Countless anime franchises are built around a singular rivalry. Two characters, foils to one another, who are bound by a mutual desire to surpass the other. Name a long-running anime, especially one centered around fighting or sports, and you will find a great rivalry. If you asked, "What is the most iconic anime rivalry?" a lot of people would probably answer "Goku and Vegeta." The iconic shonen rivalry has rocked fans since the early days of the series, playing a role throughout Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT and Dragon Ball Super, some of the most widely watched anime around the world. So of course they are synonymous with anime rivalries. However, just because this rivalry is well-liked doesn't mean it's the best in anime. There are better ones out there.
What Makes a Rivalry?
In order to establish what the best rivalry is, we need to define what makes one effective.
Typically, the two characters must be foils to one another. A foil is a literary term referring to two characters whose personalities or characteristics contrast. This is evident in many anime rivalries. Naruto is an energetic ninja with gigantic goals who wants the world to accept him, while Sasuke is a quiet loner with a very personal vendettas to fulfill. The same essentially applies to Asta and Yuno from Black Clover.
Often times, this contrast plays into the development of each character. In the anime Yuri on Ice, the titular Yuris are complete opposites. Yuri Katsuki is an older, shy, insecure stress eater who thinks he's the worst while Yuri Plisetsky is a younger, rash hot-head who thinks he's the best and yells a lot. When the two compete against one another, they are forced to skate to songs that play against their type. Katsuki is given an erotic, energetic song while Plisetsky is given a slower, melodic song.
However, sometimes the contrast has little to do with actual personality. Sometimes it's philosophy. Light and L in Death Note are very similar in terms of personality. Despite Light being the megalomaniac Kira and L being the detective trying to uncover Kira's identity, they are remarkably similar. Both are cunning idealists eager for an intellectual challenge. During one segment where Light erases his own memory of being the mass-murdering Kira, he and L even become friends. Their personalities are similar. They just stand on different ends of the same spectrum.
Often, a rivalry can start with the two characters being actual enemies before they become friends. After all, with two characters who are so similar, of course, eventually, they might grow close. Yusuke and Kuwabara start Yu Yu Hakusho as rivals before quickly becoming as close as brothers. Ash and Gary from Pokemon start as fierce enemies only to gain mutual respect following the Indigo League.
Other times, they might remain enemies. However, in these cases, the rivalry should at least evolve and develop over the course of the series. Such is the case with Dio and the Joestar Family. At first, Dio just envies the Joestar family and their lives, hoping to destroy them to gain their money. That changes when Dio becomes an immortal vampire with godlike powers.
However, in all of these cases, the rivalry serves as a foundation upon which the series sits, with both sides of the rivalry developing as a result of the competition.
Dragon Ball and Rivalry
Dragon Ball as a series loves introducing rivals for Goku. Vegeta is not even close to Goku's first rival. That would be Krillin. He was followed by Tien and then Piccolo. These rivals often learn to put aside their need to surpass Goku or beat him in order to improve themselves in some way. They become loyal companions to Goku, while always admitting the Saiyan is the best. Vegeta is just the character who held onto that rivalry longest.
Vegeta's entire arc across Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super is defined by his rivalry with Goku. He starts out dismissing Goku as a challenge before becoming obsessed with how some no-name Saiyan surpassed him in power. While Vegeta and Goku only fight twice in all of Dragon Ball Z, those fights feel cathartic because of how Vegeta's whole arc is affected by each conflict. When Vegeta turns Super Saiyan for the first time against Android 19, it feels cathartic because he is surpassing his rival.
However, there is one huge problem: Goku isn't affected by Vegeta's rivalry. He trains to beat Krillin, Piccolo and, yes, Vegeta during the "Saiyan Saga." Goku is never affected by Vegeta's desire to surpass him. While he always has a general sense of wanting to be stronger, Goku isn't defined by Vegeta. Vegeta, however, is defined by his rivalry with Goku.
Goku and Vegeta serve as foils -- at first. Vegeta is the arrogant, self-assured warrior while Goku is the no-name who becomes the greatest. But as Vegeta becomes farther removed from his original self, that contrast becomes fainter. Both father children and marry. If anything, by the time the "Buu Saga" rolls around, the contrast is that Vegeta actually adjusted to Earth life while Goku never could. The second fight requires Babidi to literally reset Vegeta to his original wickedness level in order to justify it even happening.
This results in an incredibly lopsided rivalry that culminates during the "Buu Saga" when Vegeta realizes that Goku never wanted to be stronger than him. Goku just wanted to surpass his own limits.
What is the Greatest Rivalry?
So if Goku and Vegeta aren't anime's greatest rivals, than who are? When going down the list of anime's greatest rivalries, two stood out among all others: Midoriya and Bakugo's rivalry in My Hero Academia and Yugi and Kaiba's rivalry in Yu-Gi-Oh!
Both rivalries pit two drastic foils against one another. Midoriya is a shy, powerless boy who aspires for greatness, while Bakugo is an arrogant hot-head who has always been powerful. Both want to be the world's greatest hero, but, due to their drastically different personalities and philosophies, serve as foils. The same holds true for Yugi and Kaiba, but with an added difference: Yugi is a lower-middle class kid who believes in the power of friendship and divine power, while Kaiba is a super-rich kid who believes that only the powerful thrive.
However, both rivalries develop overtime. Both Midoriya and Bakugo, in their experiences over the course of the series, learn to understand one another on a more intimate level, which both enriches their rivalry and bolsters a friendship built on genuine respect. Yugi and Kaiba have a more tumultuous relationship. The entire "Battle City" arc is an elaborate plan by Kaiba to prove he's better than Yugi. The sheer lengths the two go to one-up one another push them to the breaking point. The fact that their rivalry ends up applying to both Yugi and Kaiba's Ancient Egyptian incarnations only further enriches their epic rivalry.
It is hard to decide which rivalry is the better of the two, but both prove more satisfying than Goku and Vegeta's rivalry. At least both sides of the rivalry seem to notice they're competing.