The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender introduced something truly unique to kids everywhere with the four East Asian (and Inuit) inspired nations, each one based on one of four elements: fire, water, earth and air. From these nations came different kinds of benders who could manipulate a certain element. It took years of practice and a deep understanding of the philosophy that came with each bending technique to master that element, which is why only a handful of the benders introduced to us in the animated series could call themselves masters.
As you might have already guessed, we're going to take a look at some of the most prominent characters in the series and rank them according to the strength of their bending. Just so there's no confusion, let's lay down some ground rules. We'll be judging these characters based on what they can achieve naturally; that means the feats of waterbenders during a full moon or those of firebenders during the passing of a comet will not count. This rule also applies to unintentional uses of the Avatar State. We're looking at ingenuity, effort and even philosophical mastery in certain cases, not just which earthbender can raise the largest rock. We'll also only be looking at human characters, so no matter how powerful they may be, Appa, the badger moles and the dragons will not be showing up on the list.
When the Fire Nation attacked Haru's village, the earthbenders fought back. They lost and were captured, leaving young Haru as the only earthbender in his village. He had been taught just a little by his father before Tyro's capture, which meant he was forced to practice and teach himself quite a lot. Though admirable, it's no wonder that Haru is a relatively weak earthbender.
He's capable of pushing boulders but massive feats are clearly not among his strengths. He is strongest when he's performing as part of a team, as we could see when he helped to break his father and the captured earthbenders of his village out of the Fire Nation prison.
19 THE BOULDER
Team Avatar sat through Earth Rumble VI in search of a powerful earthbender capable of teaching Aang the basics. Bumi told Aang that he needed someone who would wait and listen before striking. Even though The Boulder was clearly incapable of waiting and listening to the earth, he proved himself to be an extremely capable fighter, defeating every opponent that stepped into the arena... well, every opponent save one.
The Boulder was beaten by the Blind Bandit, a ten year old little girl who had mastered earthbending. Later, he proved incredibly useful during the the invasion of the Fire Nation capital. There's no doubt that The Boulder is powerful, but he's nowhere near the strongest bender in the show. After all, his abilities seem rather limited in comparison with everyone else on this list.
18 XIN FU
Xin Fu was the host of Earth Rumble VI and proved himself very quickly to be a powerful and capable earthbender, since he was able to capture Toph with little effort, not just once but twice. He also lasted the longest out of all those Toph faced in the arena in "The Blind Bandit" (written by Michael Dante DiMartino). Few who got in his way during his pursuit of a bounty could walk away without a beating.
An example of that took place in the Misty Palms Oasis, where Xin Fu and Master Yu took on a whole cantina full of greedy thugs while in pursuit of the fugitives, Prince Zuko and General Iroh. After their subterfuge failed, all the thugs in the cantina turned on them, but Xin Fu gave them each a thrashing, with just a little help from Master Yu.
17 COMBUSTION MAN
The assassin, affectionately named Sparky Sparky Boom Man by Sokka -- and later Combustion Man -- never said a word in any of his appearances. It isn't known where he learned the unusual firebending ability that made him so dangerous. Using his third eye (painted, not real), Combustion Man was able to fire blasts of energy that exploded on impact.
It's uncertain how much Combustion Man had mastered other firebending styles or skills since he only ever used the one ability. That ability also came with a significant weakness. His third eye was powerful but surprisingly vulnerable to attack, which is ultimately what defeated Combustion Man when he attempted to destroy Team Avatar at the Western Air Temple. That weakness is the reason why Combustion Man shouldn't be considered powerful as a bender, despite the ferocity of his attacks.
16 ADMIRAL ZHAO
Before rising through the ranks of the Fire Nation army, Zhao trained with the firebending master, Jeong Jeong. He learned well and quickly became one of the most powerful men in the Fire Nation. Not only was he capable of great destruction, he kept himself educated and sharp.
Unfortunately for Zhao, his pride and fascination with his own destructive power led to his defeat multiple times. The first time that happened was in his duel against the banished Prince Zuko. He underestimated his opponent and lost the duel. The second time around, he showed an appalling lack of restraint which Aang took advantage of over the course of the fight. As we said, Zhao is capable of great destruction, but is far from being a powerful firebending master.
This young Southern Water Tribe bender proved herself to be exceptionally powerful over the course of the series, for someone with little to no initial training. She studied masters closely and consistently used her waterbending in creative ways, which is how she managed to discover her ability to heal without having been taught as they are in the Northern Water Tribe.
By the end of the series, she was capable of taking on entire battalions on her own. She proved that when she liberated Jang Hui village and again by taking own Azula while the latter was empowered by Sozin's Comet. Even with help, both of those feats took considerable waterbending skill and creativity, which is why it's undeniable that Katara is among the most powerful waterbenders in the show. However, she's young and needs more experience before she can call herself a waterbending master.
14 LONG FENG
While the Earth King enjoyed luxury and power, the true ruler of the walled city was and always had been Long Feng, the leader of the Dai Li, Ba Sing Sei's shadowy police force. Each Dai Li agent underwent rigorous training and emerged capable of using earthbending in ways that had seemingly never occurred to most other earthbenders in the series.
Long Feng was an exceptional agent. He was fast, stealthy and creative in his use of earthbending, making him a dangerous opponent, even against the Avatar and his friends. His only weakness...aside from angry giant flying bison... was his own insecurity and lack of conviction, which is why even with all his power, he was unable to remain the leader of the Dai Li after Azula stepped in. Earthbenders are steadfast and strong in almost every aspect and those qualities were missing in his final moments and he is never heard from again.
One of the few waterbenders to be captured by the Fire Nation's initial raids of the Southern Water Tribe, eventually escaped and made her way to the Fire Nation, where she established a life as an innkeeper near a forest in which people began to disappear with every full moon. Little did the country folk know that the reason for that was Hama, who had discovered and almost mastered the cruel art of bloodbending.
She outlasted her fellow water tribe members during the raids, indicating that even before her capture, her skill was exceptional. Even without a full moon, Hama was a powerful waterbender who mastered the art during her imprisonment when she was forced to think creatively. She could draw water from thin air and from the life around her, meaning she was almost never powerless.
12 JEONG JEONG
Jeong Jeong the deserter was Avatar Aang's first firebending instructor. He was one of the few in the series who truly understood the power of fire, not just as a destructive force but as a necessity for life. It was for this understanding and his mastery of the element that he became a master in the Order of the White Lotus.
Even without a comet to aid him, Jeong Jeong was able to conjure a great wall of fire to keep the Fire Nation ships at bay while Aang and his friends escaped from Jeong Jeong's former apprentice, Admiral Zhao. He was also able to use firebending to disappear into the forest, leaving not an ember behind after the inferno faded, showing a great mastery of fire in stark contrast with other firebenders such as Zhao who display recklessness.
11 MASTER PAKKU
The first season revolved around Aang and Katara searching for a waterbending master to teach them. They finally found one in the Northern Water Tribe. Master Pakku was once known as the greatest waterbender and he proved that when Katara challenged him to a waterbending duel. Despite her skill and strength, Pakku was able to incapacitate her with ease.
He played no small role in defending the Northern Water Tribe from the Fire Nation's siege and later on when he aided the other masters of the Order of the White Lotus in the liberation of Ba Sing Sei during the passing of Sozin's Comet. There he was able to defend himself from full empowered Fire Nation soldiers, however briefly, which is an incredible feat, all things considered.
The exiled prince of the Fire Nation trained as hard as he could to ready himself for his confrontation with the Avatar. Even after his defeat at the hands of the Avatar, he proved himself a capable firebender in his duel with Admiral Zhao.
He learned constantly and was able to perform a number of astonishing feats, such as redirecting lightning, and that was before his experience with the firebending masters, Ran and Shaw. Few benders in the series were capable of defeating Zuko in a duel. Even the powerful Earth Kingdom thugs he faced in his rescue of the young farmer's boy, Lee, were unable to defeat Zuko when he used firebending in conjunction with his dual swords. He may not have been that creative with his firebending but he fought with a singular rage that made his firebending that much more powerful.
The loss of his son changed Iroh. He surrendered his claim to the throne and no longer shared in the ideals that shaped the Fire Nation and its relationship with the other nations. That loss also sent him down a spiritual path that deepened his understanding of the world and, clearly, of firebending.
The first time Iroh proved that he was a dangerous firebender was when he was captured by Earth Kingdom soldiers. He was tied up in chains and even then, he managed to escape and fight off his captors. The Dragon of the West also managed to fight off Dai Li agents by breathing fire, something no other firebender on the show has done. He has always surrendered in the show and never actually seen a proper defeat.
To stay alive as ruler of a small Earth Kingdom in times of war, you'd have to be extraordinarily powerful, and Bumi proved himself to be just that several times. The earthbending he used in his duel against Aang was nothing for him. This is the earthbender who -- while fully encased with the exception of his face -- was able to free himself and rid the entire city of Omashu of Fire Nation soldiers.
He knows how to use earthbending with creativity; in fact, it was Bumi who taught Aang to use his imagination when bending. He also understood the finer points of bending, which is how he knew what Aang needed to look for in an earthbending teacher. His strength is his imagination and knowledge. It's why he has never truly been defeated in the series.
Princess Azula was only defeated on the show once. Otherwise she consistently proved herself to be a formidable opponent. Unlike other benders in the show, Azula entered every battle with unmatched confidence in her abilities. She was a firebending prodigy and trained until she had perfected every move and skill. And we do mean perfected. "Almost perfect" wasn't good enough.
She was so powerful, her fire was often blue and she regularly used lightning in combat when she wasn't using her firebending skills to perform unusual stunts like flight, which is how she escaped the collapse of her dirigible at the Western Air Temple. If Azula is after you, your best chance for survival is fleeing.
6 FIRELORD SOZIN
Before Ozai and before his father Azulon, there was Firelord Sozin, who used the power of the comet to wipe out the Air Nomads. We learn a lot about Sozin in the third season of the series, as well as his relationship with Avatar Roku. The two grew up together and trained together. Roku was a talented firebender (naturally gifted since he was the Avatar), which meant speaks volumes about Sozin's skill as well.
Even if we disregard the fact that Sozin beat Roku in friendly duels multiple times, we see proof that they were on almost equal footing with regards to firebending when Sozin helped Roku battle an erupting volcano. He was able to fight it with a notable level of control and steadiness while even Avatar Roku seemed flustered at times.
Without a doubt, Toph is the greatest earthbender in the world. Not only was she capable of performing astonishing earthbending feats few other masters could accomplish at the age of twelve, she discovered a new form of earthbending -- out of necessity more than anything else -- when she used earthbending on her metal cage to escape from her captors, Xin Fu and Master Yu.
The reason why Toph was able to accomplish all these things was because she was blind. It forced her to use her other senses for earthbending where other benders limit themselves to their sense of sight. It's why, even as a little girl, Toph could take on a whole squadron of Dai Li agents and win.
4 FIRELORD OZAI
Every firelord we've seen has been a powerful bender and Ozai is no exception. In fact, he may just be the most powerful firelord in the series. Not only is his lightning a different color, he is also highly respected for his power by Azula, who readily despised everyone -- even family members -- for showing signs of weakness in their endeavours or their firebending. We can gather that Ozai is powerful indeed.
Aang originally needed to train and master all four elements before the summer ended in order to defeat Ozai. Zuko himself stated that the only other person who might stand a chance against Ozai was Iroh and the old general doubted that statement. Ozai was an immensely powerful firelord, so it's a good thing that Aang took his bending abilities away.
3 AVATAR ROKU
Aang had many teachers over the course of the series, but the most prominent of his mentors has always been the avatar before him, Roku. Using his mastery of the elements, Roku was able to keep the powerful Firelord Sozin and his armies at bay so the rest of the world could live in peace, free from Fire Nation control. Roku was the only thing standing between peace and a hundred years of war, not because of the friendship he once shared with Sozin, but because of his power.
He destroyed palaces and temples with just a fraction of his bending capabilities and he was capable of battling an erupting volcano. He might have won too, if it weren't for his friend's betrayal and the toxic fumes erupting from the ground.
2 AVATAR KYOSHI
Kyoshi was among the most powerful avatars in the series. The first time we're shown what she was capable of was when she ended up testifying at Aang's trial in Chin Village. In order to prevent the tyrant, Chin the Great, from marching forth to Kyoshi's home on a peninsula, the Avatar separated her home village from mainland in an incredible feat of bending with all four elements.
Kyoshi was able to accomplish all of this with the help of the Avatar state, which she had very clearly mastered. Her mastery of the elements is evident in the skills and abilities of the Dai Li agents as that organization was one she created.
1 AVATAR AANG
What most avatars achieved in years, Aang would have to master in a number of months. It was a daunting challenge but Aang rose up to it and emerged a fully-realized avatar. Thanks to his teachers, he was able to master waterbending, earthbending and -- after an emotional journey and the help of some dragons -- firebending. However, that's not why Aang is the most powerful character in the series.
By the very end of the show, Aang was capable of doing something no other avatar had presumably been able to do: bend energy itself. With this new ability, Aang was able to fight Ozai on a spiritual level and take away the Phoenix King's ability to firebend. With that kind of power, no one can challenge him.