The Cell arc marked an important shift for Dragon Ball as it fully transitioned the series away from its grounded martial arts roots and into a more traditional action-drama series. While Dragon Ball began making this change around midway through the Freeza arc, it’s this arc that pushes the series’ philosophies into the background most.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing as the more plot-driven Cell arc (as nonsensical as that plot may be) does end up thriving off some killer action. Some of Toriyama’s most interesting fights come from this story arc. This arc is a rare case of just about every major character taking part in a good fight.
10 Trunks Versus No. 17 & 18
The penultimate fight of the story arc, Trunks goes back to his future to take out Androids 17 and 18 with incredible ease. Really, there’s no fight here per se, but there’s something extremely satisfying about seeing Trunks come back alone to take out the two Artificial Humans terrorizing his timeline.
While Trunks’ fight with Cell closes out the arc, it’s perhaps this fight that closes out Trunks’ arc. He’s fully come into his own as a hero and he can defend his timeline. He went back to the past and came back with nothing but experience. That alone was enough to turn the tide in his favor, however. It’s a very Dragon Ball-esque resolution to his character arc.
9 Piccolo Versus Cell
The fact that Piccolo’s fight with Cell is intimately tied with Cell’s introduction is a huge mark in its favor. Cell’s introduction is so creepy, and it sets the stage for a fight that slowly unravels into surprisingly realistic chaos. Cell’s ability to drain is as horrific as it is deadly, guaranteeing Piccolo’s death had Cell not missed his chest.
The fact Piccolo outsmarts Cell is a unique way of changing the battle’s tide, even if it’s ultimately short-lived. The series has boiled into raw action by this point, so little bits of strategy shine through all the clearer.
8 Gohan Versus Cell
There’s a lot of pathos to Gohan’s arc here (and Toriyama writes this portion of the arc well enough where it’s possible to overlook Gohan’s lack of a role in the arc thus far) but the action isn’t all too exciting. That said, the drama really is good and it’s nice to see Gohan get some really focused character development.
Which is ultimately what Gohan’s fight with Cell is. It’s not the culmination of his arc, it’s just the next step and Toriyama uses the entire fight to further develop Gohan. It makes for a really compelling self-contained fight even if its placement in Gohan’s greater arc is outstandingly awkward to say the least.
7 Trunks Versus Freeza & His Men
Trunks’ introduction might very well be the single coolest moment in all of Dragon Ball. Freeza returns not just with his army, but his father, ready to kill everyone on Earth before Goku can arrive. No one gets the chance to fight, however. At least, not anyone readers recognize. Trunks appears, proclaims himself a Super Saiyan, and destroys the remnants of Freeza’s army.
Trunks operates on a higher level than other characters, choosing to take out Freeza’s entire army asap. He doesn’t waste any time sparring with Freeza, killing him the moment he sees an opening. The same with Cold. He lulls him into a false sense of security, not through action, and then takes him out with one shot.
6 Goku Versus No. 19
This isn’t a fight that tends to get a lot of love as its immediately overshadowed by 17 and 18’s introduction, but it’s actually quite compelling coming hot off the trails of the Namek arc. This is Goku’s first fight after defeating Freeza. It’s the first time anyone gets to see Goku’s Super Saiyan at full power… but he’s sick.
Not only has the Heart Virus suddenly attacked Goku after failing to surface on time, Goku has no clue that No. 19 can absorb Ki, essentially handing the victory to the Artificial Human. What choreography present is actually great, but it’s watching Goku slowly break down over the course of the fight that makes it so engaging.
5 Vegeta Versus No. 18
Vegeta’s ego is at its absolute peak during the Cell arc in Dragon Ball Z, but he sees it confronted by No. 18 pretty hard midway through the saga. Upon awakening, Vegeta picks a fight with 18 and gets throttled in the process. While it looks like he can keep up, 18 shows no signs of slowing down and stars to break Vegeta down.
It all culminates into 18 breaking Vegeta’s arm and leaving him for dead. He never does pursue revenge, which is an interesting but appreciate detail, yet it’s important that Vegeta suffer this loss here. Turning into a Super Saiyan brought out the worst in him and this is a chance for the story to humble him.
4 Vegeta Versus Cell
While losing to 18 does humble Vegeta to an extent, he makes the exact same mistake when he comes out of the Room of Spirit and Time with Trunks. Upon pushing past the Super Saiyan barrier and triggering Grade 2, Vegeta once again lets his pride get the better of him. When he’s initially fighting Cell, though, it’s somewhat reasonable.
Vegeta’s genuinely far stronger than Cell and basically bullies him into submission. Why shouldn’t Vegeta be proud? Unfortunately, pride turns to hubris and Vegeta allows Cell to transform, leading to a creepy beatdown where Cell nonchalantly kicks Vegeta’s ass while speaking with Goku’s candor.
3 No. 16 Versus Cell
It’s always interesting when Toriyama lets the side characters take on the main villain. Nail got his chance to fend off Freeza for a bit, and Yajirobe’s contributions against Vegeta are downright legendary. 16’s fight with Cell is different, however. For once, the side character seemingly has a real chance to win. He obviously can’t and won’t, but at least the fight is evenly matched.
Sometimes all an arc needs is some good character action. This fight is 16’s only real moment in this arc other than dying, but it’s a cool moment. 16 isn’t just taken out in a few panels, he fights for a while. Not just that, Toriyama actually colors parts of the fight in the manga, giving the battle added weight.
2 Piccolo Versus No. 17
Piccolo’s last real fight in the series. How sad. At least he goes out on a high note. Evenly matched with 17, Piccolo throws out some insane attacks, both physical and Ki based. This is the last fight Piccolo shows off a new technique and, in general, this battle carries a lot of impact in both the manga & the anime.
It’s interrupted by Cell and doesn’t see a good enough resolution other than Piccolo quickly shifting his attention to defending 17 instead of attacking him, which is a nice arc for the fight in and of itself. Really, though. As this is Piccolo’s last full fight in the series, it’s nice that it’s at least a good one.
1 Goku Versus Cell
Goku’s fight with Cell plays out like something as a swan song for Son Goku. It’s mainly just an exhibition of what Goku can do and the scope of his power. It’s one last chance for audiences to appreciate Goku before he dies at the end of the Cell Games. Or so it would seem had Goku stayed dead. Either way, though, Goku’s fight with Cell is amazing.
The choreography is just out of this world, and Goku’s banter with Cell develops almost as nicely as his banter with Freeza. There’s tension, but Goku keeps things light enough with his confidence where it’s easy to sit down the match and take it in like it’s one of the old fights from the Tenkaichi Budokais of yore.