The Saiyan arc is quite the game changer for Dragon Ball. In a single moment, Goku goes from being a super strong Earthling who happened to have been born with a tail into a bloodthirsty alien barbarian who only failed to wipe out the planet as intended because of some convenient brain damage.
While it’s really Tao Pai Pai who helps elevate Dragon Ball’s action for the first time, the Saiyan arc ends up solidifying the formula that all future fights in the series will take. For the most part at least. Fights are more brutal, almost always involve flight, and virtually never feature any characters starting out at full better. And it’s awesome.
10 Chaozu & Tenshinhan Versus Nappa
Might as well consider Chaozu and Tenshinhan attacking Nappa one fight since neither of them survive long enough to really contribute to the main battle. Chaozu sacrifices himself and Tenshinhan retaliates with a Kikoho that ends up killing him. Neither technique does anything noteworthy against Nappa, showcasing just how dangerous the Saiyans are.
The anime handles these two deaths considerably better. In the anime, Chaozu had a more prominent role thanks to filler. Nowhere near important, but relevant enough. The anime capitalizes on this by really milking both of their deaths, adding an even deeper layer of tragedy to the Earthlings dying one by one.
9 Tenshinhan Versus Saibaiman
For as quickly as the Saibaimen are dealt with, they actually do feature in some pretty great action. They’re far smaller bodied, more akin to the younger Goku from earlier arcs, adding an element of height to combat that hadn’t been seen in quite some time. Not just that, their alien-like nature allows for the main characters to deal with them rather viciously.
Tenshinhan gives a quick, but solid, beatdown against his Saibaiman. At this point in the series, he was still Dragon Ball deuteragonist (or he was before Gohan took over.) It’s only natural he take out a Saibaiman so effortlessly. This also makes his near approaching death all the more impactful.
8 Yamcha Versus Saibaiman
Yamcha doesn’t amount to much after he dies during this fight, but it’s not like he actually did all that much up to this point anyways. Regardless, this is a good fight for Yamcha to go out on. The choreography here is incredibly smooth and makes for a well paced bout. It’s a great showing of Yamcha’s skills, especially after his embarrassing defeat in the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai.
Yamcha’s death isn’t shameful here, either. It’s genuinely horrifying and upsetting. Yamcha has been a main character since the first story arc and he’s unceremoniously killed because everyone underestimated the Saiyans. Yamcha’s death kicks off a chain reaction that ends in Piccolo giving his life for Gohan.
7 Goku Versus Nappa
A relatively quick fight where Nappa doesn’t manage to meaningfully damage Goku, but an incredibly important one that shifts the tide towards the main heroes. After training for half a year in the afterlife, Goku— a low class warrior— arrives on Earth to dominate the man responsible for the death of his friends.
Goku humiliates Nappa and doesn’t even grant him the sweet release of death, deferring that to Vegeta (whether he likes it or not.) Goku also makes incredibly clever use of the Kaioken here, showcasing his wit in a portion of the series no longer concerned with showcasing martial arts in a traditional sense.
6 Kuririn Versus Saibaimen
Yamcha’s death sparks a fire in Kuririn that hadn’t been seen up to this point. While he’d always been a competent fighter, Kuririn’s major battles tended to be humorous in tone. This fight, on the other hand, sees him emotionally obliterating several Saibaimen in retaliation for Yamcha’s death. Kuririn ends up killing all but one.
It’s one of his most impressive displays of power in the series and it actually puts into perspective just how much Kuririn must have trained for this fight. He comes into the battle against the Saiyans with two brand new Ki techniques. The Kienzan is more dangerous, but his Ki scattershot is just as impressive.
5 Piccolo, Kuririn, & Gohan Versus Nappa
Dragon Ball doesn’t make use of group battles often, but they always tend to be some of the most memorable fights in the series. The Earth’s forces wittle themselves down to just Piccolo, Kuririn, & Gohan and they end up holding down the fort surprisingly well against Nappa. Piccolo and Kuririn in particular contribute quite a bit and even set Gohan up for a finishing blow.
Gohan fails, of course, and the tide ends up shifting in Nappa’s favor. This battle climaxes in Piccolo giving his life to save Gohan just mere moments before Goku arrives on the scene. It’s the single most emotional moment in Dragon Ball and it makes a great end to a great fight.
4 Gohan Versus Vegeta
Gohan’s fight with Vegeta is a fight within a larger fight, but it’s distinct enough where it’s worth analyzing on its own. After Goku has worn Vegeta down considerably, Gohan swoops in to battle Vegeta while Goku & Kuririn devise a strategy to take out Vegeta with the Genki Dama. This battles marks Gohan’s development finally setting in.
Where he once froze in fear against Nappa, he rushes into fighting Vegeta to save his father. Piccolo’s death fundamentally changes Gohan and him rushing Vegeta buys enough time for Kuririn to toss the Genki Dama at Vegeta. He misses, of course, but Gohan ends up punting it right into Vegeta.
3 Goku & Piccolo Versus Raditz
Raditz is often lambasted by fans for being a weak villain, but this is a notion that frankly makes little sense. While Raditz is comparatively weak to everyone who comes after him, Goku needs to sacrifice his life just to take Raditz out. Before that, Raditz was strong enough to kill the entire main cast effortlessly. Only an enraged Gohan ends up saving the day.
In general, this fight is one of the more shocking battles in Dragon Ball. Goku and Piccolo really can’t do anything to Raditz. Try as they might, Raditz is faster and stronger, outsmarting them at almost every turn. In the end, it’s skill and solidarity, not raw power, that defeats Raditz.
2 Everyone Versus Vegeta
Unfortunately for Goku and company, the Genki Dama isn’t enough to take out Vegeta. What follows in a frenzy of minor skirmishes between Vegeta & Gohan, Oozaru Gohan & Vegeta, Vegeta & Yajirobe, and Vegeta & Kuririn. The last few moments of the Saiyan arc throw every possible combination at audiences.
It’s almost out of necessity, though. Vegeta was the single most dangerous opponent up to that point and he really lived up to his status. In terms of taking out the main characters, Vegeta’s probably the most successful antagonist. It takes every character left alive just to subdue him. That’s the sign of a good fight.
1 Goku Versus Vegeta
Nothing in Dragon Ball quite compares to the sheer quality of Goku’s fight with Vegeta. A low class warrior taking on an Elite and proving the latter wrong. It’s a fantastic fight both narratively & thematically, but it’s also Toriyama’s choreography at its very best. The action is non-stop and frantic. The manga even makes use of color pages for the battle’s first two chapters.
It’s hard not to love this fight. Goku’s fight with Vegeta includes: Goku making the most out of the Kaioken, fantastic mid-air action, the best beam struggle in the series, and Vegeta turning into an Oozaru to brutalize Goku. It’s a savage showdown with more than enough twists and turns to keep it exciting.