There are many things to love about the Pokémon franchise, be it the games, the anime or the card game. One thing that many fans always enjoy about the franchise is of course, the rivalries. The rivalries are among many things that keeps the anime engaging for the viewers as we watch Ash duke it out with a trainer that is either the biggest jerk that we can't wait for him to defeat or somebody so cool and awesome that we want to see Ash get as good as them and eventually succeed them. There are many great rivalries in the anime from the always classic Ash vs. Gary to the interesting Ash vs. Sawyer from the X&Y series.
But if there's any rivalry that stands tall above all others, the one rivalry that is considered the greatest of any rivalry in the entire anime...it is easily Ash vs. Paul from the Diamond and Pearl series. Even to this day, Ash and Paul are hailed as the crowning example of a well-written and well-handled rivalry between two trainers who couldn't be more opposite to each other. Paul is even considered to be Ash's greatest rival, even more so than the always popular Gary Oak!
Even I am one of those fans that really got invested in this rivalry and consider it one of the Diamond and Pearl anime's strongest points. So now here's the big question...what made Ash and Paul's rivalry so good? Why was it so compelling and why is this one of the fandom's favourite Pokémon rivalries? Obviously, I have no definitive answer, but I CAN give my opinion on the matter. So let's dive in and see why this rivalry is so good...
Section 1: The Characters
Let's start off by analysing our two arch-enemies and how their characters sharply contrast one another.
We have Ash, our ever-loving, always 10 years old, sometimes smart, most times stupid and constant failure protagonist of the series. As a character, Ash is brash, reckless, stubborn but also a very kind, loving and supporting trainer who may not be the brightest bulb there is, but his heart is always in the right place. He treats his Pokémon as equals, seeing them as his friends and comrades and is always supporting them throughout their endeavours. Whenever they fail, he's always quick to thank them and compliment them for a hard-fought battle and optimistically lifts up their spirits by saying they'll win next time. Ash represents the best in being a Pokémon trainer, that is a trainer who raises their Pokémon with kindness, love and support and sees them as close friends who do more than just battle for sport. As a trainer, Ash relies on unorthodox battle strategies in where he thinks outside of the box and surprises people with quick-thinking and ideas that few others could come up with themselves. Ash is also very sociable, making many friends along his journey, both people and Pokémon, and is always by their side no matter what.
Now compare that with the perpetually frowning, always grumpy, always aloof and decidedly unkind Paul. As a character, Paul is pretty much the exact opposite of Ash. He is cold, calculating and cruel with a heavier emphasis on strength and strategy. He sees his Pokémon as tools to win battles with, feeling that showing a Pokémon kindness makes them "slackers" and that the only way to achieve anything is to focus on their strength and capabilities as fighters. He will release Pokémon that don't match his very strict standards and even when his Pokémon do well in battle, you'll be lucky if you ever hear him compliment them on a job well done. He is also considerably smarter than Ash, always thinking two-steps ahead and relying on strategies that overwhelm his opponent and catch them off-guard, even if the anime at times tries way too hard to convince us he's that darn clever. Paul is also a loner with no friends whatsoever and he certainly doesn't see his Pokémon that way.
Paul is the perfect foil for Ash. After all, who better to be his arch-enemy than someone who is the complete reverse of who Ash is as a character? Having the kind, unpredictable and reckless Ash go up against the cruel, strategic and calculating Paul gives us a feud where it's not just two trainers who couldn't be more different from one another, but also two different philosophies regarding Pokémon training and how best to approach it. One shows us that love and support can raise Pokémon into great battlers, but the other shows us that brute force and a training regime that emphasizes strength above companionship also yields great results.
Oh and I must address the Copperajah-in-the-room in how Paul is often seen as a Take That towards competitive Pokémon players who just see the games as things to win and prioritize raising Pokémon with the best Natures, IVs and EVs to get the best results. I understand this comparison and it fits in with Ash and Paul's rivalry as Ash could represent those who see the games as something to play and have fun with and like to bond with their Pokémon while Paul represents those competitive players I mentioned earlier. Having a rivalry that can be seen as a representation of two different camps of Pokémon players is a great idea for the anime and also, in a way, brings it closer to the games as a result of these characters appealing to those two different camps of Pokémon players. I also imagine that many players can relate to Ash and Paul as they no doubt share their philosophies and approach to Pokémon battling.
Section 2: Their Rivalry Over The Course Of The Series
Now we've analysed the two characters and how their contrasting personalities play off each other so well, let's see how their feud develops over the course of the Diamond and Pearl anime.
Their first meeting is in the episode When Pokémon Worlds Collide!, the third episode of the Diamond and Pearl season. This episode hits the ground running with their rivalry as over the course of this one episode, we are introduced to Paul, given his establishing character moment where he catches three Starlys and keeps the best one, shown how he contrasts Ash as a trainer and then given the first of many battles they would have together. The duo have a three-on-three battle which sees Paul's Starly beat Ash's Starly, Ash's Aipom win over Paul's Chimchar and the battle conclude in a draw as Ash's Pikachu and Paul's Elekid both collapse at the end. Having their first fight end in a draw was a fantastic way to start their conflict as these are two experienced trainers meeting each other for the first time, both having travelled through a few regions before meeting here in Sinnoh. It only makes sense that it ends in a draw. Having no winner to start off with has us see Paul is no fluke but also shows us that Ash hasn't lost his experience from the previous seasons and with no winner in their first battle, it only excites the audience to see how their rivalry will go from here.
The next time they meet is in the sixth episode Different Strokes For Different Blokes. This episode sees Ash and Paul battle again with Paul's Chimchar against Ash's recently caught Turtwig. Now obviously, Paul wins this because come on, it's Chimchar against Turtwig, what result would you expect with that match-up? We also see more of Paul's cruel side as he catches a Stantler and immediately releases it just because it only knows Tackle and despite Chimchar winning, he just says "Being pathetic is nothing to be proud of!", establishing to the audience that he's no Ash where he'll compliment his Pokémon on a well fought battle. This episode is the ultimate solidification of their rivalry, and only the second time after they've met each other, with Paul truly established as Ash's opposite and superior and the win/loss ratio one draw for them both and one win for Paul with no wins for Ash. From this point onwards, their rivalry had us hooked and we couldn't wait to see what would happen the next time they met.
Their next meeting was in the fifteenth episode Shapes Of Things To Come! in where we get to see Paul's (sadly) only on-screen Gym Battle as he faces the Rock-type Gym Leader Roark in Oreburgh City. This episode works beautifully as another showcase of how different a trainer Paul is compared to Ash. Not only do we see how HE fights a Gym Leader compared to Ash, but we see he's once again no fluke as he manages to pull through despite the odds being stacked against him. Paul goes in using an Azumarill, an Elekid and a Chimchar. Now on paper, this should be a done-in-one with Azumarill clean-sweeping the Gym...and it gets knocked out by a Geodude. Yeah...I think we can understand why Paul gave it away! Paul then goes on to win with his Elekid and Chimchar with his brute force tactics pulling through in the end and once again, we see that his Pokémon's well-being means nothing to him as he doesn't even take Roark's Stealth Rock into account.
Once again, this really establishes how different he and Ash are, and this continues in the following episode A Gruff Act To Follow as Ash takes on Roark and has...decidedly less luck than he does. Whereas Paul did it first time despite type-disadvantage, Ash was only able to defeat Roark's Cranidos before his Onix finished the fight, somehow knocking Pikachu out with Screech...which is a status move and NOT an attack so how that happened is anyone's guess! Still, having two episodes with Ash and Paul facing the same Gym Leader was brilliant story-telling on the anime's part. What better way to truly establish how different their approach is to Pokémon battles than letting the audience see how they battle the same guy? Having Paul win on his first try fully establishes that he is not just another rival for Ash, but somebody that is in a league of his own compared to Ash and having Ash then lose to the guy he beat the first time is the perfect low for Ash to drop to as Paul truly sees him as pathetic and thus, it gives Ash more of a reason to try and get better and prove he's not as pathetic as Paul may see him.
The next advancement of their rivalry would occur in the three-part season finale to Diamond and Pearl in which Ash enters the Hearthome City Tag Team Tournament...and gets partnered up with Paul. Yeah...talk about a bad match-up! And in execution, it goes about as well as you think. Ash and Paul don't get on whatsoever and work badly as a team...and then somehow go on to win the whole tournament. Wait, WHAT?! While I like this arc, the conclusion was lackluster and full of missed opportunities. You see, I'd have had thtournament go in either two ways: 1: Have Ash and Paul win but as the tournament goes on, they learn to work more together and they slowly start to respect one another or 2: Have them both lose the tournament and Paul gets to eat some much needed humble pie and learn that his loner attitude won't always win him everything he tries. For what we got, Ash and Paul's rivalry doesn't develop at all and Paul doesn't learn anything, which really feels like a missed opportunity to truly have it go further. Having the two never learn to get on and just win the tournament like that feels like Paul is being rewarded for his asshole behaviour while Ash at least is making a concentrated effort to fight and work as a team.
However, the most critical part of their developing rivalry does occur in this arc. As you all know, this is the story in where Paul releases his Chimchar and he ends up in Ash's care for the rest of the series. Throughout the season, we see that Paul is anything but nice to his Chimchar, always putting him particularly through the hardest and most brutal training and all because he's trying to unlock the fire monkey's Blaze Ability. He scolds him constantly for failing to live up to his expectations and it all comes to a close here in the second part of the three-parter in where Paul finally releases Chimchar and Ash, taking pity on him, takes the blazing chimp in as his own Pokémon. So now we have Ash taking in a Pokémon his rival once owned and not only has to prove Chimchar has potential that Paul didn't believe he had, but also show that any Pokémon has a chance to be strong. Including Chimchar as part of the developing rivalry between Ash and Paul was great story-telling and as you'll see, he really is like the centre cog in the greater machine that makes up this rivalry.
This season established their rival beautifully. Showing us Paul's personality and having an episode where he fights a Gym Leader so we can contrast with how Ash fights a Gym Leader while having their battle history go with a draw and a loss to Ash already sets Paul up as this big new rival for Ash to overcome and wastes no time making it clear how different they are.
We now move onto the second season of the Diamond and Pearl anime in where we get to see a few more battles with Ash and Paul, but not a whole lot of development.
Their next conflict was in Chim-Charred! in where Ash and friends confront Paul again in the woods and the two rivals have another three-on-three battle. In this one, Paul uses a Gliscor that he caught in a prior episode to defeat Ash's Gligar...and then proceeds never to use it again for the rest of the series, making me wonder what the damn point was of devoting an entire episode to him catching the bloody thing if he's only going to use Gliscor ONCE and that's it! But anyway, after that, Ash uses Chimchar and Paul brings out his fearsome Ursaring. Chimchar struggles but eventually manages to defeat Ursaring once him Blaze ability is activated, but Chimchar proceeds to go on a rampage that forces Ash to intervene to get him to calm down. The rest of the battle is called off and Paul can only ask what will Ash do next time Chimchar's ability is activated again. This is another episode that feels like a missed opportunity. We had a perfect set-up for a possible rivalry between Ash's Gligar and Paul's Gliscor but as I said, Paul NEVER uses Gliscor again after this episode while Ash will go on to evolve his Gligar and use his Gliscor in many other battles. I really wish they'd gone somewhere with this, but that's another story. Having Chimchar go berserk like this in a blazing rage was perfect for an Ash and Paul battle as this is the Pokémon Paul turned his back on and now he's fighting against him and getting a chance to unleash his frustration at the bad treatment he'd received. And having Paul see Ash succeed where HE failed in getting Chimchar to use its ability also shows Paul that there's more to Ash than meets the eye, even if he feels he's foolish to think he'll be able to control it.
The only other time they really confronted each other again was in Aiding the Enemy!, which was also Paul's last appearance in this particular season. This episode sees Ash and Paul battle again with Paul's Honchkrow against Ash's Turtwig. Aaaaaaaaand...you know how badly that ends for Ash. Despite his Turtwig evolving into Grotle in the middle of the fight, Honchkrow soundly defeats him. Afterwards, Paul's Torterra takes pity on Ash's Grotle and offers to teach him how to battle and get over his loss of speed in favour of using his new bulk to his advantage. I liked this episode for adding more layers to Paul's Torterra and showing it has more to its character than just being one of Paul's ace Pokémon but aside from that...this episode didn't add much else to their rivalry. We don't see anymore developments between Ash's Grotle and Paul's Torterra and the advice Paul's Torterra gives Ash's Grotle barely comes into play again. Ash tries it in Candice's Gym and that barely works for him as he still gets his ass kicked and its up to Chimchar to finish the fight so once again, another missed opportunity to add more layers to this rivalry by having two of their Pokémon develop a budding respect for one another. Imagine how interesting that would've been if the anime had gone in that direction?
I will mention that we do meet Paul's brother, Reggie, in this season and he ends up adding a little more to the rivalry with Ash and Paul. You see, Paul resents Reggie for reasons we go into in the next season and Ash reminds him of Reggie, so Paul doesn't just hate Ash for being everything he isn't, but also for reminding him of his brother that he came to look down upon for reasons I'll dive into later.
Overall, this season didn't do much with the two. We just keep seeing Paul upstage Ash and potential rivalries and developments that go nowhere but we at least have the addition of Reggie that adds a new lawyer to their rivalry at least. But that would change as we move onto...
This season would do a little more with the two and give us some big moments of their rivalry, starting with Pursuing a Lofty Goal!. Here, Ash and Paul just conveniently happen to both be entering a PokéRinger contest and we get Ash's Staravia against Paul's Honchkrow. It looks as if it'll be another Paul victory but Ash makes a comeback when Staravia evolves into Starraptor and ends up taking the win. This is a big deal for this is the first time Ash EVER defeats his foe at anything so it shows that Paul's no longer this invincible obstacle that he seemed to be back in the previous two seasons. True it's not a proper Pokémon battle, but it's still something when Ash has officially beaten Paul in some capacity.
We then reach one of my favourite episodes of the season, A Pyramiding Rage! in where it's not only a critical development in Paul's story, but the relationship with Ash and Paul would change forever. While Ash and Paul don't face each other, Paul does go up against Brandon, the man in charge of the Battle Pyramid. This is a big deal for Brandon is the man who defeated his brother, a loss that led to Reggie retiring from Pokémon and Paul developing his infamous stance on Pokémon battles but at the same time, Ash has actually BEATEN Brandon during the Battle Frontier season in the Advanced era. Paul even expresses surprise when he learns Ash beat the Battle Frontier, but sadly we don't get anything else. Just Paul going "What? You BEAT it?!" and then it's never addressed again. They really should've delved more into that as it would've been cool to have Paul see Ash as the trainer that succeeded where his brother failed and thus have more respect for him than before. Still, this revelation seems to have some kind of impact on Paul and Ash's rivalry as from here on out, Paul doesn't insult Ash as much and rarely calls him "pathetic" again. Also after losing to Brandon without defeating a single one of his Pokémon, he changes up his battle-style, abandoning the brute-force tactics in favour of a more strategic battle style, which shows he's been somewhat humbled by the experience. And it's all VERY subtle character development too. Not once does the show ever feel the need to spell it out to us, they just let us see for ourselves how Paul has changed from his loss to Brandon.
We see this in action in the two part Lake Acuity battle which sees Ash and Paul have their first ever six-on-six battle. This battle already shows us that this Paul is not the same as the one prior to A Pyramiding Rage as throughout the fight, he's more calm and collected and very calculating in his battle-style, making all the right moves and not wasting a single attack while breaking through Ash's strategies and providing helpful boosters to his Pokémon's performance. The fight ends in a four-to-six victory for Paul with Ash only successfully taking out his useless Weavile and his monstrous Ursaring. Even Chimchar evolving into Monferno didn't change the outcome of the match for poor Ash. While some may say Ash should've won this fight so Paul could've been humbled even further, I personally like that Paul won again as it was the perfect example of how this is the new Paul we're going up against and that Ash has to stay on his toes now that he has a whole new rival to face. Now Paul's battle style has changed, he has to adjust accordingly too.
Like I said, this season took their rivalry to the next level. With Ash getting a victory over Paul at last, Paul learning that Ash beat Brandon, Paul losing to Brandon and the experience changing things up for his battle-style and how he's not as rude to Ash as before, we can see that things are clearly going to be different between them from now on. And all that comes to a head in the final season of the Diamond and Pearl anime...
This season sees Ash and Paul qualify for the Sinnoh League and after watching their semi-final performances in which Ash wins over Nando and Conway and Paul utterly destroys Barry with no effort, the battle they've been building up towards begins in Familiarity Breeds Strategy!
This legendary battle is the first time Ash and Paul face each other again since the Lake Acuity fight and it's a big epic tussle that lasts a full three parts with both sides getting some big wins and the lead shifting back and forth between them to keep the audience guessing who's gonna win in the end. We once again see Paul's strategic battle style in action that gives Ash some trouble, as well as shows that he's taught his Pokémon some moves that Ash taught his own Pokémon to use but at the same time, Ash keeps on top by pulling out unexpected moves and strategies that Paul could never anticipate. In the end, it's down to Paul's Electivire against Ash's Infernape. This was the PERFECT conclusion to their rivalry, having Paul's signature Pokémon go up against the very Pokémon that he'd abandoned for seemingly being "weak" and after a hard fought battle, it ultimately comes to a close when Infernape's Blaze ability kicks in and after a tense stand off...Electivire ultimately takes the fall. This is it. Ash has finally defeated Paul in a proper Pokémon battle. After many battles with each other throughout the series, after being insulted repeatedly by Paul and being put down as "pathetic", after constantly falling victim to Paul's superior strength and battle style, Ash has truly defeated his rival. Sadly, this victory would be undermined by him losing to some arsehole with a team of Legendries next time, but that's a topic for its own blog post...
After the battle, Paul is about to leave but Ash shows up and the two ultimately depart on good terms, their rivalry now having developed into respect for one another, a development that Cynthia foreshadowed with her "When one life meets another" speech back in Top Down Training. The two trainers that once hated each other now respect each other.
We also see more of how Paul has changed as during this season, he doesn't insult Barry despite his easy victory over him and after losing the battle, he thanks his Electivire for a well-fought battle instead of scolding it for losing like before. I dunno if this was the intention, but I like to think that after many encounters with Ash, some of Ash's personality may have rubbed off onto Paul, hence his more magnanimous behaviour we see here.
So after that lengthy recap, why was Ash and Paul's rivalry so good? The honest answer I can give is that it was THE perfect rivalry. Paul was a trainer who challenged Ash both in ideologies and in trainer skills. Ash is someone who believes any Pokémon can be strong and that love and support is how you bring out their true strength while Paul believes not any Pokémon can be strong and that raw power is how you achieve victories. Paul's many victories really challenge Ash on his beliefs and pushes him to get better and better as time goes on until eventually, he wins and proves to Paul that his way can be right after all.
Unlike Gary where he and Ash barely ever interacted or battled each other throughout the original series, Ash and Paul battle each other many times throughout their time as rivals and we see how these interactions change them over time with their rivalry eventually growing into respect for one another. There's many layers to their rivalry and some surprisingly subtle developments that go into making their feud with each other so compelling. Every time Paul was onscreen, we wanted to see how he and Ash's next confrontation would go and it was just exciting to watch them fight every time, and so satisfying when Ash eventually came out on top by the final season. This is a rivalry that the Pokémon anime may never top and a great example on how to write a compelling feud between two characters. Paul is considered Ash's greatest rival, and all for good reason. Watching these two challenge each other made the Diamond and Pearl series a blast from beginning to end and it's why it'll always stand as one of, if not THE greatest rivalry in all of Pokémon, and now it seems they may meet again as Paul is soon to appear again in a future season of Pokémon Journeys...
And that's it for this essay. I hope you enjoyed it and as usual, feel free to share your thoughts down below. Join me for another Media Essay next week as I talk about the history of everyone's Number 1 tank engine. Until then, stay cool media fans and I'll see you all next time.