Rivals are a staple of Dragon Ball. From as early as the first story arc, Goku was going toe-to-toe with rival martial artists to prove himself. Unlike other long-running shonen serials, however, Dragon Ball rarely allowed itself to linger on just one rivalry. More importantly, nowadays Goku doesn’t even defeat his rivals most of the time and simply surpasses them without a fight.
From Dragon Ball, to Dragon Ball Z, to Dragon Ball Super, Goku’s rivals are an important piece of recognizing Dragon Ball’s history. Like most things, his rivals started small before gradually building up into the unbeatable monsters they are today.
It’s hard to believe, but there was a point in Dragon Ball history where Yamcha was strong enough to give Goku a fair fight. Not just that, but their first battle ends with them reaching a stalemate, one that Yamcha came dangerously close to winning.
The rivalry doesn’t last long, however, as Goku goes off to train with Master Roshi while Yamcha trains independently until the end of the Red Ribbon Army arc. Unfortunately, neglecting to train with Roshi is exactly what keeps Yamcha lagging behind his fellow martial artists for the rest of the series, never catching up to Goku.
Kuririn, otherwise known as Krillin, was the series’ first rival to remain so for longer than a single story arc. Introduced in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc, Goku doesn’t even fight Kuririn until two arcs later in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai. There, Kuririn puts up an incredible fight and even manages to nearly win via ring out.
Unfortunately, Kuririn dies shortly after the tournament, immediately losing the rival spot to Tenshinhan. While he remains a relevant character all the way up to the end of the Cell arc, it's his role in the story that keeps him around instead of his strength.
8 Jackie Chun
What’s particularly interesting about Jackie Chun is the fact that Goku never managed to defeat him. While Roshi never dons the disguise after the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, his presence can be felt all the way up to the end of the series. Jackie Chun directly shapes Goku’s worldview, solidifying his love of martial arts.
More interestingly, Jackie Chun’s true strength after the series’ first time skip is never revealed. He refuses to go all out against Tenshinhan, believing that the next generation should stand up and fight for themselves. From there, Roshi retires Chun as a concept, allowing Goku to find rivals his own age.
Much like with Yamcha, it’s hard to believe Tenshinhan was ever strong enough to be Goku’s rival, especially considering how often Super disrespects Tenshinhan’s legacy as a character. Not only was he one of Goku’s fiercest rivals, but he was also the only Z Fighter for a long time who could keep up with Goku.
Of course, the Z-era changes that quite drastically, having Tenshinhan fall behind hard after his death at the hands of Napp, but he manages to pop up every now and again to either stall for time or remind fans that he was once Goku’s biggest threat. In the original series, at least.
The last of Goku’s pre-Z rivals, Piccolo entered the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai with a mission: avenge his father by killing Goku. While he fails, he dedicates his life to training in order to finally put down Son Goku. Again, he fails, but it’s the thought that counts. Even then, he manages to wind up the strongest character multiple times over the course of the series.
Super has since more or less phased him out, but that doesn’t mean Piccolo is worth scoffing at. He remains the only character in the main series to canonically kill Goku, albeit briefly. He ultimately grows out of his rivalry with Goku, but who can blame him after the latter turned Super Saiyan?
5 Vegeta (Z-Era)
Kicking off the top five is none other than the Prince of all Saiyans, Vegeta. Specifically his Z-era incarnation. Although he may not be the strongest of the lot, he’s quite clearly Goku’s best rival in terms of what he contributes to the narrative. His character arc, directly linked to Goku, is one of the series’ best.
While Vegeta does fall off at the start of the Boo arc, he’s able to remain relevant throughout his entire run during the series, a very rare feat to pull off for Goku’s rivals. While the rivalry has always been mostly one-sided, it's well-written enough where that’s actually a strength, not a weakness.
Hit may be on the blander side when it comes to rivals, but he makes up for his overt stoicism with an incredibly unique fighting style, his ability to stop time, and excellent character design. He remains the only rival Goku has outright refused to continue fighting, quitting their tournament bout before a winner could be decided.
In typical rival fashion, the two end up teaming up later in the Universe Survival arc, but Hit’s never had much of a presence despite being a rival. He exists more or less to fill the void before Jiren shows up, a fate worse than death as far as Dragon Ball is concerned.
3 Vegeta (Super)
Vegeta in Super is one of Goku’s strongest rivals yet, standing out as the only one to remain dead even in terms of skill with the protagonist. Unfortunately, Super’s depiction of Vegeta is severely lacking. While he’s physically strong, he’s no longer particularly well-written, meandering around the same beats he did in Dragon Ball Z.
Worse yet, Vegeta’s rivalry with Goku ended at the end of the Boo arc. For it to come back in Super shows just how much Vegeta has regressed since the original series’ conclusion. This marks the only time a rival has reclaimed the role after their rivalry ended, and it’s honestly for the worse.
Jiren is not a particularly interesting character by any means. While his very nature does mean he serves as a proper antithesis to Goku, the same praise can be applied to the other rivals. Jiren is essentially Hit but without any glimpses of personality. He’s stoic to the point of being bland.
At the very least, Jiren’s ridiculous strength makes for some engaging action. He acts as a wall that Goku cannot overcome without Ultra Instinct, pushing the martial artist incredibly far. Unfortunately, with the release of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, it seems very likely that Jiren will suffer the same fate as Hit: filling the rival role until a new character comes along.
While Super’s attempts at rivals leave quite a bit to be desired between Hit, Vegeta, and Jiren, Dragon Ball Super: Broly may have managed to salvage things. Not only did Goku need to fuse in order to defeat Broly, but the berserk Super Saiyan also doesn’t actually know how to fight, allowing Goku and Broly to fight on even footing for the most part.
Their rivalry has only just begun, but it already has potential reminiscent of the early series' rivals. Broly is a docile character as well, giving Goku a unique character to compete against. Only time will tell how Broly will shape up as a rival, but he’s easily the strongest so far with plenty of narrative potential to go around.