Ash Ketchum has been trying to become a Pokémon Master for the past 22 years. He has traveled several regions, battling the strongest trainers, only for victory to be pull from his grasp each time. Often, he will defeat his rival, only to lose as another, stronger trainer overtakes him.
That is until the Alola Region. In the 139th episode of the Pokémon Sun and Moon anime, Ash, for the first time ever, finally won a Pokémon League Champion, to ascend to the long-coveted rank of Pokémon Master. This victory should not be taken lightly, as it is the culmination of an entire saga in anime history.
Ash's First Championship
Ash's goal of becoming a Pokémon Master started in the Kanto Region, where he set off from Pallet Town at age 10 (which, miraculously, he still is despite canonically aging a year reaching the Indigo Plateau Conference). He gathered eight badges, including the Marsh Badge from Sabrina many deemed impossible to earn, to qualify.
However, despite his hard work, neither he nor his rival, Gary, made it far. Gary ranked in the Top 32, while Ash made it as far as the Top 16, only to be beaten by Ritchie. The problem is, Ash's defeat had to do with his skill level as a trainer; he lost because his Charizard refused to fight.
That failure to control his Pokémon led Ash to realize he had a lot of skills to learn before he could become a Master. Sure, his Charizard later took on legendaries like Entei and Articuno -- and beat one of them -- but at this stage in his development, Ash didn't have the skills to even direct his Pokémon.
Ash Did Win Once Before ... Then Kept Losing After That
That led to the Orange Island League, where Ash traveled across the Orange Islands for competitions that eventually led him to face off against the Orange League champion, Drake. In a final bid for victory, Ash's Pikachu, of all Pokémon, took down Drake's Dragonite, which led to Ash winning the Orange League Championship.
But when Ash returned home to celebrate, he ran into Gary, who had also grown far stronger as a trainer following the Indigo League. The two set off to challenge one another in the Johto League, which led to Ash and Gary separately earning all of the badges in this new league, one after the other, until they finally faced off in the Silver Conference.
Ash defeated Gary, but lost against new trainer Harrison, who, in turn, lost to the champion, Jon Dickson.
The Trend of Rivals Facing Off in the Conference
That set off a trend the Pokémon anime followed from there on out: Ash would meet a rival, compete against them until they reached the Pokémon League, then confront them again there. That rival in Hoenn was Tyson, who would go on to win the League, providing a narrative where Ash just couldn't overcome his rival.
In Sinnoh, at the Lily of the Valley Conference, Ash competed against several rivals in the finals, such as Conway, Barry and Nando, but the rival fight everyone knew would be the highlight of the League Championship was Ash vs. Paul. Paul remains one of Ash's fiercest rivals, but, in a downright epic final battle, Ash beat him and, at last, got closer than he ever has (until the Manalo Conference) to reaching his dreams of being a Pokémon Master... only to face Tobias.
To many fans, Tobias represents the universe's desire to keep Ash from ever winning any competition. Tobias beat Ash's team of six Pokémon with only two, but those were the legendary Pokémon Darkrai and Latios. Tobias is an absurdly powerful trainer who, to the shock of no one, became a Pokémon Master. That trend continued with with the next two leagues.
The Manalo Conference
The Manalo Conference, which lasted longer than any Pokémon competition, featured a downright epic roster of characters. With 151 trainers in the match, several of Ash's rivals over the series appeared to fight -- most notably, Gladion, the elder brother of Ash's traveling companion, Lillie. In addition, other friends Ash met along the series, such as Hau and Lillie, competed. Even more shocking, Professor Oak's cousin, Samson Oak, joined the fight, as well as Team Skull boss Guzma.
But arguably, in the most shocking twist of all, series adversaries Jessie and James, the iconic Team Rocket, qualified for this tournament.
The roster was loaded in ways previous Conferences hadn't been. Every major character from the series to that point seemed to converge on this one tournament. Every fight was shown, if even partially. Hau beat Samson Oak, but after Lillie's brother, Gladion, bested her, it was clear that he would be the trainer to defeat.
Even more shocking, James made the Top 8, while Jessie ranked alongside Lillie in the Top 16. Of course, the match that led to Jessie losing was against James. The point of all this is that the competition was fierce.
Gladion vs. Ash
Ultimately, however, Gladion beat James and later other rival Mimo, which led to him reaching the finals against Ash, who had just defeated Team Skull leader Guzma.
The final battle continued over two episodes, during which they threw Pokémon after Pokémon against one another. It finally came down to both of their Lycanrocs, after Ash's Pikachu and Gladion's Zoroark knocked each other out. However, after one last fight, Ash's Lycanroc finally overcame Gladion's, leading to Ash, once more, beating his longtime rival at the Pokémon League.
Only this time, that rival fight was the final battle, which made Ash the victor.
So What Now?
The future remains uncertain for Ash. With him winning the Pokémon League and becoming a Master, he will need to face one more exhibition fight against the Masked Royal (Professor Kukui), but that won't change Ash's status. It's possible Ash might fall against the Alola Professor's Pokémon to continue that trend of Ash losing the final battle of every league, but that doesn't make him any less of a Master.
With rumors that the next Pokémon anime might not feature Ash at all, maybe this is just proof that Ash's story has reached its end. Maybe now, after twenty years of being a ten year old (who, in Alola, had to go back to Pokémon school), it's time Ash took a break and enjoyed being a Master.
Maybe it's time the Pokémon anime grew up beyond Ash now that he's finally achieved his dreams.