Who Would Win: Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-Do
A Real Analysis of Fictional Martial Arts
The Netflix Karate Kid reboot, Cobra Kai, debuted in 2018 and punched its way into our hearts through a perfect combination of 80’s nostalgia, corniness, and surprisingly relatable characters. Since then, about to enter the fourth season, two hot debates continue to rage:
- Is Karate an effective martial art?
- Which is better: Myagi-Do or Cobra Kai?
I’ll weigh in on both (mostly the second), arguing that one is unequivocally better than the other, and not just for the reasons you’re probably thinking.
Let’s get some stuff out of the way
About the author
I am a tech writer and martial arts enthusiast. I trained Shotokan Karate from 2005–2009, receiving a Brown Belt before an injury and life circumstances intervened. I finished my Ph.D. in 2015 and began a career in software. In 2016 I discovered Muay Thai and have been doing it consistently since.
I’m basically a nerd who overanalyzes combat sports and has binged Cobra Kai several times. I piss away time following internet martial artists like Shane Fazen, Sensei Seth, and Jesse Enkamp. I’m by no means a good athlete and have never even had a real fight. But I have thought way too much about this — and this is a stupid thing to argue about anyway so who cares?
What do we mean by “better”?
Predominately, the evaluations here will refer to the efficacy of the art in a real-ish combat scenario. By real-ish, I mean any unarmed, one-on-one, non-point-based standup combat situation. This could range from controlled sparing to a street fight. Other secondary factors are considered as well, for example, fitness level and character development. Grappling is not considered at all (and yes I realize BJJ is super effective so don’t spam the comments).
Is Karate an effective martial art?
This question has been debated over and over so I will not bore into it. The consensus seems the answer is “yes — but”. As in, yes it is effective, but it needs to be adapted to modern situations. For instance, Lyoto Machida — the canonical example of karate efficacy — has developed his own style to adapt to modern sports combat.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of karate styles has been ranked by popular internet karateka like Sensei Seth. Interestingly and despite an inherent bias, they do not regard it as especially effective.
Anyway, if you clicked on this then you’re probably less interested in how effective Karate is, but rather which is better — Myagi-Do or Cobra Kai?
Miyagi-do is a fictional karate style emphasizing defense, restraint, mindfulness, and other motifs taken from traditional Okinawan karate. It focuses on repetitive technique and isolation training, for example, the famous wax-on/wax-off block. The ethos of Miyagi-do is that karate is a way of life and that fighting should be avoided at all costs.
Cobra Kai, in opposition to Miyagi-Do, emphasizes offense, toughness, and mercilessness. It more resembles a form of sport karate, although training for real-world scenarios is emphasized, similar perhaps to Krav Maga but with an emphasis on attacking to an almost pathological extent.
Ok — let’s compare.
The portrayal of technique and training methods is the most salient contrast between the styles and is the basis for some of the most iconic shots in the series. Myagi-do emphasizes indirect movements to build muscle memory. For instance, Daniel spends hours painting a fence and waxing a car to develop inherent blocking skills. After the basics, advanced/exotic techniques like the crane kicks are introduced and revered. Cobra Kai on the other hand focuses on fundamentals. They throw basic punches and kicks in almost every scene; however, in tournaments will breakout round kicks and other pizazz.
The sad truth is indirect training methods like wax-on/wax-off are ineffective. If the goal is to become a strong puncher, it’s more beneficial to throw 1000 punches than to wax a car for an hour. If this weren’t the case, then why the cliche of the fed-up protagonist suddenly realizing he had been training the whole time! Give me a break.
Winner: Cobra Kai
PS: Has anyone else ever noticed the contradiction between “board no hit back” and “wax-on/wax-off”? How is car waxing more legit than breaking boards?
The greatest strength of Miyagi-Do is its capacity for character development. Just consider this, IMO the greatest scene in the entire trilogy.
Clearly, Cobra Kai builds assholes and Miyagi-Do builds angles. Eyeroll.
Winner: Miyagi Do
However, my opinion is that this does not translate at all to real life. Check out the article’s conclusion for a juicy rant.
Fitness / Toughness
In the Cobra Kai TV Series, both schools are depicted as having decent physical fitness. However, Cobra Kai is portrayed as the more physically demanding school. They do pushups, fight in the woods, move cement trucks, etc… Myagi-Do by contrast, especially in the movies, spends a ton of time talking, doing kata, and being otherwise unthreatening.
Fights between well-matched opponents come down to physical endurance and toughness, qualities that appear lacking in Miyagi-Do. Well — LaRusso should get some toughness points for getting beat up so often…
Winner: Cobra Kai
In martial arts, feedback is super important. It’s the only way to know what works and what doesn’t. Without pressure testing, who can really say that wax-on/wax-off works (hint: it doesn’t)? Throughout the trilogy, Cobra Kai is consistently hard sparring. Miyagi-Do is shown to spar more in the later Netflix series.
Also worth pointing out is that Cobra Kai’s gym is full of trophies. This means they compete more. The movie connotes this as inherently negative, but competition is good and a requisite to improvement.
Winner: Cobra Kai
Ah, the tried and true 80s movie formula:
- Main character gets beat up by bullies
- Instructor intervenes, whoops some ass
- Main character trains, struggles, sucks at first, gets good
- Main character gets beat up through the entire final fight
- Main character digs deep and scores a final point
- Main character is a hero
So basically Daniel spends most of his time in the movies getting pummelled. Except for his fight with Chozen in Karate Kid 2, he only wins by scoring the last point. Tag you’re it.
However, because of the number of victories and also Mr. Myiagi’s super-human status, I have to reluctantly give this one to Myagi-Do. Again, this would not pan out in real life!
Offense Vs. Defense
Defense is the most important and overlooked aspect of combat training. And so you may naturally conclude that Myagi-Do takes this one. But it’s not that simple. Think about guys who have a great defense, for example, Floyd Mayweather. He’s great because his defense leads to counter-attacks. Cobra Kai’s unrelenting offense wouldn’t work well on counter strikers, but Miyagi-Do does not train counters. Instead, they practice the human punching bag style of trying to block everything. They’d be pummeled in real life.
While we are on the subject, Karate blocks are totally useless. Straight up. Shelling, slipping, parrying, Irish Step dancing — literally anything else is more useful than karate blocks. This is perfectly summed up by Chad Lyman.
Winner: Cobra Kai
Sustainability means how likely is the practitioner to stick with the martial art? A major theme of the series is that Miyagi-Do is not just a combat style, but an ethos.
“Lesson Not Just Karate Only. Lesson For Whole Life! Whole Life Have A Balance, Everything Be Better.”
Cobra Kai, despite its never-die mantra, is depicted as having high matriculation. Its survival of the fittest mentality is implicitly unsustainable.
Getting the Chicks
Miyagi-Do always gets the girl.
And while we are the subject, no disrespect to Ally or the Netflix ladies, but is anyone else low-key crushing on Tamlyn Tomita?
Overall Winner: Cobra Kai
You’ve probably realized by now that Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-Do is an analog to sports vs. traditional martial arts. And with that in mind, of course Cobra Kai is more effective — because it’s practical. Yet, this is often portrayed as a tradeoff. Traditional is less effective but is then touted as better for character development. Kata, bowing, mediations … it’s all supposed to lead to some enlightened state and convey deep respect. Whereas sport just churns out assholes like Johnny Lawrence. This is an unfair stereotype. In fact, the intangible benefits of traditional martial arts are overstated.
After a year of Shotokan, I actually walked around thinking I could beat anyone up. For real. I was convinced I had innate powers — strikes that could drop a wild beast (ie. Ikken Hissatsu, one strike; one kill). I heard it over and over, and eventually drank the Kool-Aid, never mind that I’d never actually punched a person in my life. It was only after actually sparring in Muay Thai that I realized how truly ignorant, out of shape, and ineffective I was. Shotokan led me down a path of self-delusion. This is probably the reason McDojos develop primarily from traditional styles. Muay Thai made me honest again. And through this honesty, I gained a deeper respect for both the sport and myself.
Anyway, rant over. It’s 11:45PM on 12/30/21 and Cobra Kai season 4 is about to drop. So let’s put our difference aside and go enjoy it. If you’re team Miyagi-Do, that’s great. I support you. But I support Cobra Kai just a little bit more :)
What do you think? Did I get it wrong? Leave me some love or hate in a comment or on Instagram adamalksinsquares.