Goku has gained a bit of a reputation in the Dragon Ball fandom thanks to his almost overwhelming importance. Of course, he is the main character so that only makes sense, but the fact that many fans misinterpret the Z-era in particular as an ensemble series does make Goku’s role stand out. Particularly how often he wins.
Or, so fans would lead you to believe. In actuality, Goku doesn’t win all that often and he honestly never has. In fact, the longer the franchise goes on, the more Goku loses. It’s gotten to the point where he’s never defeated an arc villain in Super by himself. That said, just because Goku loses doesn’t mean those battles aren’t great.
10 Goku Versus Demon King Piccolo
One of Goku’s most brutal losses comes at the hands of Demon King Piccolo. Sidelined by his rage over Kuririn’s (Krillin) death, Goku rushes to face off against Tambourine only to have Kintoun destroyed from underneath him. It doesn’t take long for Piccolo to find Goku himself.
With next to no effort, Piccolo actually manages to stop Goku’s heart. The only reason the young Saiyan survives is through pure chance. In fact, this is the main reason Demon King Piccolo is so low on the list. Plus, it’s actually fairly derivative of another battle earlier in the series, but the fact it’s cracking the top ten at all is a testament to King Piccolo’s presence.
9 Goku Versus Majin Vegeta
This is actually a fairly difficult fight to determine an outcome. On one hand, Goku and Vegeta do blatantly end the fight in order to go take on Majin Boo. On the other hand, Goku should know not to lower his guard against a Vegeta possessed by Bobidi. It’s better to just give the win to Vegeta when it comes down to it.
Not only because Goku losing here ends up explaining one of his character flaws in Super, but because it’s a hollow victory for Vegeta. Sometimes Goku losing isn’t just for Goku, it’s so his opponents understand that “beating” Goku isn’t as easy as “defeating” Goku. Vegeta may have won, but he’s still in Kakarot’s shadow.
8 Goku Versus Raditz
It’s easy to group Goku and Piccolo together for the win in this fight, but it’s also important to remember that Piccolo’s main goal was to first kill Raditz and then kill Goku. If he gets both down in one fell swoop, that should surely count as a win for himself, but certainly not Goku.
Not just that, Goku fumbles their opportunity to defeat Raditz cleanly earlier in the fight. The moment Goku lets go of Raditz’s tail is the moment that he loses. From there, he needs to sacrifice his own life so that Piccolo can finish off his brother.
7 Goku Versus Jackie Chun
Goku’s first real loss is handed to him by none other than the legendary Jackie Chun, Master Roshi’s secret identity. After realizing how strong Goku and Kuririn had become, Roshi chooses to participate in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai in order to teach his student humility.
In defeating Goku in the final round, Roshi teaches him the value of meeting someone stronger. More importantly, Goku realizes that there will always be someone stronger than him, encouraging the young turtle school student to dedicating his life to the love of martial arts and not just winning.
6 Goku Versus Tenshinhan
Goku’s fight with Tenshinhan plays a fairly similar role at the end of the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai. While Goku had already learned the importance of bettering one’s self without the presence of ego, Tenshinhan was very much wrapped up in a world dominated by greed and malice.
In fighting Goku, Tenshinhan realizes the purity of martial arts. More importantly, since Goku loses on a technicality, Tenshinhan refuses to see his victory as a legitimate win, opting to give the honor to Goku (something Goku refuses to accept.) Just by losing a tournament, Goku redeems Tenshinhan.
5 Goku Versus No. 19
Coming hot off of Goku’s victory over Freeza on Namek, it was incredibly important that Akira Toriyama establish that Goku wasn’t going to be able to Super Saiyan his way out of any problem or battle. It’s incredibly important, then, that Goku’s first fight after Namek sees him be absolutely mangled.
Of course, it’s worth noting that Goku could have defeated No. 19, but that fact he didn’t is still important. Super Saiyan is useful and all, but it can’t do much against a heart attack. It’s a moment that reminds fans that Goku is very much human, Saiyan or otherwise.
4 Goku Versus Cell
It’s funny to think about, but Goku doesn’t win either of his big fights during the Cell arc. He doesn’t even manage to fight off Cell Junior. That said, even with his 100% loss ratio, the Cell arc does a lot of good for Goku’s character through these failures, his Cell loss in particular.
After a fight that very much served as Goku’s swan song, showing the genius of his martial art in action, Goku forfeits his fight with Cell so Gohan can take up the mantle. It’s a moment that really shows Goku’s maturity from a boy into a proper (if not great) father.
3 Goku Versus Tao Pai Pai
Before Demon King Piccolo nearly took Goku’s life, Tao Pai Pai almost killed Dragon Ball’s young hero less than a quarter of the way through the series. Tao Pai Pai is Dragon Ball’s very first super villain and he teaches Goku a very valuable lesson: People die.
Tao Pai Pai kills Bora, the first character to die on-screen, in front of Goku’s eyes. It’s almost overwhelmingly intense coming off the first two story arcs. Following Tao Pai Pai’s victory, Dragon Ball’s tone completely changes. Goku would forever be in danger from this point on.
2 Goku Versus Vegeta
Interestingly enough, Goku has never actually defeated Vegeta in a fight. Even though Vegeta is the runner-up in the rivalry, he has the win ratio. Not that it matters, of course, as the recurring theme with Goku's losses is that they’re never really “losses.” They’re an opportunity to reflect and improve.
Losing to Vegeta, Goku awakens to a Saiyan blood lust that he’d never felt before. He’s always loved martial arts, but being pushed to the edge of death time and time again has led Goku down a new path. It’s almost morbid considering how pure Goku is at the start of the series, but it’s a fantastic piece of character development.
1 Goku Versus Beerus
Speaking of fantastic character development, Battle of Gods did the impossible and told a meaningful Dragon Ball story years after the franchise’s end. With the advent of Beerus, the God of Destruction, Goku is forced into a series of battles that he cannot win. Beerus is simply too powerful.
Goku is shown not only humility but the importance of accepting a loss. Not trying to push through, but actually accepting the inevitable and moving on. It’s a mature, very intimate take on Goku’s character, one that humanizes him even further. Beerus wouldn’t be the last person to defeat Goku, but this failure would be the last time a loss had poignancy.