Pokémon‘s myriad of protagonists are iconic characters in their own right. Few, however, are as well-known as Red. He is the only protagonist to have appeared in multiple games where he isn’t the primary player. Red is the first Champion, the boy who bested Team Rocket, who conquered the Kanto League, the first Pokédex holder to complete his catalog of the world’s Pokémon population, and the single strongest Pokémon trainer in any given Pokémon game.
However, is Red the strongest Pokémon trainer in the world? In the years since the release of Pokémon Red and Blue, we have encountered trainers able to best the legendary trainer in battle. Who are these trainers?
Red would appear in the Gen II and IV games, Pokémon Gold, Silver, Crystal, and HeartGold and SoulSilver. Taking place only three years after Pokémon Red and Blue, these games reveal that, after conquering the Pokémon League, Red left to Mt. Silver to train. The game’s player character — either Ethan, Kris, or Lyra depending on the game — can travel to Mt. Silver to battle Red.
Of course, Ethan, Lyra, and Kris need to undergo a long journey to even encounter Red. They have to beat sixteen gym leaders as opposed to Red’s eight and beating both the Johto and Kanto Leagues, which includes besting Blue, the new leader of Viridian City and former Pokémon League Champion.
In every game, these three trainers all can beat Red, proving that they are all stronger than Red. However, they are not the only trainers to best Red in battle.
In Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, Red returns yet again, this time as part of the Pokémon World Tournament. He competes alongside other iconic characters from throughout Pokémon history to confront the games’ protagonists: Nate and Rosa.
Red is a part of the World Champions branch, unlocked only after beating the Pokémon World Tournament’s World Leaders Branch 10 different times. This means that both Nate and Rosa beat not just the sixteen gym leaders Ethan, Lyra and Kris confronted, but rather forty different gym leaders, having conquered five regions of gym leaders as opposed to two.
This means that Nate and Rosa rank among the most accomplished trainers in Pokémon history — far surpassing any other trainer in the history of the franchise.
Here is where things become complicated. Later games, such as Pokémon Sun and Moon, establish that there are multiple realities, some where Mega Evolution exists and some where it does not. The universe previously discussed is one without Mega Evolution. In games where it does exist, the Red we know is remarkably different.
While at first it appears that the version of Red that trainers Elio and Selene (the protagonists of Pokémon Sun and Moon) encounter and beat is the same one we’ve grown to know and love, Pokémon: Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee establishes the alternate universe with Mega Evolution has a slightly different Red.
The big differences? This Red didn’t beat Team Rocket or complete his Pokédex first. That honor would go to the game’s protagonists, Chase and Elaine. It’s possible that Let’s Go! takes place in a different universe from Sun and Moon, despite releasing in the same generation and both containing Mega Evolution. Regardless, in both universes, Red is a former Pokémon League Champion, extremely powerful and defeated by the protagonist.
When discussing Red, however, one oddity emerges: Leaf. Leaf from Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen accomplishes everything that Red does, being his female counter-part. Much like Red, she completes the Pokédex, becomes champion, and even manages to conquer multiple legendary Pokémon like Lugia, Deoxys, and Mewtwo.
Leaf is Red’s equal by the nature of her creation, so why is she not also equal in merit to Red? Simply put, Leaf was created in Generation III, while Red had two prior generations to establish his reputation and clout among players. Even though Leaf is Red’s equal in every regard, she lacks the reputation that Red has simply due to how little we see of her outside of her game, even though she’s literally a gender-swapped version of Red. The only difference is that Leaf doesn’t get defeated by Ethan, Lyra, Kris, Nate, Rosa, Elio, Selene, Chase, or Elaine.
Were Red and Leaf to fight, their power would be entirely equal. This means Red, while being one of the strongest characters in Pokémon history, has a lot of rivals over the years for the title of Pokémon Master.
Despite being one of the most iconic characters in the franchise's history, Pokémon's strongest protagonist is NOT Red.