If we’re talking about who is the best hypothetical dueler among all the characters from the STAR WARS movies — which we are — we obviously need some ground rules.
First, we have to talk about the lightsabers, those “elegant weapons for a more civilized age.” As our own Avinash Chak likes to point out, the original trilogy’s lightsabers were heavier-seeming, broadsword-esque melee weapons. You really got the sense you were wielding powerful beam swords (copyright Nintendo) in those movies. The weapons were reinterpreted as weightless fencing swords in the prequels. So which lightsabers are we using?
The fighting is much more frenetic in the prequels. A purely objective judgment of the fighting technique would lead to the conclusion that all prequel characters would win every fight against a slower adversary from the original trilogy. However, if we instead apply a little admittedly-dubious Force logic — i.e. Darth Vader MUST be more powerful than he was as Anakin: he tells Obi-Wan, “when I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master” — then we can place the characters on a level playing field. Basically just pretend the lightsabers are the same and maybe that the fights in the original trilogy were played at half-speed. One more note on fight style: we’re allowing Force powers, because we don’t have the data to support non-Force assisted duels.
IW: Based on how Luke or Old Obi-Wan were fighting in the originals, I’m not sure they could have even fathomed beating Grievous or Maul, who have multiple blades spinning around as fast as helicopter blades.
Next we should look at the setting of our duels. It’s objectively more difficult to duel on the lava-spewing volcano planet Mustafar than on the Imperial-Standard-air-conditioned deck of a spanking new Death Star. One could argue that there’s no way Anakin loses to Obi-Wan on a level surface. To even things out, if there is a suspicion that setting played a role in the outcome of a duel, we can re-stage that fight hypothetically on the neutral ground of the landing strip of Cloud City on Bespin (Two notes: 1) no high ground and 2) it looks a lot like the Super Smash Bros stage Final Destination).
We also need to decide which version of a character we’re comparing. The obvious answer is that each character gets to fight in his/her peak condition. There are two exceptions: Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Do we really know which version (prequels or originals) is a more adept fighter? Old Man Alec Guinness Obi-Wan or the Ewan McGregor version? Puny didn’t-quite-pan-out-as-a-hunk Hayden Christensen or body builder David Prowse, the man behind (or is it under?) the original Darth Vader mask? It’s fun to speculate about which version is better, so they get duplicates. We’re also throwing some other non-lightsaber but still hand-to-hand combatants in here.
Finally, we need to point out that this list is not necessarily transitive. That is, a higher ranked fighter does not necessarily defeat a lower ranked fighter. Certain matchups may favor lower ranked fighters. But on the whole a higher ranked fighter should be favored in the majority of matchups with someone lower down the list.
Onto the rankings, worst to best:
Last. Average Jedi Knight: These guys are terrible. During our one real opportunity to see them in action — rescuing Obi-Wan in the Coliseum on Geonosis — they get slaughtered. By a bunch of droids. Who thought it was a good idea to make effete celibate preachers who can sort of move objects telekinetically the only cops in the galaxy? Also they have to be generals in times of crisis. This is the worst-run galaxy. Long live the empire.
AC: Also, they were shockingly easy to exterminate during the Clone Wars. Grand Moff Tarkin could’ve defeated one of them just using his icy stare.
19. Droids with Electricity Sticks: In Episode III, these dudes stick with Obi-Wan for a couple swings of his lightsaber. That in my mind makes them superior to an average Jedi Knight.
18. Bobba Fett: He gets taken out by a blind guy who, get this, turns around quickly. And for some reason we’re supposed to think he’s a fearsome warrior. No way.
17. Little boy who almost escapes the Jedi Temple: I’d take him over the average Jedi Knight. He took out 3 clones/storm troopers before getting gunned down. The average Jedi Knight couldn’t even take out one! It must be repeated: Jedi are terrible at fighting and they’re dogmatic extremists who don’t have any tolerance for other kinds of spirituality.
16. Leia with chains: She may have limited mobility, but she’s still a Skywalker. And a babe.
15. Chewbacca: He’s a wookie.
14. Jango Fett: AC: Considering his clones carried out the Empire’s genocidal campaign against the Jedi, He’d probably kick most of their asses.
Meanwhile he survives a one-on-one encounter with Obi-Wan. Mace Windu, of course, was too much for him.
13. Jedi Master: Some noticeable Jedi Masters get killed and/or disarmed on Geonosis, fighting droids, who must be the most predictable fighters out there. Meanwhile only Obi-Wan and Yoda are resourceful enough to get away from fucking clones when Order 66 gets executed. These guys should be able to sense danger, right?
12. Qui-Gon Jinn: Qui Gon can sort of hang with a Sith Lord like Darth Maul. He also discovers how to become a Force ghost. Let’s just put him here; it seems like he could out-duel most of the other Jedi Masters.
11. General Grievous: Kills at least 4 Jedi to pick up their lightsabers. Also he’s a cyborg with four arms. Would probably kill Qui-Gon who couldn’t handle one double-bladed lightsaber.
10. Darth Maul: Kills Qui-Gon. Also has horns and tattoos. Grievous or Darth Maul? Well Maul was trained by Sidious whereas Grievous is only trained by the intermediate Sith Lord Dooku. The real Sith Lord takes out the cyborg on Bespin.
9. Young Obi-Wan: Kills Darth Maul and General Grievous, maims Anakin when he has the high ground.
8. Count Dooku: Kicks young Obi-Wan’s ass. Twice. Also survives an encounter with Yoda.
7. Young Anakin: Kills Dooku, a bunch of sand people, and some defenseless children. Also tames some monsters on Geonosis and gets to kiss Natalie Portman. But he then gets overconfident when confronted with an enemy who has the high ground. Why didn’t he just jump to the side of where Obi-Wan was standing? I say on an even surface, Anakin definitely wins.
6. Old Obi-Wan: Our only experience with this fighter’s technique ends inconclusively. He gets killed on purpose. We may never know how great a fighter he is. But it’s reasonable to believe meditating on Tatooine for a couple decades gets you more in touch with the Force. We say his inner peace overcomes Anakin’s passionate exuberance. Plus Alec Guiness vs. Hayden Christensen? There’s a CLEAR winner there.
The Top 5 is confusing because each fighter sort of loses to someone else among the top five — except for our number 1.
5. Luke Skywalker: Skywalker v. Skywalker II ended in a decisive victory for the younger man. But there were some mitigating circumstances, like Vader not wanting to kill his own son, and Luke being extra motivated by some serious daddy issues. Meanwhile Luke doesn’t seem like he could handle some of the trickier Force powers of the other members of the top 5.
4. Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine: The emperor tortures Luke with lightning when he’s defenseless, but Luke had never encountered Force lightning before so we can assume he would have been unprepared for that kind of fight. Otherwise the emperor loses and/or draws with the fighters above him. His awesome lightning powers and theatrically overdone dueling style would defeat everyone else below him on this list. It must be pointed out that he could probably have been the best fighter of them all, but he was a very busy man. His days are all filled up corrupting Jedi, masterminding a war where he’s the commander of both sides, and running the Galaxy. It would have been tough to fit any saber training in.
3. Yoda: First, why Yoda over the emperor? Well, Yoda can absorb lightning, which no one else can do. The only reason he loses to the emperor is because he falls down farther after a big Force explosion. Another win for the high ground. On a level surface? Yoda takes it.
Yoda or Darth Vader? We’ll never find out definitively but we can make an educated guess. Yoda is probably quicker with his force-assisted acrobatics. Vader on the other hand can take a hit. For the Jedi, the paradigm seems to be “as wise as Yoda” or “as powerful as Mace Windu.” So Yoda’s real strength isn’t fighting but teaching. Meanwhile Anakin claims he has become more powerful than any Jedi by the third movie. We think the guy with the most midichlorians wins. Even though midichlorians are a stupid idea.
2. Darth Vader: He’s the only character who can take a lightning bolt to the face and still walk, pick up, and throw old men. That’s how this once promising wunderkind “brings balance to the force.” Also he’s Darth Vader.
1. Mace Windu: Assisted by two horrendous Masters/Knights, Windu shrugs off their immediate butchery at the hands of Sidious to disarm the Chancellor only to be sucker-dehanded by Anakin. The man with the purple saber is the best fighter of them all.