That said, the fights do fundamentally change even if the themes and tone don’t. With the arrival of Raditz, martial arts more or less gets thrown out the window. Though to be fair, the over-focus on flight makes that difficult. Looking back on the early series, quite a few fights were straight-up martial arts bouts with Ki only serving as dressing. Most of these fights are some of the best in the franchise to boot.
10 Yamcha Versus Jackie Chun
The first time audiences get to see Jackie Chun in action ends up being a rather poor moment for Yamcha, at least on a surface level. Despite training for almost an entire year, Yamcha doesn’t even land a single hit on Jackie Chun, getting rung out of the arena rather effortlessly. At the same time, it proves how formidable Roshi really is.
It’s also one of the most grounded fights in the series. Yamcha doesn’t use any tricks to try to hit Jackie Chun, just martial arts. On that note, Jackie Chun doesn’t do anything too fancy other than dodging well either. It’s a great little moment to properly usher in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai.
9 Kuririn Versus Jackie Chun
Yamcha may have fared poorly in his fight against Jackie Chun, but Kuririn enters his semi-final match a student on the Turtle Hermit himself. Interestingly, it’s this fight that first establishes the fact that the characters are moving around at lightning-fast speeds. Despite this, however, the action is down to earth and rooted in martial arts.
Kuririn and Jackie Chun even show off some of their moves to the audience in a demonstration, and both of their abilities are completely grounded. The only key difference between them and real martial artists is the fact that the former are so impossibly fast.
8 Goku Versus Jackie Chun
The finale of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai is as memorable and iconic as any other arc ending battle in the franchise, more so in many respects. This is a full-on martial artist battle taking place at sunset. Sure, Goku turns into a giant monkey and the Kamehameha gets thrown around a bit, but it really is the most grounded final fight in Dragon Ball.
The fact that Jackie Chun wins by outsmarting Goku and not through sheer force of will is a particularly inspired touch, bringing the fight to a realistic end. It only makes sense that Goku would lose to the martial artist with years upon years of experience and practice.
7 Goku Versus Tao Pai Pai
Considering Goku defeats Tao Pai Pai by kicking a grenade into him fifty feet in the air, it’s hard to see this fight as grounded. That said, the only reason Goku wins is because of martial arts. Which is the same reason he loses their first match as well. This is a battle about Goku recognizing his flaws as a martial artist and overcoming this.
How does he do this? By training with Korin, of course. Goku learns the importance of paying attention, of thinking ahead. He learns to temper his body by training in a higher altitude. Of all of Goku’s training sessions, Korin’s is the one most rooted in reality. It leads to a battle that inherently focuses on martial arts.
6 Goku Versus Grandpa Gohan
Goku’s fight with Grandpa Gohan during the Baba exhibition is rather short, but its length allows it to remain incredibly grounded from start to finish. While it may not be the best fight that focuses on martial arts, it may be the battle that best represents martial arts. As a fight, it really is just a straight-up sparring match.
Goku and Gohan don’t get particularly fancy, instead focusing on their basic styles. In fact, this approach gives their battle an emotional edge, as Goku is more or less training under his grandfather once again. The battle ends when Gohan rips off Goku’s tail and forfeits, teaching him the importance of training every part of his body.
5 Yamcha Versus Tenshinhan
Aside from the fact that Yamcha and Tenshinhan leap dozens of feet into the air, the majority of their opening match for the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai is surprisingly grounded. From start to finish, this is a battle that showcases the martial arts stylings of both the Turtle and Crane schools.
Even Yamcha’s signature technique, the Roga Fufu Ken, is firmly rooted in martial arts. The anime does an especially incredible job adapting this fight, giving Yamcha his own theme music and really chewing the martial arts as much as possible. It makes for one fo the most exciting matches in the series.
4 Jackie Chun Versus Tenshinhan
Tenshinhan’s subsequent fight with Jackie Chun is less a battle and more a discussion of martial arts. On one hand, the two fights never do anything too extraordinary, keeping things down to earth and grounded. On the other hand, Jackie Chun uses this opportunity to dig into Tenshinhan’s character, sharing his martial arts philosophy with the would-be assassin.
As a result, while the action is scarce, the heart of their interaction is rooted in what it means to be a martial artist. It’s this moment that fundamentally changes Tenshinhan. His resolve is shaken and he begins to walk the path of a genuine martial artist.
3 Goku Versus Kuririn
Goku and Kuririn are rivals for quite a long time, but only ever fight the once. Midway through the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, the two Turtle School students face off for the one and only time, ending their rivalry conclusively. Goku naturally wins, but the battle is a showcase not only of both their abilities, but how much they’ve grown as martial artists.
For the most part, the battle is entirely physical with Ki only playing a role near the end. Both of their abilities are fairly grounded in reality even if virtually impossible for anyone to achieve. Like with Yamcha and Tenshinhan’s battle, the anime does a great job bringing the martial arts to life.
2 Goku Versus Tenshinhan (22nd TB)
What makes this battle stand out more than anything else is its realistic finish. After chapters upon chapters of beautiful choreography and amazing character development, the finale falling on dumb luck can feel like a copout, but it actually speaks to the truth of martial arts. Sometimes losses happen for no reason.
The fact that Goku and Tenshinhan come away both wanting to best each other next go-around is a great note to end the tournament on, especially since it does follow a (mostly) traditional martial artist battle between Goku and Tenshinhan. If nothing else, the series’ main themes are never again as clear as they are here.
1 Goku Versus Piccolo
Far and away the best fight in the original series and one of the best in the franchise period, Goku’s battle with Majunior at the end of the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai is simply legendary. Even ignoring his amazingly choreographed Meteor Combo, Goku fights like an actual martial artist, developing strategies around Piccolo that make sense (for Dragon Ball’s logic.)As the final tournament arc in the series, it’s nice to see Dragon Ball go out on a bang. What makes the whole situation better is the fact that Goku deliberately invokes martial arts during the fight, rejecting all help so he can defeat Piccolo and win the Tenkaichi Budokai in the process.