Dragon Ball Z is legendary for its action set pieces, with Goku and the Z Fighters taking on Frieza, Cell, and Buu in battles of increasingly epic proportions. With Dragon Ball Super finally entering the Universal Survival arc, which promises to be the biggest-scale brawl in the history of the series, we’re taking a look back over some of the best fights in Dragon Ball, but with a twist.
We’re counting out the iconic battles between Goku and Frieza, and Gohan and Cell, focusing instead on the fights between the series’ main characters. While “protagonist” generally refers to the Z Fighters where Dragon Ball is concerned, we’re expanding the definition to include any recurring character in official series canon. Only canon will be taken into account, so the fights of Dragon Ball GT and the various DBZ movies will not appear.
Let’s take a look at the 15 Best Fights Between the Series’ Protagonists.
15 Gohan vs. Vegeta
Gohan’s first confrontation with Vegeta is remembered more for Vegeta’s preceding battle with Goku, but with Goku now thought dead following Namek’s destruction, Gohan steps up once more to honor his father. The young Saiyan challenges Vegeta for mocking Goku and declaring Gohan his royal servant, and as Bulma tries to intervene, Piccolo holds her back. His pupil prepares to test his strength against the Prince.
The ensuing battle is only brief, with Vegeta coming out the clear victor, but Gohan surprises everyone (not least Vegeta) by gaining the upper hand early on in the fight. In the end, Vegeta is only kept from killing Gohan by Piccolo, who appears behind Vegeta with a short warning to “Back off”.
Even if it doesn’t make sense that Vegeta would back off at Piccolo’s request (Vegeta is far superior to Piccolo at this point), the scene still delivers some tense character moments. It also gives us an insight into Gohan’s future, with his dad supposedly out of the picture.
14 Mr. Satan vs. Android 18
The final of the 25th World Martial Arts Tournament is decided by way of a battle royale. Trunks and Goten, disguised as Mighty Mask, knock Killa from the ring, while Android 18 swiftly deals with Jewel. Only Mr. Satan remains in the ring as Mighty Mask and 18 face off. 18 gains the advantage over the two Super Saiyans, eventually slicing their costume in two and revealing their identities.
With Mighty Mask disqualified, 18 prepares to battle Mr. Satan. The fight doesn’t have the theatrics of her match with Mighty Mask, but it has plenty of laughs to make up for it. 18 puts Hercule in a headlock, telling him she will throw the match for the prize money. She feigns being knocked across the ring, and tells Satan to end it with his most powerful attack. 18 doesn’t even blink after she is hit by the Dynamic Mess Em Up Punch, throwing herself from the ring of her own accord.
Mr. Satan would go on to win the next five World Martial Arts Tournaments by paying his opponent to let him win.
13 Trunks vs. Vegeta
Trunks’ assault on Vegeta comes when Vegeta allows Semi-Perfect Cell to absorb Android 18, thereby reaching his Perfect form and presenting the Prince of all Saiyans with a challenge. What follows is a battle inside a battle, as Trunks takes on Cell, fending off his meddling father in the meantime.
The fight itself is fairly repetitive, as Vegeta pounds Trunks into the dirt several times, only for Trunks to get up and do exactly the same to Cell, but it stands out as one of the most emotionally-charged battles of Dragon Ball.
Trunks, who had never had the power to defeat the android duo in his time, finally has a chance to make amends by saving the current timeline from Cell, only for his own father to get in the way. Trunks never knew his father in the future timeline, and his one chance to meet Vegeta ends with Trunks blasting him with a massive energy beam.
12 Vegeta vs. Android 18
Trunks’ first opportunity to see his father in action doesn’t go any more smoothly. Trunks arrives in the present for the second time just as Dr. Gero releases Androids 17 and 18, who were more antagonist than protagonist at this point in the story (if the rules meant the characters had to begin as good guys then Vegeta wouldn’t make the list either).
After the duo destroy Gero and prematurely release Android 16, Vegeta challenges the androids solo, and it goes just about as expected. 18 accepts the offer, while 17 keeps watch over the Z Fighters and 16 admires various birds.
After some inventive action sequences, including a Matrix Reloaded style highway chase, Vegeta naturally gets knocked down a peg or two. 18 ends the fight by breaking both of the Prince’s arms in devastating fashion, and 17 completes the riot by taking out Piccolo and the rest. 16, meanwhile, looks at birds some more.
11 Piccolo vs. Krillin
Back in the days when Piccolo himself was a villain, he entered the 23rd World Martial Arts Tournament with the sole purpose of killing Goku and taking over the world. This after Goku defeated King Piccolo, who used his final breath to spit out an egg so that his offspring could carry out his mission. Piccolo spends the next three years in intensive training, but before he faces off against Goku, he has to go through Krillin in the quarter-finals.
Krillin turns out to be a much tougher opponent than Piccolo had thought, surprising the Namekian just by hanging in there. He even scores a hit, and launches a Kamehameha that might have done some serious damage, if not for the fact that Piccolo was using the Afterimage Technique. Piccolo eventually comes out with the win, nearly killing Krillin along the way, all in a battle the demon simply considered a warm up to the main event.
10 Vegeta vs. Beerus
Beerus also started out as a major antagonist, but through the adventures of Dragon Ball Super, the God of Destruction has become a main character. Whether or not he’s a good guy remains up for debate, but he’s certainly leaning that way under Goku’s influence, while his epic defeat of Zamasu in the Future Trunks arc doesn’t harm his case.
Speaking of epic, Vegeta’s attack on Beerus in Battle of Gods is one of the standout moments in the entire movie, even if the battle itself ends rather abruptly afterwards. Beerus sets a Vegeta rage boost in motion by slapping Bulma, to which Vegeta replies with a brief assault on the Destruction God.
Vegeta at Super Saiyan 2 level even surpasses Super Saiyan 3 Goku for a short time, as Beerus takes what is probably his only beating ever, at least for a few seconds. Beerus quickly gets himself together and renders Vegeta’s boost about as useless as Super Saiyan 3, but it was fun while it lasted.
9 Trunks vs. Goten
Trunks and Goten easily make their way through the junior division at the World Martial Arts Tournament, and with an exhibition match against Mr. Satan awaiting the winner, the two friends face off in the final. The battle is all-round good fun, made even more so by Mr. Satan’s terrified reactions as he prepares to take on the winner, and by Goku and Vegeta’s parental commentary.
Trunks and Goten actually mirror their parents in the match, with Trunks arrogantly claiming he is the stronger even without his left arm, and eventually winning the match by hitting Goten with a Super Saiyan energy sphere. Goten is innocently blindsided by the blast, which the pair had agreed they wouldn’t use, but accepts the loss when Trunks offers him one of his toys.
The match delivers an eye-opening display of the boys’ potential, while Trunks goes on to one-punch Mr. Satan out of the ring and into a wall, with the latter claiming to have let the boy win.
8 Goku vs. Master Roshi
Master Roshi enters the 21st World Martial Arts Tournament under the alias Jackie Chun, with the hope of beating Goku to keep him from becoming overconfident and not taking his training seriously. As Goku breezes into the finals, Roshi faces Krillin in the semis, who distracts him with a pair of underwear. Roshi pulls himself together just in time, and goes on to face Goku for the championship.
Master and student go at each other in every which way, with energy beams, new techniques, and even a Great Ape transformation on show, until Roshi destroys the moon with a Max Power Kamehameha.
Roshi ends up taking the fight just by having a longer reach, but Goku shows that he has more than enough talent to match his overconfidence. Roshi himself proves himself to be one of the greatest martial arts teachers, and not just a perverted old man. It’s the first significant Dragon Ball battle, with so many twists and turns that it still holds up to this day.
7 Tien vs. Yamcha
Tien began his Dragon Ball career as a major adversary to Goku and Master Roshi, having trained under a rival school, and was on his way to becoming an assassin. He shows his ruthlessness on his way to the finals of the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament, first by leaving Nam on the brink of death in the preliminaries, and then during his quarter-final match-up with Yamcha.
Yamcha gets the better of the opening stages, which features some smack talk Vegeta would be proud of (“I can’t understand you – I don’t speak pain”). But Tien quickly turns the tide in his first true test of the series, reversing Yamcha’s Kamehameha and being completely unmoved by the Wolf Fang Fist technique.
Yamcha is on the defensive, but does well to hang in there considering Tien is Goku’s equal at this point. That is until he is knocked out by Tien, but even as Yamcha is unconscious on the ground, Tien really introduces himself to the series by needlessly snapping Yamcha’s leg. In a brutal display of power, Tien adds real stakes to the World Tournament for the first time in Dragon Ball.
6 Goku vs. Beerus
Goku and Beerus’ battle is easily the best-looking in Dragon Ball canon, with only Goku’s rematch with Frieza coming close in terms of visuals. The red of the Super Saiyan God transformation and Beerus’ purple aura are striking in just about every backdrop, and the battle locale is varied and interesting. Goku and Beerus travel from the city, to a cave and into outer space, all followed by a tracking shot that shows off the Dragon Ball choreography at its finest.
Goku eventually loses the God form, but fights on as a Super Saiyan, matching Beerus as the pair tear through the sky accompanied by a heroic soundtrack. There’s really nothing to dislike about the fight, right down to the moment Goku admits defeat, which is a near unthinkable prospect to Dragon Ball fans, and a huge risk that absolutely pays off. It only misses the top five based on the calibre of the battles still to come.
5 Goku vs. Majin Vegeta
Goku and Vegeta’s long-awaited rematch is a classic Dragon Ball Z moment. Seeing the two warriors go at it once more-- Vegeta’s pent up frustration at every blow he lands, the result of years’ worth of training, the return of Vegeta’s dark side-- that’s what Dragon Ball Z is all about. And if you can find us a better line than “But there’s one thing a Saiyan always keeps: HIS PRIDE!”… Well, you can’t.
Unfortunately, the battle isn’t quite as untouchable as our top four, and it does come with some basic flaws. The first and most obvious being that Goku has Super Saiyan 3 up his sleeve by this point, which could not only have prevented Buu’s resurrection, but essentially makes the whole thing a sparring match.
Otherwise, the fight just isn’t as inventive as it could have been, with the choreography repeating itself at several stages, but it remains an epic payoff for long-time DBZ fans.
4 Goku vs. Tien
After his brutal defeat of Yamcha, Tien faces Jackie Chun in the semi-finals of the 22nd World Tournament. Roshi ends up forfeiting, not because he is outmatched, but to show Tien that there is more than one path to follow.
Tien goes on to battle Goku, gaining the upper hand almost immediately, but quickly realizing that Chiaotzu has frozen Goku to the spot under Master Shen’s orders. Shen orders Tien to kill Goku, but Tien rejects his request, following Master Roshi’s path and demanding a fair fight.
The fight itself is even till the end, with some new techniques and plenty of twists and turns on show, greatly eclipsing the previous final between Goku and Roshi. But the match proves to be more of a character study of Tien, who wins the fight and thus the tournament, but offers Goku half the prize money, and Yamcha an apology, becoming an ally to the Z Fighters for the first time.
3 Piccolo vs. Android 17
The battle aside, Android 17’s status as a DBZ protagonist is the glaring issue here. That said, 17 is returning to play a major role in the upcoming Universal Survival arc of Dragon Ball Super, and we’ll take what we can get if it means his fight with Piccolo gets a place on this list.
Every Dragon Ball Z battle follows more or less the same formula; the villain beats the Z Fighters easily, until Goku (or Gohan in one case) finds a way to get stronger, and which point he massively overpowers the villain... repeat as many times as is necessary. In the fights that seem more even, such as Goku vs. Majin Vegeta, one combatant is generally hiding their true power or concealing a transformation. Piccolo vs. Android 17 is possibly the one exception to this rule.
The battle is even from start to finish, as both go at it with everything they’ve got. In Piccolo’s final important contribution to the story, we get one more look at his full and extensive power set as he matches the android blow-for-blow at a particularly desperate point in the series. The fight only ends when Cell arrives to absorb the androids, which leaves the fate of the most evenly-matched DBZ battle perfectly balanced.
2 Goku vs. Piccolo
The final battle of Dragon Ball and by far the longest in the original series, Piccolo finally gets his chance to challenge Goku for the title of the 23rd World Tournament. It’s the fight that everything in Dragon Ball had been building to, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint, with the high stakes and destruction serving as a neat segue into the blockbuster battles of Dragon Ball Z.
Piccolo’s full array of techniques are on show once more, while Goku has the added incentive of freeing Kami from inside Piccolo. He gets the chance to do so when Piccolo increases in size, and Goku flies down his throat, but Piccolo cripples Goku not long after with a sneak Mouth Energy Wave.
Without the use of his arms and legs, Goku flies for the first time in the series, defeating Piccolo in the same way he beat his father – a headbutt to the chest. The series ends with Goku having shown mercy to Piccolo Jr. by offering him a senzu bean, which would play an important role in Piccolo’s DBZ redemption arc.
1 Goku vs. Vegeta I
Goku’s original battle with the Prince of all Saiyans is widely regarded as one of the best in anime, and for good reason. The pacing is perfect, the animation is beautiful, but most importantly, the stakes are real. The fight came at a time in the series when death actually mattered, and with Piccolo, Tien, Yamcha, and Chiaotzu all out of the picture, Goku and the rest were running out of options. The desperation is such that even Yajirobe has to get involved, and let’s face it – everyone would be dead if he hadn’t.
Vegeta had been teasing us through the entire Saiyan saga. We were promised a legendary battle between the last members of the Saiyan race, and we got just that in the Kamehameha/Galick Gun stand-off alone. The action is no-holds-barred from the top, as the proud Saiyan pair throw just about everything they’ve got at one another, including the final canon appearance of the Great Ape. In that respect, the fight is the perfect way to round off Dragon Ball, and set into motion the rivalry that would become the very heart of Dragon Ball Z.
What is your favorite fight between the protagonists of Dragon Ball? Let us know in the comments!