For as well regarded as Dragon Ball is for its action, there’s a serious misconception among casual fans that the series’ many fight scenes are mindless. It’s one of the more present criticisms lobbed at the franchise, but it’s not indicative of just how high quality Dragon Ball’s action often is.
While Toriyama did clearly lose interest in certain places throughout the franchise’s original run, he never lost his talent. Even after Dragon Ball had begun placing traditional martial arts on the backburner, the fights never dipped in quality. From start to finish, Dragon Ball boasts some incredibly choreographed fights.
10 Piccolo Versus No. 17
For as big a role Piccolo has from its introduction all the way up to the end of the series, he actually doesn’t fight all that often. When he does fight, however, it’s always something of a big deal. All three of his fights in the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai are important; as are his fights in the Saiyan arc; he turns the tide against Freeza; his fight against 17 in the Cell arc changes the tide of the story.
Piccolo may lose this fight, but it’s a spectacularly drawn (and animated) battle with plenty of weighty punches, fast action, and plot progression. It’s a frantic back and forth that ended the only way it could have while preserving Piccolo and 17’s status: the re-introduction of Cell.
9 Yamcha Versus Tenshinhan
Throughout Dragon Ball’s original ten year run, Yamcha only one a single fight. He takes part in multiple battles, but he unfortunately gets put in his place rather often. That said, this doesn’t mean that Yamcha doesn’t have his fair share of great faults. After all, just because someone loses doesn’t mean they didn’t fight well.
That’s exactly the case with Yamcha and Tenshinhan’s opening fight during the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai. Yamcha may lose, but he does so spectacularly, shoving the Turtle School style right in Ten’s face. It’s a battle that puts martial arts front and center before ending with Tenshinhan brutally breaking Yamcha’s leg.
8 Vegeta Versus Reacoom
There are few moments as overwhelming in Dragon Ball as when the Ginyu Force first appears. A seemingly oafish Super Sentai parody, Vegeta’s intense fear of them quickly lets audiences know that something is very, very wrong. Things only get worse after Vegeta kills Gurd, sparking Reacoom to join the fight.
In one of Toriyama’s most inspired choreographic moves, Vegeta pours everything he has into taking down Reacoom. It’s a fast, frantic splash of action as Vegeta flies Reacoom around Namek before beating him into the ground… only for Reacoom to brush it all off and break Vegeta to an inch of his life.
7 Gohan, Kuririn, & Piccolo Versus Nappa
Dragon Ball doesn’t always make use of group battles, but the few that do turn up in the series end up being some of the best fights in the franchise. Gohan, Kuririn, and Piccolo’s fight against Nappa is a particularly great showdown. With Tenshinhan, Chaozu, and Yamcha all dead, these three fighters are Earth’s last hope.
Try as they might, however, they can’t keep Nappa down. They do almost defeat him at multiple points, but Gohan’s cowardice ultimately costs them the battle and Piccolo’s life. It’s an intense fight that manages to do more than just stall for time as Goku rushes to the battle. All three main characters get great character moments and time to shine within the fight.
6 Goku Versus Jackie Chun
Arguably the first “big” fight in the series, Goku and Jackie Chun close out the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai in spectacular fashion. One of the most martial arts oriented fights in the entire franchise, this tournament finale has Goku using everything Muten Roshi taught him in an attempt to stay afloat.
The stakes are high and there’s plenty of great emotion layering the fight, but it’s carried by its fantastic choreography. Goku and Jackie Chun go back and forth delivering impeccably drawn blows that also feel strategically appropriate. Better yet, Jackie Chun wins not through force, but by tricking Goku into making a bad move.
5 Goku Versus Tenshinhan (22TB)
In the same way Goku’s fight with Jackie Chun established the foundation that future fights would base themselves off of, Goku’s fight with Tenshinhan in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai refined that foundation. Adding Ki attacks into the mix as a massive fixture, this is the fight that more or less changed Dragon Ball.
The action was more intense, the antagonists were more dangerous, and even the simplest battles were layered with emotional stakes. Toriyama upped the action’s style, as well, using Ki as a means of not only breaking up the pace of each fight, but breaking fights into neater sections.
4 Goku & Piccolo Versus Raditz
Raditz fundamentally changed Dragon Ball for good. Not only was Goku a space alien, his son was infinitely stronger than him, the Earth was in an incredible amount of danger, and Goku was now dead. The fight against Raditz wore Piccolo and Goku down to their very core, forcing them to get desperate in an attempt to subdue the Saiyan.
What makes this battle special is just how much Raditz overwhelms both Goku and Piccolo. They sincerely cannot keep up and the choreography reflects this by consistently keeping Raditz on top of the action. It takes Goku giving his life just to put Raditz down.
3 Goku Versus Cell
Gohan versus Cell isn’t even close to being the best fight in the Cell arc. That title belongs to none other than Goku’s fight with Cell at the start of the Cell Games. An almost underrated battle, most fans overlook it considering Goku ends up quitting the fight while giving Gohan the arc’s emotional stakes.
But that doesn’t mean the fight is bad. By all accounts, it’s one of the greatest fights in all of Dragon Ball. This battle serves as a Swan Song for Goku, showing off all his best techniques (save the ones he learned from Kaio) in a final showdown with Cell. Just watching the fight play out, it truly feels like this is the end for Goku. It’s a celebration of everyone’s favorite Saiyan from Earth.
2 Goku Versus Majunior
The main pattern when it comes to the Tenkaichi Budokais is that they’re bound to end in incredible fights, each one better than the last. Goku’s fight against Majunior at the end of the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai is easily the best of the bunch, if not the best fight from the pre-Z era of Dragon Ball.
Goku and Piccolo are 1:1 rivals, beating each other senseless while also busting out new techniques on the regular to one up the other. By the end of the battle, both characters are exhausted and barely functioning. Piccolo outright breaks every limb in Goku’s body before the fight ends. Exciting, enthralling, and over the top, Dragon Ball could have ended here while maintaining its legacy.
1 Goku Versus Vegeta
Thankfully it didn’t end there, as the next arc ended up being a massive improvement all around, the fights in particular. Goku’s first fight with Vegeta is so insanely good that nothing on this list even comes close to touching it. It is the fight that changed manga and anime history. Akira Toriyama perfected the formula that other writers would follow for years.What makes this fight incredible is the sheer amount of violence on display. Goku is pushing himself not to defeat Vegeta, but to keep up. Kaioken batters Goku’s body and each subsequent movement shows how worn down Goku is getting. It’s an amazing fight that ends with Dragon Ball’s best beam struggle, spurring Vegeta to transform and Goku to rely on the help of his friends.