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Zabka's breakout role came in his first movie, 1984's The Karate Kid. Zabka played the role of Johnny Lawrence, the main antagonist to the title character played by Ralph Macchio. He had no previous martial arts experience at the time; however, he was an accomplished wrestler. Zabka's participation in the film inspired him to learn the martial art of Tang Soo Do.
During the 1980s, Zabka continued to define his acting roles in the comedy movies Just One of the Guys (1985) and Back to School (1986). Zabka also co-starred on the CBS television series The Equalizer with Edward Woodward (1986–1989) and he played Jack, Audrey's jock boyfriend, in National Lampoon's European Vacation.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Zabka acted mostly in independent films while studying to be a filmmaker. In 2003, he wrote and produced the short film Most, shot on location in the Czech Republic and Poland. Most (aka The Bridge) had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2003 and won numerous awards at prestigious film festivals, including Best of Festival at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films in 2003. In 2004, Zabka was nominated for an Academy Award for Most in the Live Action Short Film category.
In 2007, Zabka directed and starred in a music video for the band No More Kings entitled "Sweep the Leg". The video stars Zabka as a caricature of himself, living in a trailer in the desert and obsessed with his role in The Karate Kid. The video includes cameos by several of the original Karate Kid cast members, including Martin Kove and Ralph Macchio. "Sweep the Leg" was featured on MTV.com, Vh1.com, E!. Within its first week of release, it became the number one video on YouTube on March 16, 2007.
In 2010, Zabka directed Rascal Flatts in their music video for the song "Why Wait." Shot in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a story reminiscent of the comedy film The Hangover. Starring David Arquette plays the man in the video who proposes to his girlfriend. Rick Harrison of the History Channel original show Pawn Stars makes a cameo appearance in the video. Also in the video are cameos by Ron White, Carrot Top, Wayne Newton, and Penn and Teller.
Zabka also made a cameo appearance in the film Hot Tub Time Machine that same year. In 2011, Zabka's Rascal Flatts video was Nominated for CMT Video of the Year and Group Video of the year.
In 2013, Zabka guest starred as himself in the season 8 episode of How I Met Your Mother, "The Bro Mitzvah", alongside Karate Kid co-star Ralph Macchio. He recurred on the show's ninth season.
In 2018 and 2019 Zabka reprised his role as Johnny Lawrence in a Karate Kid revival series for YouTube Premium titled Cobra Kai. The series is set 34 years after the events of the first film, and revolves around a down and out Johnny who, seeking to rebuild his life, reopens the Cobra Kai dojo. It reignites his rivalry with a now-successful Daniel LaRusso (Macchio), who has been struggling to maintain balance in his life without the guidance of his deceased mentor, Mr. Miyagi.