“Show me wax on.”
Sean Daugherty watched intently as the moment of truth played out on his parents’ television in Youngstown, Ohio. It was the fall of 1984 and Prince’s Purple Rain ruled the air waves, every young man had a pair of camo cargo pants and young ladies scoffed up rubber jelly bangles that they stacked up their forearms like Slinkys. Ghostbusters was the blockbuster hit that summer, but a less ambitious film called The Karate Kid caught the nine-year-old Daugherty’s attention more.
Like the rest of the film’s fans, Daugherty was entranced as he watched it on HBO. He had seen plenty of martial arts films before, but this didn’t feel quite the same.
“The difference from Bruce Lee and the other Kung Fu films [before The Karate Kid] was that Daniel LaRusso was an American kid, a teenager with problems, so you could relate and identify with him,” says Daugherty. “It totally helped me get into martial arts.”
The creators of the original Karate Kid film (and the three sequels, cartoon and TV series that followed) couldn’t have meant for it to steer athletes into a career of professional fighting, as mixed martial arts didn’t even exist in the States at the time. Yet, nearly a decade after LaRusso crane-kicked his way to victory at the All-Valley Karate Championships, Daugherty – by then an accomplished 18-year-old amateur kickboxer – fought at UFC 2 in Denver, Colorado. Daugherty was ahead of his time – he remained the youngest competitor in the Octagon until Danny Lauzon made his debut at UFC 64, 13 years later.
Around the same time, nearly 600 miles away, about three hours southwest of Montreal, a young Georges St-Pierre struggled as the local whipping boy of his tiny Saint-Isidore town. St-Pierre had psoriasis that covered his face and body, which made him different. He often lost his lunch money, his clothing and his dignity, he said. Friends were few and far between – in fact, he wasn’t that different from the character of Daniel in the Karate Kid.
What St-Pierre did have was coordination and a bottomless well of energy. He started karate at age seven, and though he admits things didn’t go as smoothly for him as Daniel at first, the film is one of his favorites because it gave him hope.
“It’s definitely one of the movies that inspired me to start martial arts,” St-Pierre tells the Guardian via email. “I learned karate to escape the bullying.”
In late 2006, St-Pierre won his first UFC title in his 14th pro fight. When he retired in 2017, St-Pierre had amassed a 26-2 record, having won a UFC title multiple times in two different weight divisions. He is considered the most successful UFC fighter to ever come from a karate background.
Karate was the main focus of Michelle Waterson’s childhood, as well. Her brother walked her down the street most days to the community rec center, where she and her siblings learned American freestyle karate, which is a melding of multiple styles.
“It was something that I picked up fast. My father was in the military, so we enjoyed the disciplinary action of it and the respect aspect of it,” says Waterson. “After my first tournament, I realized it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Karate tournaments were a Waterson family activity – the entire clan climbed into the car for road trips to Las Vegas and other tournament destinations when they could afford it. Waterson competed in karate from age 10 to 19, as her dresser filled with gold trophies. Last September she beat Angela Hill, bringing her record in the UFC to 5-5 and her overall professional MMA record to 18-8.
“I wasn’t born until 1986, so I remember watching The Next Karate Kid with Hilary Swank first,” says Waterson. “She became empowered by karate and found herself, which is kind of what it did for me.”
Daugherty, St-Pierre and Waterson have all watched Netflix’s Cobra Kai, the continuation of Daniel and his main antagonist, Johnny Lawrence’s, stories 30-plus years after the events of the original film, as well as those of the students they now teach in rival dojos. The series heavily references the films with flashbacks, a glorious 80s soundtrack and returning characters. The scenarios aren’t all believable (a karate fight in a mall?), but neither were those in the original, and the show is well done. Entertainment Weekly called it “silly smart”.
Whatever the recipe, Cobra Kai is a bona fide hit. Netflix reported that 50m households accessed the first season when it debuted on the platform in August. St-Pierre was among them.
“I’ve watched the first two seasons – it’s hilarious!” wrote St-Pierre. “It illustrates in many ways the way I think. I don’t believe in bad people, I just think some good people get influenced by their environment to do bad things. No baby is born bad.”
Daugherty, today a Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo black belt who works with fighters at the Strong Style gym in Ohio, also sees the life lessons permeating through the films and series.
“We make jokes about The Karate Kid and its one-liners, but there’s chunks of wisdom in there,” says Daugherty.
Daugherty says he even borrows lines from Mr Miyagi himself when the situation fits.
“If I see a student chasing after [jiu-jitsu] belts, I tell them that belts are for holding their pants up,” he says with a laugh.
Waterson isn’t surprised the films and series are embraced so lovingly in the fight community. Countless fighters watched The Karate Kid and dreamed of becoming a winner. Countless future fighters will watch Cobra Kai, be inspired and find their way back to the little 1984 film that started it all.
“When you get a movie right, it inspires people to change in their real lives. It sparks something in your heart,” says Waterson. “It makes you want to get up the next day and do something different in your life. That’s when you know a movie got it right.”
• The third season of Cobra Kai is now streaming on Netflix.