karate understanding. But perhaps because their motivations were more nefarious than rules-oriented—in their eyes, LaRusso was just "dead meat"—they let this infraction slide.
And it's not like the Cobra Kai had much to worry about heading into the competition: LaRusso didn't even know the rules of competitive karate before entering the Cal State Northridge gymnasium. Mills had to break them down for him—"Everything above your waist is a point; you can hit the head, sternum, kidneys, ribs"—while tying his belt around his waist and helping to dress him, no less.
Worse, LaRusso had only recently learned how to punch. Throughout his training, and despite his pupil's many protests, the majority of Miyagai's teachings instead focused largely on defensive strategies—something that not even LaRusso realized at first. But this was a purposeful deception: By forcing his charge to engage in seemingly tedious activities (waxing his mentor's cars, sanding his floors, painting his house and his fence) that mimicked the very same movements of established karate blocks, Miyagi had masterfully ingrained impeccable defensive posture into LaRusso's muscle memory.
But offense was a problem, clearly. And Miyagi's sole instruction there?
"[The] secret to [a good] punch [is to] make [the] power of [your] whole body fit inside one inch."
Fortunately, there were other, unspoken lessons. While teaching his student the importance of balance—by walking him to the Pacific Ocean and instructing him to learn how to lean into the brunt of the crashing tide–Miyagi also, perhaps accidentally but maybe not, taught LaRusso something else. White his waterlogged trainee succumbed to wave after wave, Miyagi took to some nearby stumps to practice a unique strategy he called "the crane technique." In this complicated acrobatic sequence, Miyagi could be seen attempting to stand on one leg, executing a kick with that same leg and then finally landing on that same leg.
LaRusso couldn't help but notice. Yet when he pestered his teacher about the expert maneuver, Miyagi only offered glancing insight: "If [you] do [it] right, no [one] can defense [sic]." Furthermore, he refused to teach his young charge how to do it.
"First learn [to] stand," Miyagi said. "Then learn [to] fly. Nature's rule, Daniel-San. Not mine."
Though Miyagi obviously didn't have the time to teach LaRusso much, the opening rounds of the All-Valley clearly showed that his pupil had learned enough.
Granted, the opening salvos of the Karate Kid's very first match found him to be an overwhelmed first-time competitor wrought with jitters. And Miyagi's own lack of tournament experience—his only advice to his student was to try his best to avoid getting hit—did little to assuage those concerns.
Following LaRusso twice getting chased out of the ring during that first fight, however, Miyagi finally doled out some less-vague wisdom: "Listen," Miyagi implored his student during a quick aside. "Remember: Use defense. Points [will] come. Concentrate. Focus. Power. Remember balance. Make [it a] good fight!" Disjointed as those words of encouragement may have seemed at first, their message hit home. Upon re-entering the ring, LaRusso immediately took control of the match. First, he sidestepped his nimble opponent's approach and landed a defensive roundhouse kick for a score. Then, to close out the two-point, early-round match, LaRusso repeated his dodge and paired it with a counter-punch for the win.
From there, LaRusso only gained confidence, and his defensive-minded approach proved far more effective a game plan than either he or Miyagi could've possibly anticipated. He advanced through each of the next four rounds of action by employing a wholly counter-attack-minded strategy.
And, along with Mills and Miyagi, the crowd, too, appeared impressed by this unknown entrant's ascent. Even Freddy Fernandez, who'd jettisoned LaRusso as a friend following that embarrassing beach-party fiasco, could be seen cheering the clear underdog's achievements from the stands.
Upon reaching the tournament semifinals and a faceoff with Brown, LaRusso likewise appeared blown away by his accomplishments. "I never thought I'd get this far," he confided to Miyagi. "Wouldn't it be great if I won?"
Miyagi was less enthused: "It'd be great if you survived," he said.
Immediately, LaRusso was taken aback. "What do you mean 'survive'?" he replied, dismayed by his teacher's assessment.
But it would prove a prescient observation: When Brown, disregarding his own protests, followed through on Kreese's instructions to target LaRusso's knee, the kid's survival didn't quite seem in jeopardy; but, following Brown's disqualification, LaRusso's stubborn return to the ring, and Lawrence's repeated targeting of his opponent's already-severe injury, mere survival suddenly appeared to be a plenty desirable outcome.
And yet resiliency, for better or worse, had become a learned trait for LaRusso over the previous few months.
For Lawrence's part, LaRusso's awkward pre-combat stance before the final point of the 1984 All-Valley Karate Championship didn't throw him off one bit. Not at first, no.
Victory was too close. And such melodrama was laughable to a trained student such as himself. If anything, the awkward pose was one of surrender. It wasn't until after Johnson had yelled "Fight!," until after Lawrence had taken two steps forward, and until after he had raised and pulled his right hand into a fist that Lawrence realized his opponent's stance left no obvious attack openings.
But by then, it was too late: As Lawrence neared, LaRusso had already started to bounce on his right knee; by the time his opponent's fist was cocked, he was completely airborne. Without warning, LaRusso's right foot connected with the left side of Lawrence's head, and before anyone could even react, he'd hit the bricks, Johnson had declared LaRusso the winner, and Mills, Larusso's mother, and damn near every other attendee of the tournament had rushed the center mat to hoist the tournament's unlikely champion into the air with glee.
Euphoria took over, no doubt. Because replays of that winning move show its true nature, and the fact that it defied logic altogether.
With the benefit of improved technology, it's clear today that LaRusso's attempt at the crane technique had essentially failed. There's no denying it: He did not land on the same foot he launched off of—not even remotely. Instead, LaRusso landed on his injured left leg, and all of his weight came crashing down on his ravished knee. But somehow, he absorbed it all.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline of the moment. Maybe it was another manifestation of Miyagi's mysterious magic. Theories abound, but 30 years later, the physiological truth remains unknown.
The tale of LaRusso's Rocky-like rise, on the other hand, persists. In 2007, the Los Angeles rock band No More Kings released "Sweep the Leg," a song about the 1984 All-Valley. In 2010, Hollywood used LaRusso's story as inspiration for a Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan vehicle fittingly, if not super creatively, called The Karate Kid. In 2011, MMA fighter Lyoto Machida and his mentor, the iconic martial-artist Steven Seagal, successfully employed the crane technique—LaRusso's bastardized version of it, even—as part of a game plan to beat revered UFC fighter Randy Couture in a match.
The Cobra Kai, meanwhile, were never the same. In the wake of Lawrence's loss, they fell to ridicule: These days, their only legacy is a raft of bad fantasy-sports team names and uncreative Halloween group-costume ideas.
The sheer absurdity and unexpectedness of the 1984 All-Valley Championship no doubt contributes to its enduring legend. The same can be said of why, even after suffering defeat, Lawrence became so overwhelmed with the shock of the outcome that he himself handed his trophy over into LaRusso's welcoming arms.
"You're alright, LaRusso," the fallen champ said in congratulations as relinquished the honor, officially quashing their beef.
And even though LaRusso leg would take some time to heal, it turns out Lawrence was right.
LaRusso was OK.
But he was just OK, really. That's it.
It's really quite sad: Some would argue that LaRusso's story ended with the 1984 All-Valley, that everything that took place in its wake never happened. This is, of course, a distortion of the truth—albeit a romantic one.
All the same, the 12 months that followed LaRusso's 1984 win were fairly underwhelming—and bizarrely so at that. Twice over this stretch, fate would find him awkwardly rehashing that same storyline. First, after losing Mills to an on-scholarship football player at UCLA, LaRusso joined Miyagi on a trip to Okinawa, where the master delved somewhat further into his backstory—he told his young charge everything except for the magic stuff, essentially—and, for reasons passing understanding, the Karate Kid was eventually tasked with participating in a fight to the death wherein it more or less became his burden to save Okinawa from the impending onslaught of gentrification. With the townsfolk cheering him on and Miyagi reminding him that "this [is] not [a] tournament, this [is] for real," LaRusso managed to pull that one out using a new technique modeled after a technique for playing an Okinawan folk drum.
Then, upon returning to the States with designs to open up a bonsai tree shop with Miyagi, LaRusso—against his wishes, having been coerced by his old, now-depressed enemy in Kreese and a new, also-sinister old Army pal of the fallen Cobra Kai sensei—was taken out of his self-imposed retirement and forced to defend his All-Valley title against "Karate's Badboy" Mike Barnes, an out-of-towner recruited specifically to take LaRusso down, and for good this time. Yet once more, the kid emerged victorious—aided in no small part by an odd rule change that gave LaRusso, as the reigning champ, a bye to the tournament finals. And his unconventional fighting style this time around? A set of ceremonial, dance-like maneuvers known as "kata" that Barnes never saw coming.
It's true: Neither of these subsequent feats matched LaRusso's first triumph—neither in thrill nor repute. There is no debate. LaRusso's greatest moment came 30 years ago, on December 19, 1984. Everything since has been a letdown, for him and for us.
Out in the Cal State Northridge parking lot, immediately following that first unlikely win—but in a conversation that, due to all the hoopla, sure felt as if it took place a full two years later—the 1984 All-Valley Championship's announcer summed it up best: "People are going to be talking about that last kick for years."
But to think: Had the Cobra Kai never aimed to injure LaRusso, the kid might never have thought to take a flyer on Miyagi's offbeat crane technique in the first place.
Turns out, their demise was truly their own. It seems that defeat, despite any and all mantras to the contrary, very much exists.
Gif and photos from some sort of untitled, unreleased documentary on this topic.
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