Most shonen manga have the archetypical rival character, someone who serves either as friendly competition or an actual threat to the main character, one that they must work hard to overcome. Naruto has Sasuke, Goku has Vegeta, and Sakuragi has Rukawa. But what about Luffy? Does he have any real rivals?
The difficulty in having rival characters in One Piece is mainly its episodic nature: in order to be seen as a constant rival, the character must follow Luffy and co. to several islands. It doesn't have to be every arc, but a significant span shouldn't happen either. And if Luffy and his rival met that frequently, how would that shape up? If the rival is a character too strong for Luffy to overcome, then the chasing between islands would get rather repetitive and you would have to wonder how competent the rival really is.
Throughout the series, there are three or so characters that could be seen as a rival to Luffy. How good of a rival are these characters?
- Coby: Coby walks an interesting line. When we first saw him, he was Luffy's ally, and it was evident that he was much weaker than Luffy. So when Coby joined the Marines and showed his readiness to take down pirates, even Luffy, the possibility was there that he could become a good rival, but it wasn't there yet. We see him again after Enies Lobby, and he's much stronger and mature...but still much weaker than Luffy. Then in Marineford, he was more serious about taking Luffy down, but nope, still weak. One has to wonder whether he can get that boost in training that will overcome the initial gulf between him and Luffy in order to provide an interesting battle. Honestly, I don't really see it, and Coby seems to just be friendly competition at best. With Akainu taking over, and given their history, I wouldn't really be surprised if Coby switched sides at the end of the series.
- Smoker: This guy probably best fits the rival archetype, but he has some problems of his own. When we first met him, he seemed very fit for the part as he was more than a match for Luffy, was determined to follow him and bring him down, and had a human side to him. Smoker was a thorn in Luffy's side for a big portion of the Alabasta Arc, and it was interesting to see how Luffy would slowly bring himself up to Smoker's level. Even when the two were forced to team up in Alabasta, the tensions still ran high, and we were looking forward to future confrontations. Then...he disappeared. I will admit, he didn't really fit well into the story beyond the Alabasta Arc, but without the threat of him looming Luffy's growth as a fighter didn't really fit well with their story. Their conflict resumed in Marineford, but only for about a page as Luffy once again got owned and saved by an ally. Then came the New World two years later, and the Smoker hype somehow managed to return as he established himself as a major force in the Punk Hazard Arc. That is, until Law, Vergo, Caesar, and everything else showed up. Rather than get another showdown with Luffy, the pirate was thrown into a much bigger plot and the Vice Admiral was left completely out of his depth. Smoker got beaten not once, not twice, but three times, and Luffy showed his prowess against two Logias. Is it already evident that Luffy has surpassed Smoker without the need for battle? Will the arc between the two characters conclude in a good way? Maybe, maybe not. Smoker will need a lot more to prove that he can still give Luffy a run for his money.
- Fujitora: Perhaps the problem with Smoker was that he was only meant as a Paradise rival, to show how inequipped Luffy was to deal with Logias and stuff like that. Perhaps Luffy's victory and Smoker's trashing at Punk Hazard showed that Luffy has overcome that obstacle and that Smoker is no longer relevant. Now Luffy is on the level of a much bigger fish: the Admirals. The Admirals have always been nigh-godly beings whose powers dwarf Luffy's, but after the events of Dressrosa, Luffy has shown that slowly but surely he is climbing up to their level by punching Fujitora. Unlike Smoker, who went after Luffy of his own will, Fujitora doesn't really have any choice in the matter. A lot is at stake for both parties, as Fujitora seeks to end his exile and Luffy seeks to bring himself up to Fujitora's level. If Smoker is no longer relevant, this could be the rivalry that defines the New World saga.
I tried thinking of possible pirate rivals that Luffy could have, but most seem to just be straight up allies or antagonists. I'd like to see Kid take on a rival role, but the two characters just haven't had much interaction yet.
Which character do you think best serves as Luffy's rival? Or does he just not have one and OP just doesn't fit that mold?