Goku is not only the main character of Dragon Ball, he’s the franchise’s heart and soul. The series lives and dies by his presence. The one time Akira Toriyama delegated Goku to the background to make Gohan the main character, he ended up regretting the decision and brought Goku back into the fold incredibly fast.
That said, Dragon Ball does thrive quite a bit when Goku isn’t around. Time and time again, Goku will leave the action so others may have a chance to shine. This not only makes Goku’s fights more special, but it gives greater weight to the ordeals of the supporting cast. In fact, some of Dragon Ball’s best fights don’t even feature Goku at all.
10 Krillin Versus Jackie Chun
The first semi-final in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, Krillin gives his all just to keep up with Jackie Chun, his master-turned-temporary-rival. What makes this fight particularly special is just how well it demonstrates the fruits of Roshi’s training. Krillin barely kept up with the training a few months prior, but he’s now giving Roshi a run for his money.
Interestingly, this fight also establishes that the characters are already battling at the speed of light, as Krillin and Jackie Chun need to stop the fight in order to recreate what they did for the audience. It’s a funny, clever battle that raises the stakes of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai while also being thematically relevant.
9 Yamcha Versus Tien Shinhan
It’s strange to think of a fight between Yamcha and Tien Shinhan as especially violent, but that’s exactly what this fight is. This may very well be one of the more brutal fights in the original series, if only because it ends with Tien Shinhan maliciously snapping Yamcha’s leg. It’s a cruel conclusion to the battle that shows how dangerous Tien is.
Up to that point, though, it’s an exciting match that genuinely gives audiences the impression that Yamcha might win. The 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai is the only tournament where just about any character could have won with the right match up, making this fight all the more engaging.
8 Tien Shinhan Versus Mercenary Tao
Tien Shinhan’s fight with Mercenary Tao at the start of the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai may be short, but it’s incredibly important. Up to this point, while Tien Shinhan had reformed, he still respected the Crane School. He respected Mercenary Tao, as well. It’s an easy detail to forget, but Tien Shinhan was training to be an assassin for quite a while.
All that respect is lost the moment Mercenary Tao pulls a knife on Tien during their fight, though. At this moment, Tien Shinhan realizes that he can’t be a martial artist who idolizes the Crane School. What the fight lacks in content, it makes up for with sheer quality, using every little beat to fully complete Tien Shinhan’s character arc.
7 Krillin Versus Piccolo
The 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai might be the only tournament where Krillin doesn’t make past the quarter-finals, but it’s also his best tournament in terms of performance. He’s unfortunate enough to fight Piccolo in the first round, but he very quickly gives his opponent a run for his money, showing him the Earth is not to be trifled with.
It’s an especially significant battle (even if Krillin loses), as it allows Krillin some form of redemption after being killed in the previous arc. Piccolo nearly gets rung out as well, lamenting the fact that taking over the Earth wouldn’t be nearly as easy as he once thought. Never forget that Krillin very nearly defeated Piccolo in a tournament.
6 Everyone (But Goku) Versus Nappa
The fact that Goku had to die to take down Raditz spoke volumes about the sheer scale of the Saiyan invasion. Raditz was the weakest of the lot and the main character had to give his life just to take him out. Once Nappa joins the battle, it’s more or less over for the main character. Yamcha, Chiaotzu, and Tien Shinhan all die before the battle’s proper start.
From there, it’s left up to Gohan, Krillin, and Piccolo to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, while they manage to work together and nearly defeat Nappa, Gohan’s cowardice gets in the way, costing them Piccolo’s life. At the end of the fight, Gohan and Krillin are on death’s door, desperately waiting for Goku’s arrival.
5 Vegeta Versus Reacoom
Namek before Goku arrives is a very interesting period of Dragon Ball history. With virtually every character but Vegeta outclassed by Frieza’s army (and even the Prince of all Saiyans struggles to keep up), the characters are forced to play things a bit more carefully than they normally would.
It isn’t until the Ginyus show up that Namek starts to get a bit more intense. With Goku on the cusp of arrival, Vegeta fights to keep himself, Gohan, and Krillin alive during his fight against Reacoom. He does manage to put up an amazing fight, but it’s not enough to take down the Ginyu Force, making for a tense showdown that can only end in failure.
4 Everyone (But Goku) Versus Frieza
The fight against Frieza before Goku arrives is something of an endurance match. Cycling through his four major forms, each transformation marks a new chapter of the fight. The first form is just Vegeta trying his best against Frieza before goading him to transform, whereas the second form is a long battle where everyone ends up pitching in.
A few times, the allies even manage to push Frieza back considerably. Both Krillin and Piccolo nearly killed the tyrant on separate occasions. Frieza turns the tide with his third form, but Vegeta ends up getting a Zenkai that lets him fight final form Frieza… briefly. It’s an exhausting battle in all the right ways, showing fans how outclassed the heroes are.
3 Future Trunks Versus Frieza
It’s hard to call this a fight considering it’s over and done with in a flash, but that’s exactly why it’s so incredible. Future Trunks is not a character who messes around. Unlike literally everyone else in Dragon Ball, he decides to get rid of any unnecessary threats the moment they show their face.
As soon as Trunks and Freeza come face to face, he turns Super Saiyan and goes in for the kill. He was able to do in a single chapter what took Goku an entire volume to accomplish. It’s one of the best character introductions in Dragon Ball, and one of the very best fights to not feature Goku.
2 Vegeta Versus Android 19
As disjointed as the Cell arc can feel at times, it does do a generally good job at giving the supporting cast focus. Goku and Gohan have a combined four fights across the whole arc, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces. The moment Vegeta shows up to fight Android 19, in particular, stands out as a highlight.
The third Super Saiyan to be introduced into the series, Vegeta’s complete domination of Android 19 is cathartic to say the least. More importantly, it places Vegeta above Goku for the first and last time after Namek. The Prince of all Saiyans is back, he’s pure evil, and he’s ready to rip some Artificial Humans apart.
1 Piccolo Versus Android 17
That said, the real best fight against an Artificial Human is Piccolo’s battle against Android 17. Widely considered to be Piccolo’s best fight in the series, and for good reason, this battle is actually Piccolo’s last major fight in the original series. From here on out, he’s more or less in the background.
What a fight to go out on, though. Piccolo may not win, but he busts out some incredible techniques and actually nearly kills Android 17 in the process. The two are dead even in power, but Piccolo fights smarter. Before Cell showed up, this battle may very well have ended in Piccolo’s favor.