Is This Valley Dojo The Real 'Cobra Kai'?
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Cobra Kai has become a hit since moving to Netflix for its third season, offering a new perspective on the saga of 1980s mega-franchise The Karate Kid.
Martial arts instructor Mark Parra helped to train one of the series' leads -- and has his own real-life story of martial arts battles in the San Fernando Valley.
Parra runs House of Champions, a Van Nuys martial arts dojo founded in 1995. Cobra Kai actress Mary Mouser, who plays OG Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso's daughter Sam, came to the school during the show's first season to train for her role.
Mouser wasn't sure what she wanted to focus on at first, so Parra started her with punching, kicking, footwork, and head movement. He moved on to fight choreography, working with Mouser on how to react for the camera during a TV brawl.
"Then she wanted to get more specific," Parra said. "She wanted more classical stuff, because she started to understand her character and the show more."
So he began giving her some classic karate training, including training in a karate gi, fitting with the traditional Karate Kid LaRusso style.
Despite the show's success, it hasn't led to a big increase in students. Of course, that may be because the show didn't get nearly as much attention until it moved to Netflix in late 2020, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
MARTIAL ARTS DURING CORONAVIRUS
Parra is proud of the 6,200-square-foot House of Champions facility. It's a major step up from what Parra described as a typical martial arts school that's a third of the size, similar to what Johnny Lawrence opens on Cobra Kai.
But the pandemic led to him losing his more than 400 active students, and having to re-evaluate everything about how the school works.
"I had to make a decision whether I was going to try to grind it out or just close my doors," Parra said.
For Mouser, Parra sent one of his trainers to go work with her. He would take a COVID-19 test every day before seeing her, before the show went back to Atlanta to film.
But one-on-one training doesn't scale very well to an entire school. So House of Champions started offering classes online via Zoom, as well as setting up an outdoor area for training that they call "The Yard."
"It sucks," Parra said. "[But] if I didn't have it, I would have been out of business."
He's frustrated with California's leadership, and he's putting in longer hours to make up for being down from a 20-person staff to just six. But he's thankful to be back to more than 200 students at this point.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm a fighter, so I'm built for this," Parra said.
THE REAL COBRA KAI?
Parra compared his struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic to another struggle he faced in the early days of the House of Champions.
Another popular dojo -- the Jet Center -- closed in the early 1990s, and Parra seized the opportunity to open his school. Just like in Cobra Kai, he signed the lease on his first location and didn't have much time to start bringing in students to pay the rent.
The first week, two kids came in, and Parra started training one of them in boxing. It later turned out that they were both part of a local gang, Parra said.
A couple days later, three carloads full of gang members drove up outside the school. They'd come by because they heard that a kid who was trying to leave their gang was training there, according to Parra. They were drinking beer and smoking pot outside the school, so Parra went out and asked them to leave. They responded with threats.
One of the guys Parra was working with was a Vietnam veteran -- and he came out with a sword, threatening one of the gang members. That's when a fight broke out.
"Me and two of my guys are in the middle of Vanowen, and we're throwing down with these 10, 12 people from this gang," Parra said. "We take them out quite quickly. And most of them are threatening to kill me -- 'You're dead, you're dead, you're dead.'"
That night, as he was teaching class, four guys showed up outside his dojo. He grabbed a double-barreled shotgun that one of his colleagues had brought in for protection and managed to scare them off.
But the next day, he got another call from his student.
"He said, 'Sensei, they're going to come do a hit on you today,'" Parra said.
Parra called an LAPD officer he'd worked with as part of the D.A.R.E. program to see if he could get some help, but he was told there was nothing that could be done unless those gang members showed up at the school armed.
Around 4 p.m., gang members started to show up both on foot and in cars, according to Parra. He received a call from a police sergeant, warning him not to go outside.
Soon after, cop cars swarmed the location and arrested members of this gang.
"A police officer pulls up and says, 'It's over,'" Parra said.
But Parra knew he still wasn't out of the woods after angering members of the gang. He reached out to a sparring partner of his -- an older former gang member he knew, Héctor López, who was also an Olympic silver medalist.
López worked with his own students, tracking the head of the crew who had been threatening Parra to a local laundromat.
Héctor called Parra the next day and said, "It's over." For real this time. Parra felt safe once again.
"That's my version of Cobra Kai, but in a much more intense, realistic way," Parra said.
Parra's working on a screenplay of his story right now.
ACTUAL MARTIAL ARTS BAD GUYS
While there weren't any local sensei as threatening as Cobra Kai's John Kreese, Parra said that there were some who would pose a problem at the big local tournament, Long Beach International.
"There's always been the sensei that can't stand the other sensei, therefore he hates his students," Parra said. "They talk s--- about each other, they try to degrade each other. 'He doesn't teach -- come to me, I'll show you the real s---.'"
He noted that one of those sensei would sit to the side, give his student a look, and they'd actually try to seriously hurt their opponent. It's up to other trainers to force those guys out of the business, according to Parra, since there's no state licensing for opening up your own martial arts school.
Despite those issues, Parra said that he tries to be about respect and honor.
"We're not trying to mold Cobra Kai-style students, as much as take students' strengths and improve on those," Parra said.
And while he can come off like a tough guy at times, Parra says he ultimately wants to help the kids and adults he works with.
"It all comes from love. We don't have a Cobra Kai mentality," Parra said. "I always tell everyone when they bring their kids or they train here, I'm like a Payday bar -- I'm salty on the outside, but sweet and yummy in the middle."
He hopes that, as the pandemic improves, Cobra Kai and other shows will help add some momentum to dojos like House of Champions.
"The only thing permanent for me is change," Parra said.
So far, he's seen it help draw some young people, as well as older people who have a connection with the original movies.