Interview: Sweeping the Leg and the Mind with Sensei Ron Thomas (AKA ‘The Karate Kid’s’Bobby Brown)
The stage has been set. After rounds of pain and agony, Daniel LaRusso finally gets to square off against his bully nemesis Johnny Lawrence. Hobbling out of the locker room to a roaring applause from the crowd and a shocked confirmation by the announcer, one of the cinematic highlights of the 1980s is about to take place.
The Karate Kid has established itself to be a quintessential David v. Goliath flick, and its popularity is continuing to grow today with the Cobra Kai series. Celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2019, the film is set to re-release in theaters for a limited time this spring. With new and old fans alike continuing to support this ‘80s classic, one reason for the franchise’s immense success can be attributed to the overall likability of most—if not all—of its characters.
One character that is often heralded as a critical foil to the Cobra Kai and all that it stands for is Bobby Brown (played by Ron Thomas). Bobby was the one Cobra Kai who consistently grew in an empathetic and logical sense throughout the film. Sure, he often sided with his black-and yellow-wearing brethren and helped make Daniel’s life a living hell, but he also provided a voice of reason to his often radical friends. For instance, who tried to reason with Johnny during the foggy post-Halloween dance beat down? Bobby Brown. Who wanted to keep the integrity of karate by questioning his Sensei’s tactics during the tournament? Bobby Brown. Who apologized to Daniel once he swept his leg and realized his wrong doing? Bobby Brown.
So you see a pattern here, right? Bobby Brown was crucial to both Daniel’s and Johnny’s story, and many fans understand such truth. Being a huge fan of the films and its subsequent YouTube series, I tend to follow all news regarding The Karate Kid franchise and its many actors. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a social media page promoting the work of Ron Thomas himself. As it turns out, Mr. Thomas has been really busy since his portrayal of Bobby Brown, and his journey to his current profession of a life coach is rather remarkable. I ended up purchasing one of his books back in 2013 for some guidance in terms of my mindset as I was relatively new to my profession in education, and I can honestly say it has impacted me as both a teacher and a person.
I reached out to him for an interview regarding his perception of The Karate Kid and its impact on popular culture in relation to its 35th anniversary, and I wanted to know more about his new role as a life coach. Before I dive into our interview, I want to give some interesting facts about Ron Thomas—or a “Where Is He Now” briefing. First, he is a true “Sensei,” as he is a real-life martial artist and instructor. Some of his accomplishments include being a 5-time International Self-defense Champion, a 2-time World Champion, a 6th degree black-belt in Kodokan Judo and Kodenkan Jujitsu, and a former member/trainer of the U.S. Jujitsu team. Being that the martial arts teach self-discipline and empowerment, he decided to expand his knowledge on the human mind and how to train it. He has several certifications and extensive training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Hypnotherapy, Applied Kinesiology, Time Line Therapy, and other Behavioral Studies. With such credentials, he is a nationally-recognized motivational speaker and an acclaimed author. He has trained athletes, celebrities, and companies to develop more focused mindsets in pursuing success.
Without further ado, here is my interview with the man known for sweeping people right off their feet with his fantastic portrayal of Bobby Brown and with his extensive knowledge of human emotions.
JM: It seems like The Karate Kid continues to build upon its already huge fan base. Why do you think the film remains so popular today?
RT: “That’s anybody’s guess. It’s a global phenomena. It’s an iconic movie. There is something about it that has created its own culture. One of the things that makes the movie so popular is that it has changed lives. I mean not many movies have done that. Many movies have entertained us, and a handful of them people watch over and over again. There is something about The Karate Kid that has really had an impact on people, and I think it’s because many of the fans got started in the martial arts after they saw the movie. They saw the movie, got inspired, and went to their local karate school, which is something that is inherent in the martial arts industry. If you find the right instructor, like a Mr. Miyagi [laughs], or the right training, people learn things they don’t learn anywhere else. You learn how to focus; you learn honor; you learn respect. [Anywhere else] you don’t learn what it means to hurt somebody or to be hurt. You don’t learn power, internal power, focus, confidence, or self-esteem. I could go on and on. Those things have a dramatic impact on people, and The Karate Kid started people in that area. Then what happens is– that’s all great–but it’s a great movie to boot. Now, its a generational, cultural phenomena that’s embedded in the whole Karate Kid franchise. Its sort of hard to explain, but I’m doing my best.”
JM: No, I think you summed it up perfectly. I think there’s a lot to be said about the martial arts being based on respect and what people value. It’s easy to get drawn into [the film] for sure.
RT: “And people don’t even know they value it until they find it or until they’re shown it.”
JM: That’s going to be a fun transition into my next question: Why do you think fans have gravitated to the Cobra Kai group? Because there is a little bit of dysfunction there, right?
RT: “[Laughs] Well, I guess so. You know, it’s like any movie. You have a lot of fans who gravitate toward the Cobra Kai group, but you also have a lot gravitate to Danel-san and Mr. Miyagi. It’s kind of your personal preference. I think fans enjoy those villains in any movie. A lot of people, who are into the art of acting, appreciate an actor who can play a villain because, so often, the villain has nothing to do with who the actor really is. That is so true on The Karate Kid. There is nobody, um, Chad McQueen [Dutch] may be the closest to being a little off-center and a villain [laughing]. And I say that with all love because I love Chad. He was a little bit of a wild child back in the day, but he is a great guy nonetheless. All of us are down-to-earth, sweet people. Marty Kove, Billy Zabka, all of us are completely different from the characters we play. With the exception of maybe me, actually, Bobby being the good guy mixed up in the wrong crowd. The Cobra Kai are unique. The Cobra Kai are acting out Kreese’s orders. You could almost sympathize with the Cobra Kai because they are, kind of, under the thumb of Sensei Kreese, who is the real villain here. A lot of fans can like the fact that they are these bullies but also appreciate that maybe they’re really not. Brilliant writing really. It comes back to Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote this brilliant script through the story lines and character development. He’s brought us so many great movies, and The Karate Kid is definitely one… Some of the best people I’ve ever known were on the set of The Karate Kid all the way up the ladder from the producers and director to Ralph and Pat Morita.”
JM: I’m sure it’s crazy to consider how [the film]’s changed your life in so many different ways, and I’m sure everyone can relate in some fashion. Whenever the movie first came out, how was it received? Do you have any memories about the general public watching it in the theaters?
RT: “Oh, yeah, I have an incredible memory. You know, we’re making a movie, and you never know if the movie’s going to be a hit or not. We had all the right people. We had an Academy Award-winning director and producer in John Avildsen and Jerry Weintraub. Robert Mark Kamen wrote this great script. We had the right people. When there was pre-openings happening in Los Angeles and New York before it opened nation wide, we all went together down to Westwood in Los Angeles, and we watched it with the public. We sat in the back after the public was already in. The theater was dark, so we kind of snuck into the back, and they had some seats reserved for us. I sat next to our director John Avildsen, and he’d already won an Academy Award for Rocky. For me, a young actor, to be sitting next to this iconic director, and I know him–I mean we’re buds–it’s just surreal. We’re watching the movie, and it’s getting great crowd reaction. They’re laughing at the right spots and crying at the right spots. Then the end comes and Daniel does the crane kick to Johnny’s face, and you see the entire theater start cheering–I mean loud. All the way down in front, there are a couple of guys who jumped up on top of their seats–we could see their silhouettes on the screen–and they’re throwing their fists in the air in victory and yelling, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ John Avildsen leans over to me, and he says, ‘We gotta hit.’ Yeah, and it’s [laughs] so surreal. We try to sneak out of the theater afterwards before the crowd caught on that we were in there. We got caught in the lobby, and we got a little bit of crowd attention–I should say. But it was fun.”
JM: If you don’t mind we asking, how old were you at that time it came out? I’m sure there was a lot happening at one time, and I’m sure it was huge being that type of a star that early on.
RT: “[Laughing] It was a long time ago, and all of us were in our early twenties. Yeah, I wouldn’t say I was a ‘star’ like a Tom Cruise or anything. To get that kind of celebrity attention almost over night, but that’s why I went to Hollywood. I went there to be an actor. I was a trained actor and started in theater. I was there doing my thing and to see it come to fruition and to have all this public attention, I was like, ‘Wow.'”
JM: Many fans may not know that you’re a world champion martial artist and acclaimed Jujitsu coach. Did your love for martial arts pre-date your role in the film?
RT: “It’s before the film. Well, I come from Reno, Nevada, and I had my own Cobra Kai moment in high school. I’ll make a long story short. I had four guys coming down the hall at me, like it could have been Johnny, Bobby, Dutch, and Tommy. Johnny, the leader, as I’m passing them and we’re alone in the hallway, he steps out in the hallway and punches me in the face for no reason. I don’t even know these guys. Punches me in the face hard. They keep walking and laughing. It was four against one, and I was really little when I was a freshmen in high school, like under a hundred pounds and not quite five feet tall. So I was like, ‘I need to go find some training.’ I trained in Jujitsu and Judo in Reno, and I got my black belt before I even moved to Los Angeles. I’m in Los Angeles now and have my second degree black belt, and I’m doing my acting thing and training. I get this audition for this movie with a dumb title called The Karate Kid. My agent says, ‘Don’t tell them you’re a black belt. Just go in and focus on your acting. They want good actors. They’re going train you in any way in the martial arts. They aren’t necessarily interested in your background.’ I’m like, ‘I’m a black belt. The movie is called The Karate Kid. So you don’t want me to say anything?’ He’s like, ‘Nope, they want good actors. Don’t mix the two. If they ask you, you can say something, but if they don’t, keep your mouth shut.’ It’s kind of ironic, but that’s how it went.”
JM: Last year you made a social media post discussing your willingness to reprise your role of Bobby in the Cobra Kai series. So I have to ask, can fans expect to see you in the upcoming season?
RT: “Ever since the Cobra Kai series broke, of course, the fans who know the movie are going crazy and asking, ‘Where are the Cobra Kai? It’s called Cobra Kai, so where is everybody?’ So I’m getting blown up on social media, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ What I do know is that these three guys Josh Heald, Hayden Schlossberg, and Jon Hurwitz are brillaint, young filmmakers, writers, and producers–Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold and Kumar. They’re really good, and they’re really smart. When they took this on (and they’ve been Karate Kid fans forever or as big of a Karate Kid fan as anyone out there), they love the movie, so they’ve been living their dream. And what I do know is that they do not want to be the guys known to screw up the franchise. They are going to take this risk, and it’s a big risk. The Karate Kid franchise could have been left alone and have had its legacy as it stood. They did not want to take this risk and screw it up. Because it could have gone the other way.” JM: Easy, and most people thought it was going to go the other way. “Right, a lot of other people did think it was going to go the other way. They knew that going in, and they did not want to screw it up. You have Billy Zabka, a talented actor, and Ralph [Macchio] with that built-in fan base. They are being really smart about how they unfold the story of where Johnny and Daniel are today, and they are being really smart about how they choose each episode and move the story forward. That’s what I know. They have successfully re-engineered a franchise. I heard Ralph do an interview and say the franchise has caught lightning in a bottle twice. It never happens! I just doesn’t happen in Hollywood. The stars have aligned with this whole Karate Kid thing.”
JM: Let’s move on to what you are doing now. You’re a nationally recognized life coach, speaker, and self-help author. How long have you been doing this?
RT: “Well, the truth is, it’s been ever since I started teaching martial arts. If you’re a sensei in the martial arts, you’re a life coach by default. You’re helping kids and their parents. A lot of times parents will bring their kids to a martial arts instructor and say, ‘Fix my kid, man, he’s screwed up.’ Well, your kid isn’t screwed up, you are. I have to break the news to the parent that you are failing in this area, and you better wake up. You’re doing harm to your child, and you may not even know it. I’ve had that conversation many times, and sometimes it’s not well-received. The truth is hard to hear sometimes.”
JM: I’ve been looking into your profession, and it’s overwhelming just how much information I found. If you can simplify it, what is a personal growth trainer?
RT: “It comes down to the question of why are we here. If you ask yourself, ‘Why are you here? Why am I on this planet?’ Many people are told it’s to find a career or find a job you like, to do good in the world, to find a faith or whatever your faith may be, to just do the best you can to save money for retirement, and then die [laughs]. But, then again, there are deeper thinkers out there who understand personal growth and personal development. A lot athletes understand it, and a lot of martial artists certainly understand it. So it goes back to what I said about being involved in martial arts: self-esteem, respect, focus, or those types of things. Whether you call it martial arts or personal growth, if you are training with the right instructor, you are developing yourself personally, and that changes you. It changes your approach to yourself. Because wherever you go in this world, there is one thing you take with you, and that’s you. And that’s just not your body, you take your mind(who you are) and your identity (what you’re about). You show up and you have an impact. It could be a positive impact or a negative impact. People who’ve had their lives changed by martial arts understand personal development. I just wanted to take that even deeper.”
JM: What made you interested in becoming a mindset expert?
RT: “There was something about my Sensei Professor Larry Cary, who passed away last year, that–like I said–made him like my own personal Mr. Miyagi. And it wasn’t because he was one of the best martial artists I’ve ever seen or one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. Beyond that, he had a way of talking about these esoteric principles that I’m talking to you about. What I enjoyed quite often, aside from the training, was him talking about life and character development. He talked in a way I’ve never heard anybody speak. That’s really what started me being really fascinated about personal development and personal growth, these deeper principles and deeper thinking that are different than surface thinking. There is just too much surface thinking out there. Having trained in the martial arts, I saw a change in my students, and I tried to speak to them about it the way my teacher did to me. There’s something about us. They say that we’re only tapping into five percent of our mental power. Some people say its ten percent, and some people say it’s only two percent. Whatever it is, we are much more powerful than we think we are, than what we’re told we are, than we believe we are. I wanted to get training in that and look into that to find out what it is about us and how we can develop that personally or grow into that. I went out and got training in the subconscious behaviors of human beings. I went to Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Los Angeles and got training in hypnosis because that’s a cool phenomenon. I found out that Tiger Woods used sports hypnosis and that he got turned on to it by Michael Jordan, who used it throughout his career. All of these great athletes were using sports hypnosis or a form of it. Like Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which is Tony Robbins background, and what does Tony Robbins do? He is a personal growth trainer. So I got training in all of that, and I use all of that today in my motivational speaking, in my writing, in my webinars, and in my seminars to help other people get breakthroughs in their lives. Some people need emotional breakthroughs, financial breakthroughs, or relationship breakthroughs. Whatever area they need help with in their lives, I’m able to help.”
JM: As a touring speaker, what are some topics you talk to audiences about?
RT: “Right now, I’m working on a thing with happiness. The only reason I’m doing that is because of social media. Last year was a strange year in that so many people found out that I wasn’t just this guy from The Karate Kid but also a motivational speaker, a life coach, and a trainer. They reached out to me because they’re struggling in some area. Some reached out because their child had this condition or diagnosis, and I get that as a parent. Others are just sad and they don’t know why. Some are suicidal. There’s just a lot of pain out there, and people kept reaching out to me privately. And you know what? I’m like, ‘I’m going to create a training on happiness.’ I’m working on that right now, and it will be released through social media. So people will be able to get some training from me via webinar anywhere in the world on happiness. You have to think about happiness as not just something that happens to you, but as something that happens through you. You can’t just wait around for happiness to hit you over the head. If you’re unhappy, there are reasons why. I’m going to go deeper into that and, hopefully, turn some light bulbs on for people.”
JM: In your book Positive Thinking is for Sissies, you discuss different ways to deal with emotions. What was your motivation for writing the book?
RT: “The truth is hard to hear sometimes. I called my book Positive Thinking is for Sissies and that’s because positive thinking won’t get you out of this stuff. Mastery is for warriors, and mastery requires you to look in the mirror and own your crap. Well, I developed a program back in the day called A Black Belt in Excellence, and it’s evolved into The Mastery Boot Camp. In the program, there are four quadrants to it. That book is based on the first quadrant. In total, there are 24 coaching calls, and that book is based on the six calls that deal with emotional mastery. And the other three books, I just haven’t had time to finish them or write them yet [laughs]. You know, I had a daughter, and she’s been my primary focus for the last five years. I have a lot of books that I need to focus on again, and I’m writing a book right now that’s going through its third revision. It’s a play on The Karate Kid, so fans are going to love it. It’s a personal development book, and I think people are going to gravitate towards that when I release it.
JM: That sounds awesome. In the book, you say, “Mastery is the ability to respond, not react.” That’s a very Mr. Miyagi thing to say, but all joking aside, there is a lot of truth to your messages. How do you create those catchy, yet applicable phrases?
RT: “I’m just a deeper thinker. I like to go below the surface, or above the surface. I like to think outside the box, and I like to really exam the situation rather than accept the status quo. For example, I don’t want to just accept what people say anger is or what depression/sadness is. If you step back and look at depression, anger, guilt, shame, or anxiety, you go below the surface and ask what it really is. As I start to exam these things from my own point of view and write a book on them, phrases like that just come to me. As a coach, responding to something appropriately and reacting to something are two different things. Most people are in reactionary mode. Someone says something to you, or your boss says something to you. Life happens. The news says something to you. People are reacting all the time. That’s what road rage is, it’s a total reaction. Anger is a powerful emotion, and it makes you feel powerful in the moment. Some people are addicted to anger because you feel powerless without it. Think about how many drivers on the road are out there with that mindset going on. Someone cuts them off, and they immediately go to anger because they’re addicted to it. They feel powerful, and they are totally reacting to the person cutting them off. Who is controlling them or controlling their emotions? The person who cut them off! They are reacting, and it’s not the appropriate response, especially since they are on the road where their life or someone’s life is in danger because you lost it. It’s a default mechanism because its really simple to react. If you begin to gain mastery over your emotion, you’ll begin to understand why you reacted and exam that. Why did I do that? When you respond appropriately, you’re the one in command.”
JM: Everyone can benefit from your books, but which kind of people or which kind of professions do you think would benefit the most from a mindset expert?
RT: “Oh, my god, I think anybody. It applies to everybody. If you’re a doctor, an athlete, an actor, a writer, that’s what you do, but that’s not who you are. That’s just what you do. You’re a person first, and how you show up [to your profession] is who you are. It’s part of your identity. I speak a lot to sales people, to corporations, and to athletes. Athletes can benefit a lot. I’ve been an athlete, and I understand athletes and the athletes’ mindset. I’ve sat in as a life coach one-on-one with people to take a dive into their personal stuff. I can really speak to a broad audience because mastery and these esoteric principles really apply to anybody. Teachers and coaches have a lot of responsibility because there are those kids who are troubled or bullied without the guidance at home. The teacher steps in and, sometimes, they don’t even know they are stepping in. They change that student’s life and may not even know it. How the teacher steps up is key. If you are a teacher, and let’s say you’ve been teaching for thirty years, you’ve changed someone’s life. You have the opportunity to change way more than one person’s life, but let’s just say you changed the one. That would be enough. As a martial arts teacher, I still get emails from students when they find me on the internet and tell me I changed their lives. I didn’t even know it. Some didn’t even train with me that long. They stepped into my dojo, trained a few times, and went on about their lives. Years later, they say all these positive things, and I didn’t even know. Ultimately, that’s why we’re all here: to serve each other and to help one another. We’re all in this together, and we can’t do it alone.”
JM: How would someone go about training with you or buying your books?
RT: “The best way is to stay in touch with me on social media. You can reach out on Facebook [/SenseiRonThomas] or on Instagram [here]. I’m really trying to figure out Instagram. You can also go to my website: http://senseironthomas.com/. You can send me an email through there to stay in touch. I just got a new webinar platform, so I can do a seminar on any topic for any audience. Right now, like I told you before, I’m developing one on happiness that would help anyone. People can sign up for the webinar or get some training from me live. If you miss it live, they are recorded. The best way to catch those will be through social media. People may be interested in what I have coming up, and people can hire me as a speaker. I’m available for those engagements, and I do a lot of motivational speaking and training for companies and organizations. If you’re interested in that, people can reach out to me via email.”
A big thanks to Ron Thomas for agreeing to this interview and for sharing his views on his roles and on his profession. If you would like to get more information regarding personal/corporate training, webinars, or speaking engagements, use the links above for contact purposes. I would highly recommend checking out Positive Thinking is for Sissies,and you can purchase the book through the website.