Note: There will be Avatar, the Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra spoilers all over this article. You have been warned.
I loved Avatar, the Last Airbender as a kid. Aside from all the cool fighting scenes (and there were many), the show had a number of simple, consistent themes that, even when I was about 10, I could understand. The story of Aang and his followers I could relate to, even as I was sitting on the couch and he was battling a Fire Lord, because he was the same (at least biological) age as I was, and he was grappling with questions of right and wrong that are universal to all people, fictional and non-fictional.
And then we who watched Avatar, the Last Airbender (AtLA for short) grew up, and started dealing with more complicated problems. Growing up and seeing our world get bigger and more complicated, dealing with relationships and balancing the seemingly endless facets of our lives. This is where the Legend of Korra (LoK) comes in. Korra is thrust from a life of seclusion in the southern water tribes and the careful protection of the White Lotus into a new, changing, complicated life in the metropolitan Republic City. There she faces problems that still face the modern world: questions about the role and type of government, questions about modernization versus a more traditional way of life, and even modern questions about social discord and prejudices.
Seriously, even when re-watched as a (kind of) adult, they hold up. My roommates and I recently worked our way through both of them, and they were just as awesome as when we were ten, watching them in our pj’s on a Sunday morning (this part might not have changed). Avatar and Korra are both deep, well written shows, and the themes they exhibit are good for all ages.
All that being said, that’s not what I’m writing about today. Remember what I said about sweet fight scenes earlier? Yeah. I’m about to let my inner 10 year old out, and focus on those.
You see, even though there are almost countless bending scenes throughout the series, there’s so much more I have to know about, mostly, about the fights that never happened. We know Toph wiped the floor with Aang while he was still learning earth bending, but what if Toph fought the fully realized avatar version of Aang? Surely, we would never bet against Aang, but that is the kind of question I want to ask. Who, if it came down to it, would come out ahead? If we pitted the good guys against the good guys, who would win? Even further, what if we crossed villains throughout the series? Would Zaheer beat Azula in a one on one fight? What about Kuvira and Fire Lord Ozai?
With these questions in mind, I’ve decided to try to quell this debate forever. To do this, I’m going to create the end-all of avatar tournaments. First, I’m going to sort what I think of the top 32 fighters (benders and non-benders) throughout the entire series and sort them into seeds, 1-32. I’m then going to pit them against one another in a double elimination tournament to decide the winner and (maybe more revealing) the order in which each character was eliminated.
Buckle up, because this is going to take a while. I’ve put a lot of thought into this.
First, some ground rules:
- Each fight will occur in a neutral location. This means that each element will be represented in plenty of supply (i.e. water benders won’t have to carry around their own personal supply of water, there will be streams on the ground, etc. Think about the pro-bending arena in Republic City). However, this location will be complicated and variable, in order to celebrate the creative ability of each character (there will be obstacles, things you could hide behind and think, etc. Think the area where Aang fought fire Lord Ozai).
- Everybody fights at their peak strength with which we saw them fight in the series. This means you aren’t fighting crazy Azula from the finale, you’re fighting cold, calculated Azula from the Night of Black sun. In addition, this means you’re fighting each Avatar with access to all four elements, not just their native elements. However, that being said, I’m not going to consider the Avatars in Avatar mode. I think this would trivialize the exercise. Also, no Kaiju Korra/Unaloq or Jaeger
- Matchups Matter. This means that a 4 seed won’t always beat a 5 seed. Some styles of bending are more effective against other styles of bending. For example, Zaheer’s ability to fly would probably screw up an Earthbender’s ability to attack him. Even more, certain characters would do better against certain other characters because of their characterization – Azula might be in general more powerful than Iroh, but Iroh, I think, might get in her head enough to throw her off (not to mention he’d render her lightning advantage moot).
- Every fight is 1 on 1, and continues until one can’t continue to fight. This second statement is to correct for some characters who refuse to kill (Aang, Katara, etc.) However, characters retain their philosophical objections, so that may factor into some fights (for example, Katara wouldn’t use blood bending unless someone else was blood bending her). Of course, for the purpose of this exercise, I’ll have friends fight friends without hesitation.
- We’re only going as far back as Roku, at least, in terms of avatars. We don’t know much about the avatars before him, and so I don’t feel comfortable ranking them. However, I’m going to include Wan because a) we see him fight plenty and b) he’s kind of a badass.
With all that out of the way, here are the seeds. Obviously, these are important; as they will determine the matchups, and I know I’d much rather fight Jinora round one than Aang. In reverse order:
“I’m just glad I made the tournament” (8 Seeds)
These guys really have no business being in the tournament, in all likelihood they’ll get wiped off the face of the earth in two quick losses. However, they still made it in over every other Avatar character ever, so that has to count for something, right? Here’s some explanation as to why I put them where they are:
Suyin is the leader of the metal-bending clan, and is one of the most accomplished metal benders of all time. That being said, we don’t see her in fights very often. We see her in a familial dispute with Lin, where she holds her own. However, Lin isn’t super high on the power rankings, and they certainly didn’t fight ‘til the end. The only other time she fights to a victory of any sort is against P’li who is a powerhouse; however, P’li was fighting several people at once, and was caught by surprise. One on one, I don’t see Suyin taking anyone significant down, especially considering her age and relative unwillingness to fight. She seems to avoid conflict wherever possible, which is maybe best summed up in the metal domes surrounding her city.
Jinora is the daughter of Tenzin, the newest air-bending master in the world, and the granddaughter of Aang. That alone warrants consideration, and the reason she ultimately makes the tournament is her incredible ability to make it out of impossibly bad situations. You might call her appearance with the magical Raava teapot the biggest deus ex machina in modern television, but nevertheless it demonstrates her deep connection with the spirit world (by the way, it definitely is a deus ex machina, and makes the season 2 finale look kind of lame in retrospect, but if you show me someone who wasn’t in awe while it was happening, I’ll show you a liar.) But that very loosely defined connection with the spirit world gives her options that no one (except maybe Korra) has demonstrated. I mean, she can meditate and go anywhere, she can maybe summon some more Raava/deus ex machina magic left in her. I definitely wouldn’t bet on her because she hasn’t really demonstrated much actual fighting experience, but she’s a good Cinderella pick.
Ah Sakka, the comedic genius (at least, to ten year old boys/college aged boys who still act like college age boys) and master strategist of Team Avatar. Now, a lot of people are going to be mad that I put him this low, as he is one of the most beloved characters in Avatar. However, I’m absolutely sure about this one. I don’t care how much sword training he got (not very much, for the record), I don’t care that he has his mystical space sword, he’s just not as good of a fighter as the rest of the people on this list. I mean, maybe he can think of some crazy tactics to make his fight less of a bloodbath, but I can’t think of a way that he would actually win a battle. No bender worth their salt would let Sakka even get close.
Here’s another possibly controversial one. Mako is part of Team Avatar II, and at the beginning, he’s the most badass of them all. He kicks ass and takes names in the pro-bending episodes, and he continues to be the dark, mysterious pseudo-protagonist pretty much throughout the whole first season. Seriously, Mako and Korra pretty much share the spotlight in the first season. Mako is at the center of the major love triangle, and takes the lead in investigating the main bad guy, Amon, up until the last battle. That brings me to the problem. Whenever Mako is up against anyone with any real skill, he gets his ass handed to him. Amon dispatches him in about three seconds. This continues throughout the series. He’ll beat up on the faceless henchmen, and then lose in the fight against the real bad guy. Unfortunately for him, there are no faceless henchmen in this tournament.
The Long Shots
- Desna and Eska
Kya is the daughter of Avatar Aang and Katara, and is the classic wise Aunt/Grandma niche for much of the Legend of Korra (at least, while Katara herself isn’t in the scene). She’s a great healer, and as far as fighting goes she has some tricks up her sleeve much in the way of the token old guy at the YMCA. That being said, we only see her fight a few times throughout the series, and never alone. When she’s left alone, she gets whooped with ease. Maybe 20 years in the past she would be a contender, but much like the old man game, it would really only work if she was up against one of the weaker opponents. Still, if she gets matched up against someone without much experience, she could pull off an upset.
Note that I did lump these two together, but that doesn’t mean I’m letting them fight together. If I did, they’d be a much higher seed. Together, they had a long fight with Bolin and Mako (which they won) and fought with and against Team Avatar II several times. And to be completely honest, they always scared me when they were fighting against the good guys. They are scary, especially when they’re pissed off. When Bolin broke up with Eska, they did some water bending on the degree I’ve only seen consistently from Avatars in the avatar state. Not only that, but it’s mentioned several times that the only thing they do all day is train under their father, Unaloq (who’s no slouch himself). With that much experience and maybe a little bit of anger on their side, they can make a case for themselves, even if their abilities are seriously hampered by being without their other half.
We are first introduced to Huu in the form of a giant plant monster. That sums him up pretty well, actually, at least in terms in his fighting style. In terms of a character, he’s pretty great; basically the most hippie of the hippie water clan, he believes that all things are connected to one another. That being said, becoming a giant plant monster is just about the only thing he does. Which is great, because the plant monster is a great, with few obvious deficiencies. However, being a one trick pony is just not going to be enough for
Ming-Hua is the water-bending part of Zaheer’s group, and she is a straight up killer. She routinely wipes the floor (water-bending puns not intended) with characters that we are used to seeing put up a much better fight. Her ability to basically become a water-spider-elastigirl-freezeray-thing is basically the only move we see her use, but it’s a good one, and one that doesn’t seem to have many obvious weaknesses. Except for the fact that she basically becomes water, and that would obviously have very bad consequences if, say, she were hit by lightning(insert hyperlink), or something. But she’d obviously never let that happen right? … Oh that’s right. This is why she’s relatively low compared to her compatriots: she was so foolish that she allowed herself to get into close quarters with someone who she knew had the capability to shoot lightning at her face. C’mon now, Ming-Hua.
The Mid Majors
- Ty Lee
- Lin Beifong
- Ty Lee
For some people, this may seem too high, since I’ve already mentioned several major characters. After all, Ty Lee is merely a “henchman” type character, basically a pet of Azula’s for the majority of Avatar. That, in some people’s eyes, should put her lower on this list. Even more, she isn’t even a bender! She can only attack from close range; if a bender can keep her off of them, she’s powerless. That all being said, she might deserve to be even higher. Firstly, if she does get close to a bender long enough to chi block, the fight is over. The bender has nothing left! Ty Lee is one person that can upset even the best of benders just because she incapacitates people in a matter of seconds. Second, she never loses! It’s ridiculous how often this girl takes down people who should be able to take her easily: in the show, she wins fights nearly every time. The only time I can remember her definitively being taken down is in a freak accident with Appa. I might regret putting her this low.
The “Sakka” equivalent of the Legend of Korra, Bolin provides some necessary comic relief to the sometimes-tumultuous adventures of team Avatar II. However, the difference between him and Sakka is that he can actually fight. He’s a great earth-bender, and gets better throughout the series. He gains confidence, and more importantly, gains lava-bending (and metal-bending, sort of). He’s got a lot of options, and in general, more options means better fighting. More than that, he’s clutch. First he shoots a bulls-eye from fifty feet away, saving team Avatar (and I guess the world too, then) and then he saves the future of the air nation by spontaneously developing the ability to lava-bend. If I’m picking someone to take a Hail Mary last chance shot, I’m picking Bolin.
- Lin Beifong
Lin is the leader of Republic City’s police force, and she is the definition of devoted. All she does or cares about is the police force. It’s her best case for a long stint in this tournament: she puts her all into any assignment that she has, for better or for worse. If I told Lin Beifong that in three weeks that she had a tournament to prepare for, she’d have the scouting report on each and every person in the competition, and worked out plan A-Z and probably a few more for good measure. That being said, she’s shown lots of weakness throughout the series, losing more than once, and not crushing many of the people that she does beat. Furthermore, the single-mindedness might be her undoing; if someone throws something at her that she’s never seen before, she might not know what to do.
Unalaq is, in my opinion, the worst characterized villain in this series by far. His motivations seem obvious at first: he wants to restore balance between the humans and the spirits, so he is fighting on the spirits’ behalf. But then he goes and meses around with the whole Vaatu thing and I fail to understand where he’s coming from at all. If Vaatu gets what he wants, then everyone, humans and spirits, would have lost because “10,000 years of darkness” would begin (or something like that). So Unalaq goes against all his built up characterization for… power? Anyway, this doesn’t change the fact that he’s a great fighter, and an even better tactician. He forces people into all kinds of bad spots, and when he is forced to confront people physically, he can keep up with even the Avatar. Not to mention his deep connection with (and almost control of) the spirits. If somehow he could use that connection with the spirits to his advantage, he could be a real threat.
The Mediocre Middle
- Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man
Pakku is a great water bending master, and, for a time, the teacher of Aang and through Aang, of Katara. He was, at one time, considered one of the best water benders in the world, and easily dispatches her when Katara eventually challenges him to a duel. So why, then is he lower than Katara on this list? Well, for one thing, Katara can blood-bend, but we’ll get to her soon. The reason he didn’t directly teach Katara is that he had this chauvinist idea of only teaching men, even when faced with Katara’s very apparent skill. Everyone in this tournament (everyone he should have to worry about, at least) will be powerful; the key, then, will be how well people can adapt to rapidly changing situations and styles of bending. Pakku is stuck in his ways even when given a very good reason to change, and for that reason, he takes a hit for me.
Katara is Aang’s love interest, and an integral part of Team Avatar I. She is a tough fighter, capable of great feats of bending when fighting Sparky Sparky Boom Boom man, and some really beautiful bending when hunting down the fire bender who killed her mom. Not to mention she can blood bend. All this being said, she very rarely wins fights outright – either she fights people long enough to get away, or fights them long enough to have other people help. Also, she shows a continued reluctance to actually fight and kill. She swears to never blood bend again, doesn’t kill people when she really probably should, and retires to healing late in life. That bumps her down a little on this list.
P’Li is a relative of the next guy on our list, Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man, and she also has his power: combustion bending. It’s an extremely powerful subset of fire bending, capable of powerful bursts from the weird tattoo thing on her head. If one of those bursts ever hits one of its targets, it’s lights out. That being said, it makes P’Li (and her relative) one-dimensional. If someone throws something out against them that they don’t have a counter for (or if their weird tattoos get hit – seriously, it would be nice to know what is going on with that) then they’re done for. Could P’Li take down several people above her? Yeah, if she got a lucky hit in. But most of the time, I think the people above her would think of a way around those dangerous beams.
- Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man
Everything that I’ve said for P’Li applies almost perfectly for Sparky Sparky Boom Boom Man. So why is he above her? Simple. He’s more physically imposing than she is. If it came down (somehow) to a fistfight, he would be more suited than she is. Simple as that. There’s really very little difference between these two.
The earth bender of the Red Lotus, Ghazan is also a lava bender, and is a very accomplished fighter. In fact, he never outright loses a fight: the closest he comes, I’d say he plays to a draw. He is very creative, using his surroundings often rather than merely relying on his lava bending (once to the annoyance of P’Li). That’s ultimately the reason he’s above the rest of Zaheer’s lackeys on this list. H’s going to fight people he’s never even seen before, using techniques he never even thought possible. The difference in the upper echelons is going to be made in creativity rather than pure strength. Also, he’s ruthless, and will do whatever he needs to do (even kill himself) to get the win.
Our most honorable combatant, Zuko is the grandson of both Firelord Sozin and Avatar Roku. He is, bar none, the best characterized character in the entire series. This scene is one of the biggest turning points in the whole series. The struggle between good and evil in Zuko is the best story line in Avatar, hands down. In terms of fighting, Zuko starts off slowly, but gets better over time. He learns the true meaning of fire bending (and a sweet dance move) from the dragons, and he learns how to redirect lightning from Uncle Iroh. His bloodline is certainly the best for any fire bender (a fire bending native Avatar [Roku] + a ruthless and skilled firelord [Sozin, Ozai] = a damn good fire bender), and he learns fire bending from perhaps the most wise person we see on the show. He defeats crazy Azula in an agni kai (I definitely think he beats her – she was about to lose then breaks the rules by bringing Katara into it), which proves he’s not all characterization. He’s not one of the absolute best, but he could definitely hold his own.
Tarrlok is part of the Yakone bloodline – incredibly gifted water benders capable of blood bending without the use of a full moon. That makes him extremely dangerous, as blood bending is definitely overpowered. He is characterized as a ruthless and manipulative politician, who would do whatever it takes to attain his goals. But I’m making an argument that he’s not truly as ruthless as it appears. He is noted as being a reluctant blood bender. He can do it, but he doesn’t like it. And as for his political moves, everything he does is to regain his father’s city. Not for himself, mind you, but for his father, out of some sense of duty, some sense of guilt. I don’t believe that Tarrlok ever believed in his heart of hearts that he was doing the right thing. And if he doesn’t truly believe in it, do we know he’ll be willing to take other people down? The jury is still out, and for that reason, he’s lower than some might expect.
Azula is a cold, calculating villain. In fact, for much of the Last Airbender, she is the main villain, the one that our heroes go up against . And with her blue fire and ability to shoot lightning bolts, she poses a big threat. However, we just went over how Zuko, two spots down on this list, defeated her in the final episode (in one of the best fight scenes in the whole series; just listen to that music. This is the scene, not Aang vs. Ozai, that still gives me chills, even as I watch it for the fourth or fifth time). However, we have to remember that everyone fights at their peak strength as seen in the series, and crazy Azula in the final episode was nothing compared to the cold Azula that we see nearly kill the avatar. That Azula, I think, would have beat Zuko. She nearly beat the avatar (even if his chakras were permanently locked).
The Dark Horses
- King Bumi
Kuvira is the villain in the final season of the show, season four of the Legend of Korra. Kuvira, like all Korra villains, has an ideal which she takes altogether too far; in her case, it’s order. The Earth Kingdom is in complete disarray when she sets off on her “Great Uniter” power trip, and by doing whatever she needs she gets most of the Earth Kingdom under her control. This parallels her fighting style. She’s minimalist; where you might see most avatar characters doing a little bit too much fanfare instead of just trying to fight (Katara comes to mind here), she just tries to destroy her opponent (the one exception here is her final fight with Korra, one of my favorite fight scenes in Korra). Usually, she allows the opponent to attack first, and then metal bends their various appendages together, rendering them unable to bend. Not only that, she’s creative, constantly using the terrain around her and her opponents’ tendencies against them. Last, she fights to the last man, still trying to kill Korra long after it’s clear her invasion of Republic City was doomed to fail. So what we’ve got is a pragmatic, creative, ruthless opponent, who just happens to be one of the best metal benders of all time. Good luck.
Tenzin is Korra’s spiritual and personal advisor for the entirety of her series (voiced by the extremely talented J.K. Simmons, one of the greatest “weird choices that worked perfectly” in all of TV). He’s the son of avatar Aang, father of a new breed of airbenders, and the hope for the future of the air nation. A disciplinarian who is time and time again called “boring”, you might think he’s one-dimensional when it comes to battle. So color me surprised when we find out that couldn’t be farther from the truth. He truly is his father’s son, using airbending alone to get out of situations where there is seemingly no way out. His fight with Zaheer is the only time we see two airbending masters duke it out, and that’s a shame since it’s a wonderfully choreographed battle. Tenzin preys upon subtle shifts in balance, using the opponents’ momentum against them. In the fight above at one point he almost plays possum, allowing Zaheer to think he has him cornered, only to improbably bend at the waist and catch Zaheer off guard. There’s no reason Tenzin isn’t higher on the list, he’s one of the few people with no obvious faults. The fact is we’re just getting down to where everyone is really incredible.
- King Bumi
King Bumi (from the Last Airbender, not the Legend of Korra. The Legend of Korra Bumi wouldn’t sniff this list in his dreams) is an interesting character, to say the least. He’s legitimately insane, and at first it seems he’s simply a senile old ruler. We find out when Aang chooses to fight him that he’s not quite what he seems. He’s an old man, but he’s buff as all hell (foreshadowing?) and a master tactician (In fact, he debatably beats Aang, as he has that giant rock literally hanging over Aang. Do we say Aang lost that fight?). He’s patient and creative, waiting for the eclipse to liberate his city from the fire nation, and he demonstrates great feats of earth bending, at times lifting entire city blocks. Creativity and strength are the two biggest things I look for in this tournament. The reason he isn’t farther up is he’s slow. He lifts huge blocks of earth, and bend earth in pretty much any matter he wants, but maybe because of his age, he does it very slowly. A faster opponent could take him down even if he was overall stronger than him. That being said, his unpredictability could take him far in this tournament.
Unlike Unalaq, Zaheer is probably the best-designed villain I’ve ever seen in an animated show. He’s an anarchist, upset with the never-ending stream of useless monarchs who just take from their citizenry and give nothing back. He thinks there needs to be a complete change of government in the avatar world. And that includes, in his opinion, the avatar. His point of view is completely understandable to the viewer, who sees the Earth Queen, a cartoonishly (see what I did there?) bad ruler. But I digress; this isn’t about his ideals, this is about his skills. Zaheer becomes an air bender after harmonic convergence, and masters it completely in an unbelievably short amount of time, culminating in the “holy sh*t” moment where he steps off a cliff and… flies. We’ve never seen any character straight out fly, with no instruments or handy-dandy Newton ignoring fire jets. And there seems to be no limit to his flying ability. Flying aside, he’s a gifted air bender, shown in his fight with Tenzin (above) and his fight with Korra. He nearly kills Korra, only being defeated by a (admittedly very deus ex machina) tornado conjured by the air bender kids. Korra feels the consequences of this fight for pretty much the rest of the series. Other than maybe Aang getting thunder-ed by Azula, that’s the closest we get to our protagonist dying. Aside from all his bending ability, Zaheer has a connection to the spirit unlike anyone else in the series, having an ability to go in and out of the spirit world almost at will. That’s got to count for something. Ever since Zaheer let go of his earthly tether P’Li, he’s been a force to be reckoned with.
Here’s where these guys get really scary. Amon is the villain of the first season of the Legend of Korra, and his idealized world is one where benders and non-benders are treated equally. Or so we thought. It is revealed that Amon’s true identity is Noatak, eldest son of Yakone, and his true motivations are that of revenge against the Avatar for taking away the bending of his father. He’s a master blood-bender, by far the most prolific we’ve ever seen in the series, able to blood-bend without a full moon (after being taught by his father). In addition, he takes blood bending a step farther; he engineered a way to take away the bending of his victims, an ability previously thought to be only available to avatars through energy bending. Even without using his bending, he’s a formidable foe, being nearly un-hittable. So why, then, is Amon not at the top of this list? He could just blood bend everyone towards him, take away their bending, and that would be game over, right? Here’s the problem with that:
blood benders would then be impossible to beat. The top of this list would be Amon, Yakone, Tarrlok, Hama then Katara, probably in that order, and they would just sweep every round until they faced off against one another.
Blood Bending Aside
Blood benders seem to have no real weaknesses in the show. But how then, was Aang able to defeat Yakone? In a flashback, he is shown to have entered the avatar state, throwing off Yakone’s control over him. That’s the only time we see someone break out of a blood bend without being a blood bender themselves. Well, that sucks, because I said in the rules that we weren’t allowing the avatar state. So we’re still stuck. But Aang merely entered the avatar state for a second, and then defeated Yakone using his own skills. In addition, no one is ever blood bent when expecting it; it’s always a surprise. So for the purposes of this theoretical tournament, I’m treating blood bending as merely another very powerful “blast” of bending. You can think of it like a combustion bend, or any way you can counter a combustion bend. It should take a certain amount of concentration and time to pull off, and countering it would merely take that same amount of concentration and bending strength. This is not canon, as far as I know. However, it’s the only way I can think of making blood bending not ridiculously overpowered. If we leave blood bending the way it is, it trivializes this whole exercise. If you have a better way, I’d love to hear it.
All that being said, Amon is without a doubt the most fearsome blood bender. He’s great at getting people off balance, and that’s all he needs to blood bend someone and end the fight on the spot. If you’re not giving your absolute A-game against Amon, you’re going to lose, quickly. Even considering my new definition of blood bending, I might have him too low.
Iroh, the “Dragon of the West”, is the way I convince other people to watch Avatar (those who aren’t ten years old; they don’t need any convincing, we just watch a few battles and they’re in). Iroh’s wisdom isn’t just good for a children’s show. It’s all-time great. Every time a character is unsure or misguided, it seems like Uncle Iroh has the answers they’re looking for. One of my favorite lines in the entire series is one of Iroh’s, given when a child-like Korra is scared of the spirit world: “Even in the material world, you will find that if you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.” Or how about this gem, from the Last Airbender: “Prince Zuko, pride is not the opposite of shame, but it’s source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” Iroh is so wise and calm, he literally leaves his physical body behind and transcends to the spirit world, where he’s welcomed. There’s an argument to be made that Zuko and Iroh’s story is the more important story, that Zuko is our protagonist, our Frodo, and Iroh his Samwise. But we’re not here to make that argument, we’re here to fight. Iroh never loses a battle. That’s first and foremost. He avoids conflict, so he rarely decisively wins the battle; rather, he tries to redirect the conflict to another day. He was the last before Aang and Zuko to visit the Sun Clan and learn the true nature of fire-bending, and as a result has an advantage over nearly all his contemporary fire-benders: he bends from a place of tranquility rather than anger, which would allow him to think clearer than his opponent. It is noted that should Aang fail to defeat Ozai, he would be the only other one who might stand a chance. We rarely see him at full strength, and the only time he really lets himself loose is on the day of Sozin’s Coment (which would be against the rules, as its not a neutral location. If we allowed fire benders to use the comet, we would have to allow the water benders to use the full moon, King Bumi to use the eclipse, etc.). But we can extrapolate from those times that even without the comet, he’d be extremely powerful. In addition, it’s mentioned several times that he uses facets of the other three elements, showing innovation unmatched by almost anyone on this list. As I’ve said now probably way too many times, these people are going to have to improvise to win; everyone’s strong, so it will be the wise who win. In that respect, nobody can match Iroh.
Ozai is the main baddie for the entirety of the Last Airbender. He’s like Voldemort or Sauron in that he and our heroes rarely actually fight him one on one, until the end. Rather, he’s always in the back of our minds, a ticking alarm clock that Aang and his pal’s can’t afford to hit snooze on. Ozai defines ruthlessness. Sure, Sozin started this war from a place of true concern for the rest of the world, but by the time Ozai took power, that motivation was warped. It was more about bringing the rest of the nations under their thumb. Ozai as a character wraps this up well. He values power over everything else. He fights with a warped version of fire bending, the same that his favorite daughter Azula uses – one motivated by anger and cold, calculating psychopathy. While it isn’t the original version of firebending, it is still rather powerful. That being said, I’m not really sure what to do with Ozai. We don’t even see his face for much of the Last Airbender. While that’s a cool effect and creates a lot of tension and suspense, if I don’t see him fight very often I can’t get a good grasp on how high he should be on the list. Here’s what I know. He’s able to conjure an impressive bout of lightning right after the eclipse ended – with only a sliver of the sun showing. Also, in his fight against Aang he was comet-aided but that being said, until Aang entered the Avatar state he seemed to have the upper hand on him (a fully trained Avatar at the time). Even though he was comet-aided, that’s pretty impressive in my book. So since I haven’t seem him while he wasn’t comet-aided other than that one strike of lightning towards Zuko, I decided to put him here, above Iroh (who, when asked, said he “was not sure” he could defeat his younger brother [but of course wisely said the Avatar would have to do it]).
So I know what you’re thinking. You’re counting the number of Avatars I have eligible for this competition: 4. Then how the hell is Wan number 5? Well, there’s one non-Avatar character I haven’t gotten to yet: Toph. I know, I know, this is blasphemy. The Avatar is supposed to be the most powerful bender in the world by far, how can a non-Avatar be above an Avatar? Well, allow me to make my case by discussing them both together.
Let me set the table. Wan is the very first Avatar, he’s the very first person (that we know of) to indefinitely keep his bending, the first to combine the use of all four elements, and the first to bond with spirits, so much so that he fights with the power of Raava inside of him. He defeats the evil Vaatu and seals the spirit portals (for better or for worse) and ushers in an age of 10,000 years of light before Vaatu escapes the tree of time. His actions allow all of the Avatars after him to exist. That’s all great, and the importance of his actions doesn’t escape me. The fact is that his style of bending is a naïve one, as a result of him living 10,000 years before Korra. In the 120 or so years since we open on Aang in the iceberg, definitely metal bending and maybe lava bending have been invented. Now just imagine how much of bending has been created in the time between Wan creating the Avatar line and the Avatar shows that we know now. Wan gets points for creativity and ingenuity (in creating the Avatar, and just his character in general). He’s also willing to put his money where his mouth is and fight for what he believes in, showing no fear even when going up against the literal physical manifestation of evil.
Now look at Toph. She’s part of Team Avatar I, and the only one who isn’t a part of it to start (I guess Zuko isn’t either but Zuko is a whole different story). She’s conscripted into the war effort because Aang needs an Earth bending teacher, one that, as King Bumi says, “does nothing”. What he means by this is that she has a natural grasp of neutral jing, the most integral of earth bending, the one which involves “waiting and listening”. Toph was born blind, and sees through vibrations in the earth. As we see many times (in both series), when she steps down, a bunch of vibrations go out from her foot, and reveals her surroundings. Still, this would seem to have limitations. How does she see things shooting through the air? That’s how about half the attacks in Avatar take form, as a rock or an icicle hurtling through the air. However, we see many times that that doesn’t really stop Toph. Time and time again she dodges things that are hurtling through the air that there’s no real way she could have seen coming. So in order to qualify what she can see and can’t see, I’m going to just say that if an opponent fires an attack while they’re on the ground, then she can “estimate” well enough where the attack will be (based upon where her opponent is standing, and how they move).
But here’s the real argument for Toph. She never loses a fight. Ever. She wipes the floor with not one but two avatars while teaching them earth bending. And whenever she’s around (and is otherwise predisposed) nothing can ever touch Team Avatar. Remember all the deus ex machina-type situations that happened in the Legend of Korra? Yeah, sometimes similar things happen to Team Avatar I. The thing is, instead of a glowing Raava-encrusted teapot, Toph is the solution. Whenever the Gaang is in big, seemingly insurmountable trouble, Toph shows up and saves the day. I mean she breaks one of the cardinal rules of Earthbending: no matter how good you are, you can’t bend metal. Screw you, I’m Toph, the greatest earthbender alive, let me just invent metal bending since I’m in a bind.
So you can have the greatest earth bender alive in the age of Aang and Korra, or you can have the first Avatar, an innovative but ultimately naïve bender. I don’t know about you, but I’m taking Toph.
Korra is the main character for the entirety of the Legend of Korra, and becomes a fully-realized Avatar after the end of the first season of that show (arguably the most complete season of the entire Avatar series). She is a water bending native Avatar, and she learns earth bending and fire bending quickly and easily, before the series even begins. Her first line sums up her character quite nicely “I’m the Avatar and all of you have to deal with it” (as a hilariously chubby infant, no less). She’s headstrong and forceful at first, learning slowly throughout the series to better ration her strong will. Her characterization is great, and she grows as a bender, but even moreso as a person throughout her story. She’s a great example of a strong female lead, and I love her as a character.
Here’s my problem with Korra: she loses literally every fight she ever fights by herself, up until literally the last fight of the whole series. She (I guess) wins her fight with Amon by default, with her not really winning but rather him losing by being exposed. I’m not going to count her as a giant energy extension spirit/Kaiju/Jaeger/Godzilla type thing, but even as that behemoth she couldn’t take down Unalaq/Vaatu without the help of Jinora and her deus ex machina. In her fight against Zaheer she straight up loses, only saved by the tornado of the new air benders (I still think the end of that fight is anticlimactic). She eventually beats Kuvira in the final season, but only after losing twice. Seriously, for an avatar, this girl can’t beat anyone. Everyone on this list sometimes needs help to fight people sometimes, but she seems to need help every time. That being said, she’s a fully formed avatar, and, by the end, has mastery of every single bending technique outside of lava bending, something only maybe Aang can say. This alone gets her this high on this list.
Roku is a fire-bending native Avatar, the one directly before Aang. He lives a long life, and is a fully formed avatar. He really only fights at full strength one time, against his friend (and later killer) fire lord Sozin. And he absolutely wipes the floor with Sozin, assumedly a very able fire bender. I mean, by the end Sozin looks like a kindergartener strung up the flagpole by his underpants. Roku, at that time, was absolutely dominant. The only demerit Roku seems to have against him is that he took (as Mike Ehrmentrout would say) half measures, and failed to prevent the Fire Nation from attacking. That indecision, along with the absolute dominance of the next person on this list, is the only reason he’s not number one on this list.
Was there ever any question as to who would top this list? The main character for the first half of the series, Aang is absolutely dominant in his time as Avatar. At his absolute peak, he makes Ozai (no slouch, number 6 on this list) look like there’s an eclipse, when it actually is the day of the comet. Sure, that’s using the avatar state, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Aang would easily defeat him in a neutral location (and more importantly, time). Let’s talk for a minute about what Aang brings to the table. Even before he’s learned any of the other forms of bending, he’s nearly untouchable, unhittable. He dodges literally an entire squadron of earth benders’ attacks for about 2 minutes of show time, all the while never fighting back. When the Gaang comes up against Combustion Man, instead of trying to fight him using the whole group’s combined strength, Aang’s like “Nah, I’ll just let him shoot at me for a while so everyone can escape.” I mean here’s an assassin literally hired to kill specifically him, and Aang gives him about 15 free shots, and he can’t land one. So there’s that. He masters every single element, and (eventually) energy bending. All his chakras are unlocked (thanks in part to Ozai), so he’s reached some sort of spiritual nirvana, which, like I’ve said before, counts for something. He’s still connected to his past lives (unlike peak Korra) and therefore has the most Avatar wisdom of any Avatar, ever. He’s probably the most creative character we see in the whole series (aside maybe King Bumi), creative even to a fault (when Toph is trying to teach him earth bending, she says how he needs to face problems face on, rather than find creative answers to them). There’s no doubt that he’s be the number one overall seed.
Whew. 7800 words and I haven’t even started the tournament. Part 2, containing the tournament itself, will come at some point in the future.